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Think global(ist). Act local(ish).

This article is the last in a four-part series on how conspiracy theories and theorists are impacting municipal governments.
Land-use bylaw reforms have sparked backlash in Alberta municipalities. But the outrage is often divorced from the actual contents of the bylaws themselves.

This article is the last in a four-part series on how conspiracy theories and theorists are impacting municipal governments.

Part 1: Conspiracists and democratic deficits collide in Alberta municipal governments

Part 2: Rainbow crosswalks and the 2030 Agenda

Part 3: Democratic deficit and support for Canadian institutions

Periodically, municipalities have to update land-use bylaws. “It’s nothing new,” said County of Barrhead Reeve Doug Drozd.

“We've had the existing land-use bylaws in place since 2010. And there was a land-use bylaw that was in place before that. It is just incumbent upon the council every so often to update it, make sure that it is current, that it is still relevant with what is the reality in the world right now.”

In this round of bylaw updates, the county is proposing to address the issue of short-term rentals like Airbnb to cut down on complaints about noise and parking along roadways, to set a limit on the number of adult dogs someone can keep, and to require permits for signs larger than 32 square feet.

Not long after the changes were discussed in council, county administration started getting excited calls and visits to the office from residents, often acting on out-of-context information gleaned from social media.

Some, like those unsure about whether animal bylaws apply to agricultural areas, have been relieved to hear what the administration is actually planning.

“For the most part, the people have been very accepting of the information that they've got. And from what I've heard, may come in confused or angered, but they usually leave the meeting with staff feeling fully supported and understanding what it is we're trying to do,” Drozd said.

Others have been harder to convince.

“You know how they’re going to take your land? It’s not going to be stormtroopers coming up your driveway in the middle of the night. They’re doing it already. They’re setting up for it already. Through ridiculous landuse bylaws…Through the Municipal Government Act. Through UNDRIP. Through taxation. If you don't think it's not happening in front of you, then you're not paying attention,” a creator of the Voice of Barrhead County group, Nikki Mott, says in a promotional video posted to social media.

“Voice of” groups have sprung up across Alberta this spring in response to municipal bylaw updates. Mainly organized through Facebook, the crossover between regional groups is large, and they have drawn interest from every corner of online conspiracy cultures.

The first “emergency meeting” on the bylaws held in Barrhead attracted nearly 300 people, with many in attendance and most speakers being from outside the community. Presenters included pseudo constitutionalist Dallas Hills, Benita Pedersen, and an organizer from the Voice of Thorhild County group, who meandered through discussions of the “COVID hoax,” vaccines, and how the World Economic Forum authored Barrhead’s proposed bylaws.

Aside from the difficulties the spread of totalizing conspiracy theories creates for small teams of municipal administrators, who have to answer for actions they are not actually taking, the assertion of a globalist agenda behind every government decision also invites noxious beliefs about who is really in control.

Since launching in late February, the Voice of Barrhead County group has twice hosted far-right personality Adrien Thomas at speaking events. Thomas has largely remained a fringe character within the convoy movement, COVID-conspiracy groups, and related circles, likely because of his frank antisemitism and incorporation of swastikas into his merchandise.

In a video posted to social media, Thomas is clear about who he thinks the “they” behind the curtain is: “Guess who owns America? The Rothschilds and the Jews. Guess who owns the media? . . . Who owns the government? . . . Who is above all the politics right now? And I'm not talking like Hitler but guess who.”

“I would love a war against those Jews,” Thomas says in the video.

Thomas may stand out for plainly saying what is more often expressed only in coded language and dog whistles, but those views are not exceptional among conspiracists. (The history of conspiracy traditions has been dominated by the idea of a Jewish plot for global power, and modern antisemitism is inherently conspiratorial.) A study published in Nature's Humanities and Social Sciences Communications journal found "antisemitism is predicted by a conspiratorial understanding of the world as it is, by openness to totalitarian rule, and, above all, by a desire to overthrow the social order," even more than factors like political beliefs or where one falls on the left-right paradigm. 

Building trust, community, and transparency

With no sign of the misinformation epidemic abating any time soon, local officials need to “attract really good people to politics who have the intestinal fortitude to do what’s right and not succumb” to outside pressure, said Paul McLauchlin, reeve of Ponoka County and president of the Rural Municipalities of Alberta (RMA).

RMA also plans to emphasize governance education, and providing information that people can trust to drive conversations about municipal government.

“You can't change people's opinions, but we can at least put facts out there that are defensible. That is the best way to take this stuff on. The best disinfectant is sunshine,” McLauchlin said.

Westlock Mayor Jon Kramer, whose community voted to ban rainbow crosswalks after the town council approved one, said there is a lot administrations can do to build trust with residents. While transparency already exists in the Westlock town council, “the work is making the information digestible, easy to understand, and shared in avenues where folks already are,” he said in an e-mail.

Kramer said local officials are also making time for conversations with residents (“this is time consuming, but very effective”), and engaging in shared projects, events and activities, because “people need to see that their municipal leaders are simply citizens like them who are trying to give back.”

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