Ontario’s civilian police watchdog is investigating the circumstances around an arrest in Peterborough, Ont., on Saturday that resulted in serious injuries during a QAnon-inspired protest, in what has become another example of far-right conspiracy theories having real-life consequences in Canada.
A few dozen people had gathered outside the city’s police station after an appeal from a QAnon conspiracy theorist, who purports to be the “Queen of Canada,” for citizen’s arrests of local officers.
Protester Timothy Claudio said he was taken into custody after he and others sought to place members of the Peterborough Police Service under citizen’s arrest.
The 55-year-old man, who also attended Freedom Convoy protests in Ottawa earlier this year, is now alleging police used excessive force. He said he suffers from a punctured lung and four broken ribs — none of which were, in his words, “part of our plan.”
“That’s why it’s called a peaceful, lawful citizen’s arrest. Because we’re tired of the tyranny within the corporation of Canada,” Claudio said.
Claudio was among three people arrested on Saturday. Peterborough police charged him with two counts of assaulting police.
The province’s Special Investigations Unit (SIU) got engaged immediately, as part of its mandate to investigate all violent incidents involving law enforcement. But three days later, a spokesperson with the civilian body said in a statement that Claudio “has ceased co-operation with the SIU investigation.”
“The affected person is encouraged to contact the SIU,” the statement read.
The attempted citizen’s arrest of officers in uniform, followed by those individuals being taken into police custody has rocked the city of roughly 80,000 people.
Peterborough Mayor Diane Therrien responded to the weekend protest on social media with a frustrated tweet, telling QAnon protesters to “f–k off, you f–kwads.”
In an interview with CBC, she said the city has seen “a lot of activity from anti-vax, anti-everything, sort-of right-wing conspiracy theorists” in recent years.
“This past weekend, there’s a particular group of people who were coming to the city with the explicit intent to come in and arrest our police officers and to cause disruption, to cause harm to the community, which, you know, our first responders, our police officers and folks did a fantastic job at dealing with that lunacy,” she said.
“There’s a level of frustration amongst everyone in the community having to deal with this kind of stuff repeatedly because it’s not new.”
Injuries occurred at QAnon-inspired protest
QAnon is an American-inspired conspiracy group led in Canada by Romana Didulo, a self-described “Queen of Canada” with thousands of online followers who was in Peterborough over the weekend as part of a cross-country promotional tour.
Beliefs of followers include seeing Canada as a corporation they never signed up to be a part of; COVID-19 vaccines and restrictions as oppressions; and that Didulo is the “true leader” of the country.
People associated with QAnon, urged on by Didulo, have distributed cease-and-desist letters across North America to demand the stop of COVID-19 restrictions. More recently, they’ve been encouraged to place police officers under arrest.
Didulo promoted a campaign dubbed “Citizen’s Arrest for We the People in the Kingdom of Canada” on her social channels and was one of a few dozen people who attended the Peterborough event.
According to Peterborough police, around 4 p.m., officers arriving for their shift found their path blocked by protesters trying to breach a secured entrance of the police station.
Police say they attempted to take one of the protesters into custody when another protester struck two officers.
Police say a third suspect was kicking the rear door at the station and struck an officer.
In total, three men were charged with a variety of offences, including mischief and assaulting an officer.
Two of the men, including Claudio, were released with conditions and are expected back in court at the end of the month.
When asked about what transpired that day, Claudio told CBC that he felt law enforcement officers were on the wrong side of history.
“And no police officers are seeming to stand with the people or escalate it to the next department to figure out why the hell are some people getting injured and dying and others aren’t,” he said.
“So that’s why we were there — never mind the pedophilia and everything else that’s going on in our country today,” said Claudio, referencing a conspiracy theory that a group of “elites” in power are pedophiles who abuse children.
Conspiracy thinking a ‘function of human nature’
The influence of QAnon is hard to pin down, but the group has clearly gained popularity and prominence in recent years as far-right movements across the globe gain momentum online and in this case, on the steps of a Canadian police station.
An Integrated Terrorism Assessment Centre threat report prepared by intelligence officials during the Freedom Convoy in Ottawa earlier this year noted the protest attracted various anti-government figures, including QAnon and Didulo.
“In June 2021 [Didulo] encouraged her online followers to kill health professionals, burned a Canadian flag and symbolically raised another, declaring the new Kingdom of Canada in Ottawa,” the report stated.
An American expert on conspiracy theories warned that instead of focusing on the influence of online fringe chatter, we should instead consider what drives people to believe in poorly evidenced ideas — even acting on them with conviction.
“The answers are sort of troubling because we’re talking about — this is just a function of human nature,” said Joseph Uscinski, a political scientist with the University of Miami.
“Some people have personality traits like high levels of narcissism, or they have very conflictual personality styles in which they can’t negotiate things with other people without resorting to conflict,” he said. “And that’s what drives a lot of this.”
Uscinski pointed out that while incidents like the Peterborough arrests are alarming, they’re far from being novel.
“The less comforting story is that some people are just like this,” he said, noting generations past have endured conspiracy-minded thinking during the Red Scare, witch hunts and satanic panic.
QAnon, he said, builds on long-standing existing conspiracy tropes, such as pedophila having outstretched global influence, which “allows followers to do sort of a ‘choose your own’ adventure'” as the hero of their own story.
“Their problem is when they’re at that point, they’re true believers and they think they’re doing the right thing,” Uscinski said.
“I might say I don’t know what the legal issues are behind it, but if someone’s going around telling people to arrest police officers and that’s creating a public safety hazard, then I’d probably do something about it.”
Police searching for more suspects
While SIU continues its investigation, Peterborough police are still seeking two suspects from the weekend.
According to police, on Saturday early afternoon, officers were waved down by a counter protester who told them his sign was ripped, he had been verbally threatened and had his mask ripped off his face.
Police are looking for a woman and a man who may have been involved in the incident.