Anti-mask protest in Montreal draws large crowd, propelled by U.S. conspiracy theories

Several thousand people gathered Saturday in downtown Montreal to hear speeches from conspiracy theorists and anti-vaccine activists, in one of the largest demonstrations to date against the Quebec government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The march began outside Premier François Legault's Montreal office, and at one point stretched more than six city blocks. It attracted people of all ages, and from a wide-variety of mindsets.

Hare Krishnas marched alongside Christian fundamentalists and supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump. Others held signs about the 5G internet network, or perceived corruption at the United Nations.

"I decided to come today to say 'enough,'" said Montrealer Andrée David, 75. "We've been manipulated enough."

The most popular symbols at the protest — be it on t-shirts, placards or flags — belonged to QAnon, a far-right conspiracy theory started in the United States that claims a satanic, pedophile cabal secretly controls the U.S. government, if not the entire world.

QAnon was labelled as a national security risk by the FBI in 2019 after individuals began committing acts of violence based on the mistaken belief the theory is true.

Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press
Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

The march on Saturday culminated in a densely packed rally outside the Radio-Canada building. Speakers accused the government of over-reacting to the threat of COVID-19 and lying about the danger of the disease, which has killed nearly 5,800 in Quebec. Behind the stage, two men waved large QAnon flags.

"I accuse public health [officials] of manipulating the numbers since the beginning of the pandemic to justify bringing our economy to a halt," Jean-Jacques Crèvecœur, an anti-vaccine activist well-known in Europe, told the crowd.

Other speakers included Stéphane Blais, who believes the pandemic is part of an "international coup" and Lucie Laurier, an actress best known for her minor roles in the Bon Cop/Bad Cop films. She has become the most recognizable spokesperson of Quebec's anti-mask movement.

WATCH | Anti-mask protesters march in Montreal:

Quebec struggles to curb infections

Saturday's rally coincided with new police powers coming into effect in the province, which allow officers to fine people for refusing to wear masks inside public buildings.

It is among several small, targeted measures that the Legault government introduced last week in an effort to check yet another rise in COVID-19 infections.

After a period of several weeks where daily new cases in the province were around or below 100, the number of new cases began to rise in late August. On Saturday, 244 new cases were reported, the most since June 4.

Geneviève Guilbault, Quebec's deputy premier, urged the demonstrators to follow as many public-health guidelines as possible despite their opposition to them.

"When outside, we ask people to stay two metres apart, and when that isn't possible, to wear a mask," Guilbault told Radio-Canada Saturday afternoon.

"I understand it's an anti-mask demonstration, but the rules are for everyone, so we ask people to obey them."

Little respect for health guidelines

But many in the protest openly flouted the distancing guidelines. One man, wearing a leopard-print costume, offered "free hugs" to other participants.

A 26-year-old man who travelled from the remote northern Quebec region of Abitibi-Témiscamingue said he refuses to wear the mask indoors because he is convinced a court will overturn any fine he receives.

"All humanity is in danger if we blindly obey these excessive rules," said another woman.

Jonathan Montpetit/CBC
Jonathan Montpetit/CBC

Few who took part in the march were willing to be interviewed on the record, and those who did expressed open disdain for mainstream media outlets.

Marie-Josée Bernard, a Montrealer and mother of three, said she preferred getting her news from a website run by a well-known QAnon advocate in Quebec.

She said she followed government guidelines closely in the spring, but has since stopped listening to news conferences and does her own research about the disease instead.

"The threat is over," Bernard said. "Now I'm worried about my liberties."