Over the summer, supporters of the Freedom Convoy movement continued to stage anti-warrant protests across the country, attracting a few dozen to several hundred people in places like Sudbury, Ont., Acheson, Alta., and Regina.
Like the protests in Ottawa last winter, these small protests featured large trucks, vans and honking – though they tended to last only a few hours and were confined to parking lots or slow-moving convoys on the highways.
But they also featured a new – and perhaps surprising – symbol: the flag of the Netherlands was waved alongside the more familiar maple leaf and F–k Trudeau banners.
The red, white and blue flag is meant to be a show of solidarity with Dutch farmers protesting against their government’s efforts to halve emissions from nitrogen fertilizers by the end of the decade.
Opposition to the policy in the Netherlands has been fierce and disorderly. It is one of the most intensively farmed countries in the world and the proposed changes would mean huge reductions in farmland and livestock.
In recent months, farmers across the country have blocked food distribution centers, set fire to hay bales and spread manure on major roads.
In Canada, many in the convoy movement see Dutch farmers as allies in a global fight against a range of policies they maintain are too progressive, such as public health mandates or emissions targets.
“The far right wants to see it as a transnational movement,” said Bàrbara Molas, a researcher at the International Center for Combating Terrorism (ICCT) in The Hague.
As the convoy movement held solidarity rallies for Dutch farmers in July, its leaders warned that Canadian farmers would soon find themselves in a similar position.
“The reason why we stand in solidarity with [the Dutch farmers] is because these policies are also coming to Canada,” said Jerome O’Sullivan, the founder of the group Freedom Fighters Canada, during a podcast last month.
But the convoy movement’s embrace of the cause of Dutch farmers has been fueled by misinformation and deliberate attempts to confuse government policies in Canada and the Netherlands.
It also threatens to overshadow the legitimate concerns of Canadian farmers about how to grow food while fighting climate change.
There is a distinction, Molas said, between “what farmers might actually think and what the far right wants people to see from farmers.”
How conspiracy theories became mainstream
Dutch farmers have been protesting since court rulings in 2018 and 2019 forced the country to drastically reduce its nitrogen emission levels, which at the time exceeded commitments made under international climate change agreements.
When the farmers stepped up their tactics in late June, activists affiliated with the convoy in Canada pointed out the similarities to their own movement, ultimately sparking interest in Ottawa’s efforts to reduce fertilizer emissions here.
“We are proud to stand with Dutch farmers in the continued fight against government excesses and the globalist elite. Welcome to the revolution,” said a Facebook post from Live from the Shed, a webcast dedicated to the farmers’ movement. Canadian convoys.
The July 2 post received more than 350,000 views and was shared more than 16,000 times, according to Facebook’s analytics tool, CrowdTangle.
Soon after, far-right media in Canada seized on the Dutch protests to promote conspiracy theories that bolstered anti-government ideologies. Many of these sites had previously spread misinformation about food supply issues.
The Western Standard, a conservative Calgary-based publication, amplified a conspiracy theory in early July that fires were being deliberately set on farms around the world to make people more dependent on governments.
The column, which has been shared more than 450 times on Facebook to accounts totaling 136,000 followers, suggested the global conspiracy was the real reason behind Ottawa’s decision to help fund a cricket processing plant in London , in Ontario, although the facility primarily produces companion animals. food.
On July 5, the Facebook page of Cheryl Gallant, a Conservative MP who has been criticized in the past for spreading conspiracy theories, posted that “Trudeau wants us to eat crickets” while linking to a story about the demonstration of Dutch farmers.
In the days that followed, Canada’s far-right media pushed more misinformation to their readers.
Rebel News, for example, claimed that the Dutch government had “submitted to the radical demands of the World Economic Forum”, echoing a popular conspiracy theory that the Swiss think tank is secretly forcing governments around the world to adopt policies. from the left.
Another far-right publication, The Counter Signal, circulated the comments of a former far-right Dutch politician, who falsely claimed that the aim of the Dutch climate plan was to confiscate farmers’ land and then give to immigrants.
As interest in the Dutch protests grew in Canada, experts and conservative politicians began to suggest that the Canadian government would also force farmers to reduce the amount of fertilizer they use.
This is not what the government has said it wants to do. While Ottawa has pledged to reduce emissions from fertilizers by 30%, it has also pledged to achieve this goal without resorting to mandatory reductions in nitrogen fertilizer use.
Nonetheless, Brian Lilley of the Toronto Sun wrote in a widely shared column that the plan, which has yet to be finalized, “means reducing fertilizer use by 30%.”
In a Facebook post, Devin Dreeshen, a United Conservative MP from Alberta, called it a “30% fertilizer ban”, while Todd Loewen – another UCP MP and running mate to the party leadership – said he stood with the Dutch. farmers because they were resisting “exactly the same eco-radical policies” advocated by Ottawa.
Prior to July, Facebook posts in Canada mentioning the phrase “fertilizer ban” received no interactions, according to statistics from CrowdTangle.
In the last week of July, however, the phrase received nearly 10,000 interactions.
Farmers Forum, an Ontario-based farm newspaper that is sympathetic to the convoy movement, interviewed several farmers earlier this month about the prospect of a Dutch-style fertilizer ban in Canada.
Almost all were convinced a ban was on the way and cited the World Economic Forum (WEF) as the reason.
“It’s kind of scary, at the WEF, they tell you exactly what they’re doing, and ‘Bang’, six months later, it’s happening,” Andy Senn, a dairy farmer from St-Bernardin, said in a statement. Ontario, to the newspaper. .
Misinformation has thrived in the information vacuum
As social media is flooded with misinformation about Canada’s agricultural policy, the federal government is seeking input from farmers and other industry players on how best to reduce fertilizer emissions.
“It’s definitely a challenge for us in terms of communication. We are working hard to try to use different means of communication,” said Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau.
The goal of reducing fertilizer emissions by 30% was set as part of the Trudeau government’s plan to reduce the country’s overall greenhouse gas emissions by 40-45% by 2030 – in line with reductions that international experts believe are necessary to minimize the damage caused by climate change.
When the fertilizer target was originally announced in December 2020, there was widespread confusion within the agriculture industry as to whether it would involve reducing fertilizer use, which in turn would affect the crop yield.
Earlier this year, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada released a discussion paper that outlines its fertilizer emissions reduction strategy “will focus on improving nitrogen management and optimizing fertilizer use , and not on a mandatory reduction in the use of fertilizers”.
He also cites industry and government research that has concluded that significant emission reductions can be achieved by expanding the use of certain techniques, such as applying fertilizer in the spring rather than the fall.
The discussion paper helped to allay some fears within the industry.
“Overall, we were really pleased to see these techniques included,” said Cassandra Cotton, vice president of policy and programs at Fertilizer Canada, an industry lobby group.
The amount of misinformation circulating about fertilizer policy “hurts and prevents it from moving in a positive direction,” Cotton said.
But she also echoed a view expressed by others in the industry: that the federal government has been slow to offer policy details that will ultimately affect the food Canadians eat every day.
“Part of that [misinformation] is driven by the lack of detail on how the government intends to achieve this goal,” said Kelvin Heppner, a southern Manitoba farmer and editor of RealAgriculture, a respected industry publication.
“And so in that void, there are conclusions that people come to – and they’re not necessarily based on what the government said it would do.”
According to Molas, it is this confluence of confusion and concern that creates an opening for far-right groups to exploit.
“These are movements that started because of very real grievances that governments failed to address soon enough,” she said. “The far right sees this as an opportunity to spread its anti-democratic discourse.”