Nov 15, 2021

This uniquely Canadian conspiracy theory group was on the edges of obscurity. Then vaccine mandates came down

This uniquely Canadian conspiracy theory group was on the edges of obscurity. Then vaccine mandates came down
Alex McKeen Vancouver Bureau
Toronto Star
November 14, 2021

VANCOUVER—It's a rainy Sunday and inside a small church on the east side of Vancouver, talk has turned to mutiny.

About 20 unmasked people have trickled into the church's wooden pews for a meeting, eating potluck soup, holding long hugs by way of greeting and chatting about their own version of current affairs.

The cloudy weather has left the space dark inside, with only intermittent bursts of sunshine coming in through colourful stained-glass windows. Artwork of Jesus, dreamcatchers, and circles of hands cover every spare patch of wall.

Topics among those gathered range from the certain — that COVID-19 was planned by the global elite; to the speculative — the fate of microchipped individuals lucky enough to survive their COVID-19 vaccine.

One woman breaks away from her private conversation, looking down to make a comment to no one in particular.

"We must sound just crazy," she says. "To someone who doesn't know about this stuff yet."

The conversations between those in attendance eventually fall silent, as a large, older man sitting at the front of the church begins to talk. He speaks in a slow, commanding drawl, a man in a cowboy hat standing sentry behind him.

"You might step off the ship of commerce, but did your mind follow you?" the man introduced as maathlaatlaa booms, gesturing to his own head.

"Are you still caught in the world of corporatocracy up here?

"This is our de jure government we're building," he says. "We have invited you to walk beside us."

Some in the pews nod their heads, or let out a murmur of agreement.

Among those gathered here, "stepping off the ship of commerce," refers to leaving society as we know it and being freed from the constraints of Canada's institutions and laws.

Members of this group will also talk about commandeering the "vessel." That vessel is the Canadian government — and they want to take it over.

Welcome to the latest meeting of the Peoples of the Salmon.

While there are only 20 people at the church, this group's online footprint is bigger. A recent petition boasts more than 19,000 signatures.

It's a manifestation of what experts describe as a uniquely Canadian brand of conspiracy-theory-laden, anti-government belief — one that's picked up steam during the pandemic. If you've wondered where Canadians go when their beliefs diverge so strongly from reality that everything — from vaccines, to Canada's own elections — seem like a conspiracy, it's to places such as this.

The general trend worries experts, for both the social harm they say it can do, and the fear that it might, in some rare cases, lead to violence.

Let it be said upfront: this particular group, eating soup in the pews of a darkened church, does not have any obvious or viable path to overthrowing the government. They say they have no plans at all to incite violence — that they fight with the pen, not the sword.

At the Sunday meeting, a woman named Dayna Furst, an erstwhile anti-vaccination organizer who has taken over recruiting for the Peoples of the Salmon group since mid-September, is wrapped in a ceremonial blanket.

It is meant to symbolize the protection of her spirit outside of the corporate world, with a $10 Canadian bill pinned above her heart.

The symbolism is keenly felt in the room. Furst, and many others, cry.

"We need everybody to spread our petition to collect signatures," Furst had told an earlier meeting. "So that we can take over the government."

The origin story of the Peoples of the Salmon could be said to start with one man's grievances with the legal system.

These days, he goes by "popois." In the past, he has been known as David Quinn. The B.C. Supreme Court says he's not allowed to file any more lawsuits by either name.

The founder of the Peoples of the Salmon was declared a "vexatious litigant" by the B.C. court in 2018 for undertaking a series of "pseudolegal" battles over the course of nine years — claiming repeatedly and with no success that the court's jurisdiction did not apply to him and certain neighbours because he, as an Indigenous person, had not consented to participate in the court's rules.

After that, as he explains it, he started thinking of ways to move even further outside the government system.

"We started (the group) two years ago, when we were looking for a name other than a country," he told the Star in an interview.

"So I came up with Peoples of the Salmon, and it's the de jure government west of the Rockies, north of the 49th parallel, and south of the Yukon."

He's describing the geographic area of B.C., but says he is willing to "adopt" any Canadian regardless of where they are located into his imagined regime. In doing so, he says, he can make them "sovereign" — as he claims to be, and untouchable by the legal system. He and the older man present at the church meeting, maathlaatlaa, both refer to themselves as "headsmen" of the group, but it's popois who is the main spokesperson and organizer.

maathlaatlaa is a more enigmatic figure, serving as something of a spiritual adviser inaccessible to members of the group except at the Sunday meetings. On the phone with the Star, he said it wasn't right to think of his role in the group as a "title" or "position" — that's language used in the corporatocracy, he said.

"popois and me, we are flesh, blood and bone. We're not corpses like the corporation," he said.

popois' claims to sovereignty are not true in the eyes of the law, and that's been established by his dozens of failed court petitions and cases.

Yet popois knows that speaking in the language of Indigenous land claims adds an air of legitimacy to his pitch. That, he says, it what differentiates his group from other "sovereigntists."

The name of his group, the Peoples of the Salmon, is based on a theme important to the Coast Salish people in western B.C. and the U.S. Pacific Northwest, referring to the importance of salmon in their cultures.

popois is himself a member of the shíshálh nation in B.C., but the nation has said in previous court filings he does not represent or speak for them. The Star reached out to the current chief of the shíshálh nation but did not hear back.

While the shíshálh, which has been a self-governing nation since 1986, and other First Nations across Canada have a legitimate right to self-determination and governance — rights that in some cases are being negotiated through treaty talks and the court system at present — popois appears to be using the familiar term for a purpose that is detached from those realities. And it's resonating beyond Indigenous circles.

White Canadian anti-government leaders, such as Odessa Orlewicz, who runs a far-right social network with her husband in Vancouver, have previously given little focus to reconciliation efforts in Canada, but have taken up popois' statements with reverence.

"The Indigenous have asked us ... to bring together the non-Indigenous Canadians with the Indigenous Canadians," she said in one of her most-viewed videos last month. "The tyranny above, they want the Indigenous and the white man to be fighting each other right now. Well, those Indigenous and non-Indigenous that are awake know they're trying to do that.

"The Indigenous can't do it without us, and we can't do it without them."

The ideology popois espouses is sometimes called the "sovereigntist" movement, sometimes the "freemen" approach.

It purports that people can prevent laws from applying to them by "withdrawing their consent," and its appeal has motivated groups in Canada and the U.S. to try to get their taxes refunded and gain immunity from criminal law, with no success, since the 1960s. It's also a conspiracy theory at its roots, because it claims the legal system itself is an elaborate ruse, and that people who are "awake" can just opt out.

A prominent Canadian espousing this type of thinking is David Lindsay, a "sovereign citizen" activist who has served jail time for refusing to pay taxes, and more recently has organized anti-vaccine rallies in Kelowna, B.C. He also has given interviews with Paul Fromm, a white nationalist — ties the Star has not made to the Peoples of the Salmon group.

popois is careful to distinguish his group from the "freemen" types. He says others may talk a big game about freemen, but they don't have the same legal mechanisms for achieving it as he does.

popois started to get into this thinking sometime around 2009, the year he filed his first court challenge, which was a lawsuit against police officers who charged him for driving without licence plates.

He's a former fisherman from the shíshálh Nation on B.C.'s sunshine coast — a remote coastal community that, despite being on the mainland of B.C., is only accessible by ferry.

This is worth pausing on, because it points to one of the group leader's early gripes with Canada. popois, who these days lives mostly in Vancouver, was one of many making his livelihood off fishing Pacific salmon, but the population of salmon has been declining since the 1990s, due to a combination of climate change, overfishing and habitat destruction. Like many others, popois places the blame for the decline squarely on the government of Canada, what he calls the "corporation of Canada," for allowing fish farms along the coast, a practice that may interfere with wild fish.

"The corporation has done with the fish farms the same as what they did with the buffalo," he told the Star.

The group only began taking off last summer, when popois posted a flagship petition on its website, claiming that anyone who signed was "withdrawing consent" from the laws of Canada, and submitting instead to a new order run by him.

That caught the notice of some right-wing conspiracy theory influencers, who were already interested in looking for ways to defy government authority on policies such as vaccine mandates.

The petition had little traffic when it was first posted on Sept. 16. But it started gaining steam on Oct. 8, after a B.C. anti-government protester named Pat King posted it with one of his livestreamed videos. The same thing happened about a week later, when another right-wing influencer from Vancouver, Orlewicz, also posted the petition. The petition is still well short of its stated five-million-signature goal, but it claims to have more than 19,000 signatures.

If all those signatures genuinely come from Canadians, it's an alarming indication of how many people are eager to actively oppose Canadian institutions.

The Star reached out to the creator of the petition platform, which is run through a plug-in on the website builder WordPress. Steve Davis, the contact for the Australian-based plug-in provider 123host, said the number of signatories listed on the Peoples of the Salmon website should be accurate, unless a person with coding skills has been fudging it on the back end of the website or stuffing the petition with names. Due to the fact the signatures increased at the same time the petition was publicized on right-wing networks, though, that person would have to be fairly sophisticated, fudging the number in concert with the dates the petition was publicized, and not at other times.

The group also has an active Telegram channel with about 150 volunteers, and daily meetings where they plan how to fundraise for "legal fees" associated with their aims. In one recorded meeting viewed by the Star, participants were asked to cough up a $1,000 donation to attend a webinar with "experts" promising to start legal actions to help them retrieve tens of thousands of dollars in taxes.

To those unfamiliar with legal concepts, and who want to believe popois' message, one can see how there's an air of feasibility to his pitch. He relies on two real legal principles, it's just that neither can be used in the way he describes. One is the right of Indigenous peoples to self-determination, and the other is an obscure American contract law called the Uniform Commercial Code (which he says, wrongly, is legal mechanism for declaring independence from the state of Canada).

The Peoples of the Salmon offers one window into a world in which conspiracy theory groups are increasingly vying for the attention, time and money of Canadians. And in Canada, during the COVID-19 pandemic, that potential audience is larger than you might expect.

A poll done by the firm Léger for Elections Canada in April showed that conspiracy-theory thinking is common among a large minority of the country.

The study, which surveyed 2,500 Canadians, reported 17 per cent said they believed the government was trying to cover up the link between vaccines and autism, and that 30 per cent said they thought new drugs or technologies were being tested on people without their knowledge.

A further 40 per cent of respondents indicated they subscribed to thinking that certain big events have been the product of a "small group who secretly manipulate world events."

What popois knows is that the appeal of his pitch is broadening, as Canadians who strongly oppose vaccination find themselves increasingly on the fringes of society.

"If you don't get your vax and your passport, you're going to be on unemployment," popois told the Star, referring to those individuals who have lost their jobs as a result of vaccine mandates at workplaces. "So all these people: where are they going to go? What are they going to do?"

He said he hopes they will join him and his plan to declare as sovereign citizens any Canadians willing to follow him.

Helmut-Harry Loewen, a researcher of the far-right and retired University of Winnipeg instructor, said that, even if they're not explicit about it, the increasingly inflammatory language employed by sovereigntist groups can be a concern.

The Peoples of the Salmon are explicit about their non-violent intentions. Asked whether he is worried anything he says will be used to justify anyone else's violent intentions, popois says he is not.

"No. The sword that we use is the pen. And this is the first time in history that documents have been so used properly that there is no defence against them," he said. "Our people aren't of that nature. And there aren't enough of us to carry out that kind of threat."

Still, Loewen said anti-government theories can be interpreted by individual actors in the most concerning of ways.

A ready example: the QAnon conspiracy theory, which says the world is run by a pedophile ring, seems to have inspired Corey Hurren to attempt to attack Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in 2020.

Experts say it's not that people who go down these rabbit holes are just gullible — there's something conspiracy theories and the groups that form around them do for people on a personal level.

In a QAnon chat room or church meeting of the Peoples of the Salmon, there's a lot of validation, a lot of hugging, and therefore a lot of social encouragement to keep following the conspiracy theory, while eschewing other sources of information.

It's easy to see how Canadian anti-vaxxers, pushed further and further to the margins by vaccine mandates but steadfast in their ill-formed beliefs, could find some solace in a group like that.

But wherever groups coalesce around an alternative reality, there is potential for danger, Loewen said.

Think about the January insurrection in the U.S., in which participants expressed seemingly genuine belief that their actions threatening the capitol amounted to patriotism.

"If governments are constructed as an enemy, what does that do? It forms the rhetorical platform for further action," Loewen said. "We saw what happened in the U.S. with the months and months of lies told about the election and how that resulted in the insurrection of Jan. 6."

Alberta legal scholar Donald J. Netolitzky tried to summarize the consequences of groups such as the Peoples of the Salmon broadening their appeal. It's not that they would threaten a country's institution in any of the ways they claim to, he said. But there was a huge social cost to both the legal system, the people who fall prey to these schemes and anyone unfortunate enough to be on the receiving end of a person whose actions are inspired by them.

One such person was the landlady of a Calgary man named Mario Antonacci. Around 2012, he claimed he was a "freeman-on-the-land" and that his rental property was an "embassy." He threatened her with action by "Territorial Marshals" if she would not pay money to him. Eventually, he was arrested and evicted.

Richard Warman, another legal scholar who has worked with Netolitzky and with the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, said the fact the anti-vaccine movement is currently mobilized as a result of the pandemic is a potential boon to groups like this.

"The anti-government sovereign citizen movement is an opportunistic infection. If it can find a new host population, like the anti-vaxxers, it will infect them as much as possible," he said. "It will try to use that population that is already susceptible to conspiracy theory messages and introduce them to this overarching conspiracy theory."

Both Loewen and Warman pointed out that where these movements become the most concerning is where they begin to overlap with racist, anti-Semitic and openly hateful neo-Nazi group members. There is no indication that the Peoples of the Salmon group have done this, or made any moves toward violence.

Loewen and Warman warn that a strong anti-government message can be just the thing that brings apparently disparate groups together under one banner, and potentially inspire "lone wolf" types to take violent actions.

That's how, for example, at the London, Ont., campaign event where Canada's prime minister was pelted with gravel, anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists found themselves shouting alongside members of the white nationalist group Canada First.

Bringing these groups together does not mean they will all adopt the thinking of the most extreme among them, but it does open up this possibility, something Loewen calls "far-right mobilization."

popois chooses his words carefully while making what he admits are extraordinary claims. He has a low, calm, slightly raspy voice that could fit a radio announcer.

He spoke once on the phone with the Star, explaining about the group and its background, but saying he didn't think his ideas would be permitted to be printed in the newspaper, because he believes the Canadian state controls such sources of information.

Subsequently, other members of the group contacted by the Star and who initially expressed interest in discussing the Peoples of the Salmon stopped responding. But popois invited the Star to a group meeting, saying that even if his group was portrayed in a negative light, it would just be further evidence of the deep state at work.

popois said he is not trying to dismantle Canada and install himself as the prime minister of a new country. But only because he says he is already the leader of the land. And the word "country" does not apply.

"I am the leader of this government presently," he said in an interview with the Star. "When you consent to myself you're consenting to being under our jurisdiction."

If that sounds far-fetched, he said, it's nothing compared to the way we've all been duped into believing in our legal system, he said. The ideology he is actively recruiting other susceptible Canadians into is one he really seems to believe. And it's based on legal-sounding terminology that dangles the promise of defecting from an unwanted authority — like a country, for instance.

Alex McKeen is a Vancouver-based reporter for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @alex_mckeen

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