Last month, Pierre Poilievre, the populist front-runner in the race to become leader of Canada’s federal Conservative party, was photographed shaking hands with Jeremy MacKenzie, a former soldier facing weapons and harassment charges. MacKenzie is an odd duck who combines a penchant for extremist right-wing rhetoric with a predilection for ironic Internet memes. But almost no one in Canada knew his name until that now infamous handshake. As for Poilievre, he says he didn’t recognize MacKenzie, or form any particular memory of having met him—a claim that even progressive journalists have admitted is entirely credible.
“My campaign events are public,” Poilievre told the media once the impromptu meeting between the two men was reported. “There is no registration and anyone can walk in. In fact, over the course of my campaign I have shaken hands with literally tens of thousands of people at public rallies. It is impossible to do a background check on every single person who attends my events. As I always have, I denounce racism and anyone who spreads it. I didn’t and don’t know or recognize this particular individual.”
In a normal country, in a normal time, this would pretty much have been the end of things. But as I’ve written elsewhere, Canada’s intellectual class has, for several years now, been passing through a period of social panic on the issue of right-wing extremism. And it doesn’t take much—in this case, a mere handshake was enough—to elicit accusations that the federal Conservatives are conspiring with (or at least encouraging) outright fascists and white supremacists. In this case, the smoking gun was taken to be the fact that Poilievre denounced MacKenzie’s racism without actually “disavowing” him by name. The leader of the left-wing New Democratic Party, Jagmeet Singh (who himself has spent periods of his political career seeking to appease Air India conspiracy theorists), asserted that this lapse meant Poilievre was “wink[ing] at white supremacy.”
One publication seized on the incident as proof that Poilievre is locked in a “dangerous dance.” Following a script that would be repeated by other outlets, the article used a daisy chain of ideological linkages to extrapolate from MacKenzie, to Canada’s “dangerous community of anti-government agitators,” until eventually getting to “the Atomwaffen Division, which the Southern Poverty Law Centre describes as ‘a series of terror cells that work toward civilizational collapse.’” Thus were readers rocketed, in the space of just three paragraphs, from a conservative politician shaking hands with a meme-spreading crackpot to the takeover of Ottawa by Nazi storm-troopers and the literal disintegration of Canadian society.
American readers may see this tale as just another Canadian junior-varsity version of the controversies that littered Donald Trump’s presidency in the United States, with Trump coming under pressure to denounce this or that bozo eruption within the ranks of his conservative supporters (or, vice versa, with Mitch McConnell and other Republican lawmakers being pressured to distance themselves from some Trumpian outrage). But L’Affaire MacKenzie is unique to the extent that the bozo erruptor at the center of it seems to be as much a tongue-in-cheek performance artist as an actual hatemonger.
MacKenzie supports a fringe-ish party called the People’s Party of Canada, and has made it clear that his purpose in showing up at Poilievre’s event wasn’t to show support, but to embarrass the Conservative front-runner. The stunt is consistent with MacKenzie’s persona—which he describes as “unacceptable and extreme alt-right specter, sit-down comedian, [and] anti-government supervillain.” Put another way, he seems to enjoy spouting extremist rhetoric not only for its own sake, but to lure mainstream figures such as Poilievre into sanctimonious, self-defeating overreactions.
Of particular note, MacKenzie presents himself as the leader of a ludicrously named group called “Diagolon,” so named because of the diagonally shaped right-wing superstate that he purports to envision as extending from Alaska to Florida. The joke really couldn’t be more obvious. Yet Canadian media is now full of earnest denunciations of an idea that MacKenzie describes as having been “jokingly created during a livestream.” A major Canadian news outlet, CTV News, even ran an article entitled “What is the Diagolon extremist group and what does it want?”—the sort of feature one might have once published about, say, ISIS, or antifa—containing an (again, very earnest) analysis of the campy Diagolon National Anthem.
To be fair to those expressing concern: It is absolutely true that MacKenzie and his friends have said legitimately hateful things. And while, as Global News reports, “the Canadian government has not expressed formal concern about Diagolon, nor does it list the group as a terrorist entity,” MacKenzie and several of his friends have been charged with serious criminal activity. But that doesn’t change the fact that “the Diagolon extremist group” primarily manifests as an extended improv sketch with a cast of, at most, three or four people.
By now, I think, the leaders of most major Canadian media outlets realize, on some level, that they’ve been hoaxed. But as I wrote in the context of those 215 (still missing) unmarked child graves that Canadians were told about in 2021, walking back misinformation can be difficult in Canada. This is a small country with a tightly knit, risk-averse, herd-travelling Brahmin class whose members often sweep one another up in overwrought fears and fads.
This tendency leads to spectacles in which the entire political firmament, regardless of formal party affiliation, closes ranks to unanimously (or near-unanimously) denounce some person, group, or idea. In 2010, for instance, Parliament unanimously denounced a general-interest magazine—yes, a magazine—for publishing a cover story about corruption in Quebec, illustrated by a snowman with a briefcase full of money. In 2020, the aforementioned Jagmeet Singh demanded that his fellow parliamentarians collectively denounce the country’s national police force as being infected with white supremacy. (When a single MP from another party refused to go along, Singh became so enraged that he accused the MP of racism and had to be thrown out of the House of Commons.) More recently, there’s been a slew of resolutions that require MPs to robotically denounce antisemitism, Islamophobia, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and all the rest. Everyone knows these rituals are meaningless, but they go through the motions anyway. Much of Canadian political life now consists of this kind of rote act of denunciation, a sort of Carthago delenda est for an age of land acknowledgements and pronoun checks.
Last week, I reported on the extraordinary tale of Laith Marouf, an antisemitic grifter who managed to score more than C$600,000 in service fees from the Canadian government after presenting himself as an expert in grass-roots community media and “anti-racism.” As I noted in my story, Justin Trudeau’s government had at first tried to ignore the issue when it was informed of the details in July. Then on August 21st, the Diversity and Inclusion Minister, Ahmed Hussen, suddenly decided to acknowledge the scandal in a brief statement, while declining to state Marouf’s name (much like Poilievre with MacKenzie). After that, days passed, with the Liberals again lapsing into silence while Justin Trudeau and his colleagues weighed their next move. How could the Liberals admit the scope of the scandal, and credibly pledge to rectify their plainly deficient contracting processes, all while simultaneously protecting their self-image as the hyper-enlightened party of anti-racism?
The clever solution, which the Liberals showcased this week, was to flip the problem on its head: Suddenly, the entire party was not only denouncing Marouf from the rooftops, but also demanding that MPs from every other party echo its own thunderous attack. “I have really appreciated those colleagues from all parties who have condemned the antisemitism & hate expressed by Marouf & agreed he & organizations he is part of should not receive govt funding,” tweeted Liberal MP Anthony Housefather on Monday. “I call on all 338 MPs to say this.”
It’s a fantastically chutzpadik strategy, as it somehow presumes that opposition politicians who had no part in awarding Marouf’s contracts now must bear moral responsibility for the antisemitic stain on the public fisc left by Liberal incompetence (or worse). But it’s also clever in the way it plays on the herd instincts of other Parliamentarians. And given the current political climate in Canada, I’m guessing many opposition MPs will meekly fall into line—if only to publicly distance themselves from the scourge of Diagolon.