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Alberta Premier Danielle Smith has previously said people who chose not to get the COVID-19 vaccine were the most discriminated-against group in history, and that the vaccinated were like the followers of Hitler.JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

Matthew Remski is the co-author of Conspirituality: How New Age Conspiracy Theories Became a Health Threat.

Before she was Premier of Alberta, Danielle Smith chugged tonic water under the misguided belief it would protect her from COVID. She falsely touted hydroxychloroquine as a “100%” cure for the virus. She platformed fringe doctors who cast doubt on vaccines – at least before she flew to Arizona to get a jab. And she nodded along when her podcast guest, a yoga-teaching naturopath, declared that cancer could be treated naturally – unless it gets to Stage 4.

Alternative health messages often sound simple and empowering. In Ms. Smith’s world, they become part of a shrewd populist message: Albertans deserve to be in full command of their bodies, and their versions of reality. No government official, credentialed doctor or big-city fact-checker should get in their way. By trusting their intuition and following their influencers, Ms. Smith’s constituents can dodge the advice of Dr. Theresa Tam on masks and physical distancing. They can bat away the long arm of Justin Trudeau, reaching into the oil fields with globalist regulations, or into the bank accounts of Ottawa occupiers, or injecting wholesome farm children with Big Pharma poison.

It all makes sense for a Premier whose signature piece of legislation – Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act – offers a double meaning in its title. As a potentially unconstitutional strategy for evading federal law, the wording appeals to the oil-fired yearning for Western independence. But the term “sovereignty” also dogwhistles to the anti-vaccine and anti-lockdown movements that helped sweep Ms. Smith to power. At the outset of the Ottawa occupation, which Ms. Smith enthusiastically supported, Alberta-born movie star Evangeline Lilly summed it up in a viral Instagram post. “I was in DC this weekend to support bodily sovereignty,” Ms. Lilly wrote. “Canadian truckers were rallying for their cross-country, peaceful convoy in support of the same thing.”

While Ms. Smith’s fascination with quack cures serves the neoliberal goal of reducing health care to consumer choice, it also carries the distant echo of a spiritual impulse with roots as deep as prairie grass. It was Ernest Manning, after all – the first graduate of “Bible Bill” Aberhart’s Calgary Prophetic Bible Institute – who believed that universal health care would dissuade Christians from their family care duties.

Ms. Smith, however, isn’t as much of a Bible-thumper as fellow Alberta native Jordan Peterson, who stumped on her behalf in Red Deer in a pre-election rally hosted by Take Back Alberta. Her attacks on wokeism are fairly tame, and she did manage to rebuke her now former United Conservative Party colleague Jennifer Johnson for comparing transgender children to feces.

Ms. Smith and Mr. Peterson do share two dietary fetishes that signal a weird new iteration of Western conservatism, and a strong clue that neither neoliberalism nor Western piety is its driving force: Both are committed to low-carb diets, and binging on bizarre online conspiracy theories.

The big reveal on Ms. Smith’s internet diet came in the form of repeated links in her newsletter to an antisemitic blog. In one instance, she pinged an essay by a French 9/11 “truther” about how American sanctions on Russian banking systems at the outset of the war in Ukraine were ushering in a new regime of global financial oppression. In the second, she linked to a story purporting to expose already-debunked Ukraine war propaganda. Her DIY research seems to have missed the boatloads of antisemitic – and specifically Holocaust-denying – content linked in the right margin.

Then, as if to point a flashing red arrow at her own blind spot, Ms. Smith said the unvaccinated were the most discriminated-against group in history, and – to balance the equation – that the vaccinated were like the followers of Hitler.

We don’t have Ms. Smith’s browser history, but we know for certain that antisemitism – however inane – is the glue of online madness, from conspiracy theories about George Soros to the fever dreams of QAnon. The Premier’s proximity to it all casts her views about COVID-19 and cancer in an ominous light. Her medical libertarianism might be as Albertan as the oil sands, but for her and many of Take Back Alberta’s supporters, the gas flares are ignited by a global internet obsessed with paranoid fantasies.

Ms. Smith sourced her Nazi comparisons from a Netflix series on dictators, but the discourse has been common on the digital right from the outset of the pandemic. The first viral comparison made between COVID mitigations and the Holocaust came from Miami-based “holistic psychiatrist” Kelly Brogan on March 11, 2020, the same day that the WHO declared a global pandemic. In her books and online therapy groups, Ms. Brogan encourages her clients to dispense with all medications – not just psychiatric meds but also Tylenol and birth control – so that they can treat their mental-health issues with will power, coffee enemas and Kundalini yoga.

The Holocaust trope cropped up in Idaho a month later, as State Representative Heather Scott dubbed Governor Brad Little “Little Hitler” over the state’s COVID mitigation policies. This prompted a harsh rebuke from the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum. Meanwhile, in Chilliwack, B.C., anti-lockdown activist Susan Standfield started selling T‑shirts emblazoned with the words “COVID CAUST” over a yellow Star of David.

More famously, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. – now running for the Democratic presidential nomination – stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Jan. 23, 2022, and pushed the trope further.

“What we’re seeing today,” Mr. Kennedy bellowed, citing COVID mitigations, “is what I call turnkey totalitarianism.” He ranted about Bill Gates and censorship, while his speech was streamed live by the largest anti-vax platform online. Mr. Kennedy was widely criticized for his comments comparing the pressure to get vaccinated with the Holocaust: “Even in Hitler’s Germany, you could cross the Alps to Switzerland. You could hide in an attic like Anne Frank did.”

Danielle Smith has quoted Mr. Kennedy on her Locals social-media page, and also encouraged her newsletter subscribers to follow his Children’s Health Defence organization, which, according to the Centre for Countering Digital Hate, is among the top vectors for online anti-vax propaganda, pulling in close to US$3-million a year.

The Premier’s views may not align with Mr. Kennedy’s record of Catholic social justice interests, environmental activism or oil-industry criticism. What Ms. Smith and Mr. Kennedy do share is a fascination with pollution on the individual scale of the body. Mr. Kennedy falsely believes that mercury in vaccines – it’s not actually there – is the cause of autism and severe childhood allergies. And in an interview with Calgary-based naturopath Christine Perkins, Ms. Smith nods along as Ms. Perkins says – vaguely – that “toxic exposures” lower human immunity, and then falsely claims that sweating can detoxify the body. Ms. Perkins is big on other purification protocols, too, including chelation, which has some legitimate use in toxicology, but is promoted by alternative health practitioners to cure autism and treat heart disease. It doesn’t.

Ms. Perkins, like Ms. Brogan, is also a Kundalini yoga enthusiast, and has a side-gig selling essential oils for the multilevel marketing company doTerra, one of many alternative health companies warned by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to stop making false claims about their products’ curative effects on COVID.

It only makes sense that right-leaning populists in both the U.S. and Canada get a lot of mileage out of rising health care anxieties. Decades of union-busting, the erosion of social programs, the rise of exhausting gig work, thumb-twiddling while carbon warms the oceans, plus the fragmentation of online life: All of these depress institutional trust and coalition-building. Concurrently, the U.S. alternative health scene, buoyed by rising tides of deregulation, has grown from co-operatively-run health food stores in the 1970s and living-room spirit-channelling sessions in the 1980s to what is now a US$32-billion-a-year industry in the United States.

In the alternative-health world to which Ms. Smith is drawn, the body is the ultimate frontier for privatization: a place where those who fear government corruption and pharmaceutical profiteering regain a feeling of agency. People can control their food choices and treat their stress through mindfulness. They can “do their own research,” and invest in self improvement regimes that appeal to their unique constitutions – which is part of why the proven success of vaccines is disturbing enough to deny. The notion that everyone can benefit from the same 0.5-millilitre dose of colourless liquid is an insult to the world of designer treatments based on temperament, body type or astrological sign.

Ultimately, the real-world magic of vaccination tells the wellness-world consumer that they are not unique, that health is not a meritocracy, that everyone’s immune system is vulnerable to a novel coronavirus, and that their crystals and herbs won’t help them when their oxygen counts dive. The mechanism and effectiveness of vaccination tells the alternative health enthusiast that they may in fact be like everyone else, and might stand to benefit from the collectivist logic of public health.

The fact that Mr. Kennedy – one of the loudest and most successful anti-vax propagandists in the world – is set to disrupt the Democratic primary race indicates that this hard-won wisdom is on the brink of bipartisan rejection in the United States. In the virtual absence of the social contract, body sovereignty has become a pervasive political value, and any attempt to organize collectively generates morbid conspiracy theories. This is part of what made America a fertile ground for the growth of the QAnon movement, which uses the spectre of medical horrors to demand the overthrow of the Satanic Deep State.

QAnon made inroads in Canada, too, but not as deeply. The strength of the Canada Health Act might have something to do with it – enforcing a prohibition on the privatization of health care. This means that Ms. Smith’s overtly quacky side-swipes at medical oppression might be limited to her plan to dole out $300 credits through an Uber-style app allowing Albertans to buy whatever standard or alternative care they want.

The strongest boost to the alternative health economy might come through Ms. Smith’s predictable continuation of the health care spending cuts of her predecessor, Jason Kenney. As it becomes harder to find a family doctor, as nurses continue to flee the province, and as children in Calgary wait up to 14 hours for emergency care, who will blame Albertans for turning to herbs for cancer and horse dewormer for COVID, hoping a hardscrabble self-reliance will be enough to keep them alive?

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