Content warning: This article discusses far-right extremism and antisemitic codes.

On February 20, Ottawa police effectively ended the ‘freedom convoy’ protests in the capital, but lingering questions about its political significance and fallout remain.

Although the protests began as a challenge to COVID-19 vaccination and mask mandates, many media outlets documented the presence of far-right supporters, among the other protesters. Numerous racist slogans and signs from known far-right organizations were spotted, including flags with swastikas and confederate flags.

The Intercept also identified hundreds of donors affiliated with the far-right organization The Oath Keepers on a leaked list of donors to the convoy, released on February 14 by hacktivist group Distributed Denial of Secrets (DDoS).

By identifying notable individuals among the 92,844 donors, media outlets have raised questions about the political causes that powerful public figures are donating money to. These individuals have included former NL Progressive Conservative Leader Ches Crosbie and at least 26 current and former police officers in Canada. 

The Varsity previously reported that 13 University of Toronto community members donated a total of 1,435 USD to the convoy. 

Now, The Varsity’s follow-up analysis shows that a total of 101 donations, worth 11,536 USD in total, were made using email addresses from Canadian universities. One further donation of 500 USD was made from a personal email address of a self-identified U of T alum.

Experts on radicalization and the far right spoke to The Varsity about what all these numbers suggest about the political temperature of higher education in Canada. Their analysis highlights the ambiguous gap between the legal right of every citizen to associate with political causes of their choosing and how we should deal with the known far-right presence at the convoy protests.

“I would stand on the side of freedom of assembly and freedom of speech,” said Megan Boler, a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education who studies social movements. “What we have to weigh is when does the harm of limiting that outweigh the harm that is done [by] any speech in the public sphere?”

“It’s really just a delicate balance — these [are] large moral and ethical questions that don’t have easy answers.”

The big picture

The 8.4 million USD in donations listed in the DDoS leak were made on the fundraising website GiveSendGo before February 10, when access to the funds was frozen by court order following a request by the provincial government.

The 101 donations that The Varsity has identified as using Canadian university email addresses included addresses from students, faculty, and alumni. Donations associated with email addresses belonging to current or former faculty accounted for roughly one-fifth of that total.

The University of Alberta community seemed to have made the most donations among Canadian schools — The Varsity’s analysis identified 23 separate names associated with the school. U of T, McGill, and the University of Saskatchewan had the next highest numbers, with 13, 11, and 10 donations identified by our analysis, respectively.

When ranked by the net value of donations we were able to associate with each school, the University of Alberta came first again, followed by U Saskatchewan, U of T, and then the University of Ottawa.

An additional 229 donations were made from ‘.edu’ email addresses, which are commonly used by US universities. They totalled 18,637 USD and included donations from notable institutions like Yale and MIT.

Two professors confirm they donated 

Twenty donations were made using emails from current or former faculty members of Canadian universities, including three donations from U of T faculty members. Although The Varsity reached out to all the Canadian faculty donors identified by the leak, only two professors confirmed they had donated, one of whom was a U of T professor who declined to go on record with their name.

The other confirmed donation was from Jan Vrbik, a mathematician at Brock University. In an email to The Varsity, Vrbik wrote that he donated because he supported “[the] removal of all mandates, restrictions, and government emergency powers.” Vrbik previously co-authored an op-ed in The Toronto Sun calling for the same thing.

“I am also appalled by [the] Trudeau government’s attempt to criminalize the most peaceful and legitimate protest in history,” he added. 

He seemed skeptical about any significant connection between the far right and the protests. Vrbik described the far-right protesters as “only a tiniest handful of individuals,” and said they had “no impact” on the overall aims of the protest. 

Evan Balgord, the executive director of the nonprofit Canadian Anti-Hate Network, challenged Vrbik’s position in an email to The Varsity.

“It’s not a legitimate argument. Not everyone [at the protest] was a racist, or violent. However, its leaders come from the far-right movement and almost every network that makes up Canada’s far-right was participating.”

University of Winnipeg professor and radicalism researcher Kawser Ahmed was also critical of Vrbik’s donation.“Was he aware that [protesting] these mask mandates are just a facade, within which the main objective of the protesters was to topple the government?” he asked in an interview with The Varsity.

A number of other critics have described the protestors as seditious, arguing that they were calling for a change in the government through undemocratic means.

But Ahmed also acknowledged the legal right of every citizen to donate to political causes they choose. “The right to express and protest and freedom of association — these are all enshrined in our Constitution,” he said

Jeffrey Dvorkin, a journalist and a senior fellow at U of T’s Massey College, said that these donations were more ethically ambiguous because the donors used university email addresses. “You have a right, as a citizen, to express your opinion. But you do not have the right to bring this organization into disrepute,” he argued in an interview with The Varsity.

“But democracy is messy. And what we’re dealing with here is one of the messiest parts of democracy in Canada,” he added.

Faculty donations not surprising

Boler said she did not find it surprising that some professors may have donated to the convoy. She referred to controversial former U of T professor Jordan Peterson as one example of the “ideological affiliation of students and faculty.”

“What really strikes me about this is how the far-right network propaganda has so successfully conducted a disinformation campaign that has brainwashed all of us into believing… [there is] liberal bias in universities, in the media, in many of our North American institutions,” she said.

The few existing studies of faculty political orientations in North America are either out of date, limited to a small sample size, or both. But they do suggest that universities are not as left-leaning as popular attitudes suggest.

For example, Boler cited a 2007 study of 1,417 American professors that found that there were roughly equal proportions of faculty who identified as moderate and liberal — 46.6 and 44.1 per cent, respectively. The figures in the limited Canadian data are skewed more toward moderates: in 2008, two University of Windsor sociologists profiled 3,318 Canadian professors and found that 62.3 per cent of them identified as moderates, whereas just 25.5 per cent described themselves as left-leaning.

Evidence of far-right ties

In addition, some donations from the overall dataset — including donations that did not seem to come from university communities — where the amount donated corresponded to ‘codes’ that are commonly used among the far right to represent hate symbols. For example, there were 23 donations of 88 USD exactly, and white supremacists are known to use the code ‘88’ as a cipher for ‘HH’ or ‘Heil Hitler.’ 

There were also 44 donations of 14 USD and 197 donations of 18 USD. According to the Anti-Defamation League’s hate symbol database, ‘14’ is a code for a white supremacist slogan called ‘the 14 words,’ and ‘18’ is used as a shorthand for Adolf Hitler’s initials.

The Varsity could not confirm the identities or intentions of these donors, but experts who study the far right still find them significant. These donations could just be a coincidence, but hate-crime researcher Barbara Perry says it would be strange if they were, since the amounts of these donations were so specific.

“When you’re making a donation, it’s $15, $20. Generally an even number… They’re just very odd amounts,” Perry said. “It’s a very small proportion [of the total donations]. But nonetheless always disturbing.”

Boler said that even without the numbers, the evidence of far right support at the convoy protests was clear. “I don’t think we need those numbers to know the answer. People who are supporting [the convoy] — some percentage of those people absolutely support white supremacy.”

“I think there’s plenty of other reasons to know that [the] people supporting [the convoy], some percentage of them would be supporters of far right ideology.”