Canadian conservatives can’t cherry-pick the ‘culture war’ they want to fight

OPINION: Embracing the convoy also means embracing its anti-LGBTQ2S+ arm

The rise in protests against drag storytime has not missed us in Canada, and we had an incident of just that in Ottawa on Feb. 9, as a drag storytime organized by Capital Pride and the Ottawa Public Library and held at the National Arts Centre was targeted. Perhaps as a reflection of the community here, or maybe it’s because people are fed up after last year’s occupation of Wellington Street, but nevertheless, some 30 protesters were very much overwhelmed by around 200 counter-protesters, and a few scuffles wound up with four of the protesters being arrested, though they were all later released without charges.

That there wasn’t a major incident this time around doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be worried about what it represents, particularly as this is not just “culture war karaoke,” as Toronto Star columnist Bruce Arthur recently described it. There is a great degree of overlap between these protesters and the participants in the “Freedom Convoy”/2022 occupation of downtown Ottawa. Oftentimes these protesters bear the same identifiers, including the “Save Canada” apparel that references the MAGA hats south of the border, and the now ubiquitous “Fuck Trudeau” flags. They have been targeting drag brunches and storytimes in cities throughout the country, because they are constantly being fed this narrative about the dangers of drag shows to children, that it somehow “sexualizes” them, or the libel that these children are being “groomed” to be sexually abused by queer and trans people. And we can’t underestimate the power of how imaginary dangers to children spark moral panic—we are not, after all, that far removed from the Satanic Panic of the 1980s.

Beyond this supposed “grooming” is this notion, completely divorced from reality, that there is a supposed “woke” movement afoot, trying to turn boys into girls, and yes, plenty of people are willing to draw connections to the World Economic Forum conspiracy theories with this. This is fed by other falsehoods, such as the discredited tale that schools are going to provide litter boxes for students who identify as cats—a clearly transphobic meme that refuses to die.

While it may have escaped the notice of some, particularly those Conservative MPs who took a very selective view of the occupation as supposedly being about peace and love and providing hope to people, there were anti-queer and trans signs held by those occupiers. None of these signs were ever really denounced by those same MPs, even when other egregious symbols or signs made their appearance.

This matters because far-right extremists in the country have used these so-called “convoy” protests to recruit, and we need to be aware of how homophobia and transphobia become a vector for that recruitment. According to Carleton University professor Stephanie Carvin, who studies national security issues, these far-right extremists often engage in spontaneous violence against visible minorities and LGBTQ2S+ people; the term “berserking” is applied to the practice whereby they get inebriated and target random individuals or property related to these vulnerable communities. Manifestations in recent history have seen the anti-immigration and anti-carbon price Yellow Vest Canada protesters target Hamilton Pride in 2019, and the Dyke March in Toronto several days later—and many of those Yellow Vest Canada organizers later became organizers of the “Freedom Convoy” that occupied Ottawa. While we are fortunate enough to not have had any LGBTQ2S+ establishments be the targets of extreme violence in Canada thus far, many of the same building blocks are in place for something to happen in time if we’re not careful.


And clearly, a lot of people in this country who should know better are not paying attention. Supposedly prestigious think tanks like the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, which initially attracted a great deal of talent to their banner, have recently started engaging in the same kinds of transphobic “just asking questions” discourse around women’s sports or prisons, adopting these far-right narratives for no discernable purpose other than to become participants in the American culture war. What they wind up doing, however, is legitimizing these transphobic discourses and projecting an academic sheen onto them. If you dispute them, you are part of “cancel culture” and are trying to squelch free speech, and it gives them all the more ammunition about the supposed danger that so-called woke culture poses.

Where I think the political danger lies is that the more the Conservatives play into the American culture war karaoke, the more they will start to wink and nod to these homophobic and transphobic narratives without fully embracing them publicly—at least not officially. Pierre Poilievre may have his personal connection to the queer community by way of having a gay dad, and having appointed the party’s openly lesbian MP as his deputy leader and an openly gay MP to his leadership team as caucus-party liaison. But he also gives a lot of leeway to MPs who openly espouse conspiracy theories—Poilievre himself has frequently used the World Economic Forum’s “Great Reset” conspiracy theory in the House of Commons—or who push ivermectin as a COVID cure or who avoided vaccination because they are wrapped up in anti-vax nonsense.

Playing into the American culture war, whether for the purposes of rage-farming, or fundraising or because they think it will motivate their base, means playing into its more dangerous elements. As much as mainstream conservatives in Canada may disavow the racism, homophobia or transphobia that is embedded in those narratives, you can’t just pick out the “good parts only” version of the culture war and hope that the rest of the poisonous discourse won’t follow. It doesn’t work like that—but they refuse to admit that lesson, even when it keeps happening. The occupation in Ottawa may have espoused peace and love, but it was also deeply racist, homophobic, transphobic and paranoid, and they can’t just associate themselves with the stuff they liked and distance themselves from the unsavoury parts. If they embrace the convoy, they have to also embrace the convoy members targeting drag storytime, because they are one and the same.

Dale Smith is a freelance journalist in the Parliamentary Press Gallery and author of The Unbroken Machine: Canada's Democracy in Action.

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