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Canadian blogger who takes on far-right extremists

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MONTREAL —
Far-right group La Meute was once seen as a growing threat in Quebec, with members marching by the hundreds through city streets against what they claimed was the creeping “Islamization” of society.

But La Meute — or The Pack — began to implode just a few years after it was created in 2015. By 2019, its signature wolf-paw symbol had practically disappeared from view as infighting reportedly tore the group apart.

The demise of La Meute wasn’t by chance, says Xavier Camus, who calls himself a “progressive” blogger with ties to the province’s anti-fascist movement. He claims he and a loose network of “moles” infiltrated the group and brought it down by stirring up internal dissent.

“We destroyed La Meute. We generated an internal collapse,” Camus said one recent afternoon in a downtown vegetarian cafe. The far-right group’s leader, he said, has been left “a king without a kingdom.”

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Camus is attracting increasing attention in Quebec as he uses his blog and Facebook page to expose people he believes espouse hate speech, with striking results.

On Jan. 7, a 38-year-old man appeared in court in Granby, Que., on charges of inciting hatred and advocating genocide after Camus exposed homophobic and racist online posts he allegedly wrote.

An October 2018 article on Camus’ blog drew attention to comments advocating the murder of Jews beneath a story on the Journal de Montreal website, and shortly afterwards police arrested and charged a 55-year-old man.

Camus has sunk the political ambitions of provincial political candidates by publishing their online Islamophobic comments. And the blogger got a Montreal city councillor kicked out of her caucus in March 2019 after he exposed her Facebook posts, in which she raged about the “Islamization of our country” after she was treated by an ophthalmologist who wore a hijab.

If the 42-year-old father and junior college philosophy professor stopped at posting about clear cases of racism and neo-Nazism, then he would probably receive less heat. But his critics accuse him and his ilk of starting more fires than they put out.

Francois Charbonneau, a political science professor at University of Ottawa, says Camus’ approach fails to distinguish between reprehensible online chatter and mainstream conservative political opinion.

“He hurts the possibility of dialogue between the left and the right,” Charbonneau said in a recent interview. For Camus and the wider anti-fascist movement, he said, there are no grey zones: “There is one side of ‘racists,’ without nuance, and then there is the big camp of ‘virtuous anti-fascists,’ also without nuance.”

Camus doesn’t come from the hardcore punk subculture that has helped fuel the North American anti-fascist movement. Instead, his political awakening occurred during the Quebec student strikes of 2005 and 2012. Rather than street fighting with the far right, Camus wages his battle with his computer, research skills and writing talent.

But there is a difference between exposing an alleged neo-Nazi and targeting citizens who makes stupid comments online about women in hijabs, says Charbonneau. The former action is laudable, while the latter might push someone into actually becoming a fascist, he said.

“We aren’t gods,” Charbonneau said. “We are all fallible. In your life, you can say something racist … but what should our reaction be?”

Camus’ blog and Facebook page also single out mainstream news columnists in Quebec who express nationalist, conservative opinions on such issues as immigration, secularism and Quebecois identity. His other targets include people who make off-colour and racist statements on social media or in the comment sections of news articles — whether or not they have clear links to far-right groups.

Camus dismisses the claim that his Facebook or blog equates conservative columnists in Quebec with neo-Nazis and fascists.

“There are many degrees of hate,” Camus said. “For example, neo-Nazism is an extreme ideology, and then there is ordinary Islamophobia, which is shared by a large number of people.”

It’s hard to prove Camus’ contention that there is a prominent anti-Islam strain in Quebec society. But it’s easy to find anecdotal examples of Quebecers’ discomfort with Muslim immigrants.

Last October, for example, the bishop of the diocese of Trois-Rivieres — located between Montreal and Quebec City — stopped the sale of an underused church to a Muslim group that wanted to transform it into a mosque. Local opposition to the sale was so strong the bishop nixed the deal out of fear for the safety of city’s Muslims.

Certain conservative columnists, Camus says, espouse nationalist rhetoric that helps to popularize a type of soft xenophobia, which becomes increasingly acceptable to the wider public. Far-right groups feed on that and take it a step further.

“More and more, in the collective memory, we have this common enemy — the Muslim,” he said. “And this figure of the common enemy was constructed. My bet is that it can also be deconstructed.”

It’s unclear whether Camus and a collection of anti-fascist moles actually “destroyed” La Meute. The group’s website and Facebook page are still active, and La Meute’s spokesman, Sylvain Brouillette, said Camus had as much influence on his group as have “pigeon droppings.”

Brouillette said in an interview through Facebook that La Meute continues to organize events at the “regional clan” level. The only reason his group hasn’t held any recent demonstrations, he said, is because its members have been satisfied with the current Quebec government of Premier Francois Legault.

Charbonneau questions whether far-right sentiment is truly increasing in the province and whether anti-hate vigilantism does anything to reduce intolerance in society.

But Camus says he is convinced that he and allies in the anti-fascist movement are doing the work that police, politicians, and journalists are failing to do to make the far-right as distasteful as possible to the wider public.

“The role of my blog will always be a sort of safeguard, to make different kinds of intolerance retreat,” he said. “My role is to show people: ‘Look, this is not normal what they are saying.’ These organizations are not normal.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on Jan. 26, 2020.

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COVID-19 benefits helped economy rebound, but post-payment verification lacking: AG

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Canada’s auditor general says COVID-19 benefits were delivered quickly and helped mitigate economic suffering, however, the federal government hasn’t done enough to recover overpayments.

In a new report looking into the federal government’s delivery of pandemic benefits, Karen Hogan said the programs provided relief to workers and employers affected by the pandemic and helped the economy rebound.

At the same time, the auditor general says the Canada Revenue Agency and Employment and Social Development Canada have not followed up by verifying payments.

Hogan estimates $4.6 billion was paid to people who were not eligible, while another $27.4 billion in payments to individuals and businesses should be further investigated.

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“I am concerned about the lack of rigour on post-payment verifications and collection activities,” Hogan said in a news release.

The audit found that efforts to recover overpayments have been limited, with the Canada Revenue Agency collecting $2.3 billion through voluntary repayments.

Pre-payment controls were also lacking, though the report said the federal government made some changes to those controls for individual benefits.

However, the CRA made few changes to improve prepayment controls for businesses to mitigate risks of overpayment.

Hogan also flagged that there was a lack of sufficient data to assess the effectiveness of the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy program.

Although the subsidy did go to businesses in industries hardest hit by the pandemic, the report said the effect of the subsidy on business resilience is unclear because the agency collected limited data from businesses.

The auditor general has made a set of recommendations to the government to improve the collection of overpayments and to fix data gaps relating to businesses.

Government organizations reviewed in the audit say they have accepted the recommendations, though only partially accepted a recommendation related to recuperating overpayments.

The federal government said it would prioritize which to pursue by weighing the resources necessary with the amount owed.

“It would not be cost effective nor in keeping with international and industry best practices to pursue 100 per cent of all potentially ineligible claims,” the response said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 6, 2022.

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Liberals pledge $15 million to remove Ukraine mines on anniversary of Ottawa Treaty

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Liberals pledge $15 million to remove Ukraine mines on anniversary of Ottawa Treaty

The Trudeau government is pledging to spend $15 million to remove mines in Ukraine.

Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly says the funding is meant to make the country safer after Russia has laid hundreds of the indiscriminate weapons.

Human Rights Watch says Ukrainian forces have also been laying anti-tank mines across the country.

Joly made the announcement on Monday to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Ottawa Treaty, which bans landmines in most countries.

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Ottawa has so far provided Canadian-made bomb suits to help protect Ukrainian deminers and has plans to help fund remote-control systems to clear large areas such as farmlands.

Last month, Canada unveiled funding to remove both landmines and cluster bombs from parts of Southeast Asia that remain inaccessible decades after conflicts like the Vietnam War.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 6, 2022.

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B.C.’s Julia Levy is Canada’s first trans woman Rhodes Scholar

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British Columbia’s newest Rhodes Scholar will pursue a master’s degree in computational chemistry, but she says it’s also an “incredible opportunity” as a trans woman to give back to her community.

University of Victoria graduate Julia Levy said she was “blown away” when she learned she was among 11 Canadians selected for this year’s Rhodes Scholarship, one of the world’s oldest and most prestigious such awards.

Levy, 24, will head to Oxford University in England next October for the fully funded scholarship, a prize she said carries a special meaning because she is the country’s first trans woman Rhodes Scholar.

“I feel I am very, very proud being the first trans woman in Canada (to become a Rhodes Scholar),” said Levy, who made the transition from he to she three years ago.

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While the transition was a tough journey, Levy said she is aware of the many advantages she’s had.

“I think it’s really interesting to note that I am privileged in literally every other way, like my parents being supportive of my transition. I have always had financial stability and I grew up in a good part of Vancouver … maybe that’s the advantages that you need to equal out the trans part of it,” said Levy.

Levy, who graduated from the University of Victoria with a chemistry major and a minor in visual arts, described the scholarship as an “incredible opportunity and a gift,” equipping her with more knowledge and power to give back to the trans community.

“I feel my experiences of being trans and the ways that I have had to navigate the world being trans … has given me a lot of empathy for people in crisis and people who have difficulties in their lives,” said Levy.

“I know what it is to be at the bottom in some ways and my interest in harm reduction and trans care really all comes from that place of knowing what it’s like and wanting to reach out and help out where that’s possible.”

Levy is also a scientist, artist, activist, programmer, friend and daughter, she said.

“There are many parts of me that are equally important to who I am.”

University of Victoria chemistry professor Jeremy Wulff supervised Levy and said she was “destined for greatness,” bringing insights to projects that led to their success.

“I’m always excited when my students are recognized with awards and fellowships, but the Rhodes award is at a whole other level,” he said. “Julia is in excellent company amongst this group, and it’s absolutely where she belongs.”

Levy said magic can happen when you mix computation with chemistry.

In her second year at the University of Victoria, she found some classmates were struggling to picture molecules in their heads while doing peer teaching.

To help them visualize complex molecules, Levy created an augmented-reality app.

The app is a QR code in the workbook and allows the learner to see the molecule on their phone in three dimensions.

“You can work it with your phone and spin it around and zoom in and out,” said Levy.

She also worked as a technician with the university’s Vancouver Island Drug-Checking Project, a drop-in service where people can bring street drugs in for chemical analysis.

Levy said the experience used her chemistry skills in a “practical and socially active way” to help more people.

“It’s an excellent example of the social use of chemistry,” said Levy.

Levy, who was travelling in Germany during the interview, said she looks forward to being surrounded by the Rhodes community and “being challenged and pushed to new heights.”

“I hope I bring what makes me unique to Oxford, and that I am able to find a group of people, both personally and professionally, that celebrate that uniqueness,” said Levy.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 6, 2022.

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

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