A loose network of COVID-19 vaccine and lockdown protesters is using digital tools to make the federal election campaign one of the most vitriolic in recent memory, congregating in encrypted chats to track Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s whereabouts and organize disruptions of his public events.
The protesters are posting the schedule for Trudeau’s public events the night before, including the addresses and times of his campaign events. In one chat, a member suggested that they received the itineraries from “a media person.” Another well-known GTA anti-lockdown protester bragged that he’s been sharing Trudeau’s itinerary online.
The Star has been monitoring a group with more than 500 members, which uses the encrypted messaging app Telegram, since Saturday — the morning after dozens of angry protesters prompted Trudeau to cancel a campaign rally in the village of Bolton, Ont.
The group is not explicitly partisan. While its chat is filled with expletive-laced rants against the Liberal leader, its members also criticize Premier Doug Ford over vaccination passports and Education Minister Stephen Lecce over back-to-school rules.
Once Trudeau’s location is known, some group members organize carpools, while others meet up at the events and post live video from the crowd. Afterwards, they celebrate their efforts.
“Looking to car pool with whom ever is going to be in Cambridge I’m in Bolton,” wrote one user, posting Trudeau’s itinerary for Sunday.
“Just tried to get into the campaign office … Big crowd here of patriots. I think it’s Montreal tomorrow (but) even his own people don’t know,” wrote another, before an event on Sunday in Cambridge, Ont.
That protester claimed to have successfully eavesdropped on Liberal volunteers discussing upcoming campaign stops in Montreal and Iqaluit.
“If it is (Montreal) let me know my hometown and I will send many people,” another user replied.
The Trudeau campaign did not expect this. While the Liberal leader preaches compassion and understanding in response to the protesters’ anger, his campaign did not anticipate either the level of anger being expressed nor the protesters’ apparent ability to co-ordinate.
It is not known if other like-minded groups are mobilizing to disrupt Trudeau’s campaign, but the Telegram channel provides a window into how the small-scale protests that have greeted Trudeau on the campaign trail have morphed into angry, co-ordinated crowds.
‘For anyone who wants to know where Trudeau is going to be at next or who wants to partake in these rallies and these protests and show our forces, then send me a message and I’ll send you the link for the Telegram group. Enough. We got to let them know that wherever he comes, he is not welcomed,’ said Samantha Denuzzo, one of the channel’s most prominent promoters, in a video posted to Instagram on Aug. 28.
“And what’s crazy is that he looks like a f—— fool, like he looked like a mad man just waving to the air, like waving to the people. I was there.”
Denuzzo told the Star she has promoted the channel and the protests to her nearly 10,000 followers on her Facebook and Instagram accounts, because people are afraid and angry. In an interview on Monday, the 32-year-old Newmarket resident and mother of three said Trudeau and other politicians are pushing for a “segregation of humanity” between those who are vaccinated against COVID-19 and those who are unvaccinated.
It is for that reason, she said, that she has also advised her followers to join survivalist “be prepared” Instagram accounts in case unvaccinated people are barred from grocery stores in the fall — despite the fact that there have been no credible reports that any such move has been contemplated.
“It’s going to be very, very dark times,” Denuzzo said in another video posted to Instagram in mid-August. “You’re going to need people to lean on and you’re going to need people within your community that you can lean on. But, like, are we just going to wait for that time to come? Are we just going to sit back and just wait for that time to roll in?”
The Telegram channel monitored by the Star had 510 members as of Monday afternoon. It is owned by Ryan Michalowski, who frequently posts COVID-19-related conspiracy theory memes on his Facebook and Instagram channels. In a message to the Star late Monday, Michalowski said he did not “know or control what anyone talks about in there. The chat is for people standing up for the kids.”
“These small, kind of micro-communities are part of a larger movement,” said Elizabeth Simons, a researcher with the Canadian Anti-Hate Network who has been monitoring anti-lockdown and anti-vaccination communities.
“So when 50 to 100 people show up to these protests right now on the campaign trail, they’re not all being organized by one single source. They are being given the information from numerous different sources. It may look organized, but it likely very much isn’t.”
Simons said she sees similarities between groups protesting against M-103, the federal motion condemning Islamophobia in Canada; the so-called Canadian Yellow Vest movement; and what she calls the “COVID-denialism movement.”
“There are influencers, there are main nexuses that share information. But largely these are a number, sometimes upwards of hundreds of groups and forums, Facebook groups, Telegram groups that basically share information back and forth,” Simons said.
But protesters like Denuzzo say they are not “anti-anything.” They say they are angry and frustrated with pandemic restrictions, vaccination passports and vaccination mandates.
“To be clear, I am not anti-vaccine,” Denuzzo told the Star, saying she was not opposed to childhood vaccinations against diseases such as the measles, because “they have been tested and proven.” She rejects the expert consensus; in her judgment, COVID-19 vaccines are too new.
“What I am against is experiments on children,” said Denuzzo, who would not disclose her own vaccination status.
“I think it is very strange that people can suddenly think they can ask about your personal medical decisions,” she said, echoing a common talking point among opponents of vaccination mandates and passports.
She said the movement has no leaders, just social media pages for “concerned citizens” to share information. Political parties are not funding the protests, she said.
Trudeau has had run-ins on the campaign trail with individuals or small groups of anti-vaccination protesters since the federal election kicked off.
It started on Aug. 16 in Cobourg, Ont. a day after Trudeau called the snap election. Video made at Trudeau’s event showed maskless demonstrators shouting obscenities as the Liberal leader greeted supporters.
Since then, anti-vaccination demonstrators have been a fixture of Trudeau’s public events. Reporters travelling with the Liberal leader indicated that Trudeau’s typical response was to tell them to “please get vaccinated.”
But despite Trudeau’s dismissal, videos from the encounters were tense — people screaming at Trudeau, a concerned-looking RCMP security detail, a volunteer getting knocked to the ground, increased police presence. The Liberal campaign also suspects that at least one protester followed the campaign from Ontario to British Columbia.
The situation came to a head on Friday. Citing security concerns, the Liberal campaign abruptly cancelled a planned rally in the small community of Bolton, Ont. Trudeau’s campaign had no public events on Saturday. On Sunday, the protests resumed.
A member of the Telegram channel posted Trudeau’s Sunday itinerary, which was initially shared on the Telegram page of Chris Saccoccia, a COVID-19 protester with a large following who is also known as Chris Sky.
“Give Trudeau the welcome he deserves,” wrote Sky.
“Awesome turnout! We found the p—-,” wrote one user after Sunday’s protest in Cambridge.
“Amazing work everyone … United we stand against this piece of s—.”
“Anyone know if he is attending elsewhere?”
At Trudeau’s next campaign stop in Waterloo, a protester carried a sign that accused him of “high treason” and depicted him being led to the gallows. The sign carried the logo of The Line Canada, a prominent anti-lockdown protest group.
The vitriol that was evident in Denuzzo’s most recent video — which was filled with expletives, unlike her past calls to action on Instagram — was a result, she says, of high emotion.
Asked if there is a line between protesters being angry with Trudeau and calling for his execution, Denuzzo said she would not “judge or tell anyone what they should or should not say.”
She went on to further justify the demostrators’ position with a baseless claim. “I think that is a rhetorical question, and I could turn it around and say it goes both ways, and say that Trudeau is killing children by forcing vaccines on them.”
Alex Boutilier is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter:
Grant LaFleche is a St. Catharines-based investigative reporter with the Standard. Reach him via email: