Stephen Marche is an author and journalist based in Toronto.
In November, Toronto police arrested 11 people – the so-called “Indigo 11″ – on charges of hate-motivated mischief for allegedly postering Indigo founder and chief executive Heather Reisman’s face over a fake quote on the company’s flagship store in downtown Toronto and smearing the windows with blood-red paint. In early January, the first of the defendants arrived in court, and it has turned out that most of them are, for lack of a better word, intellectuals – many with PhDs, and many employed by universities, schools and other cultural institutions.
Their trial, therefore, is about more than an act of vandalism: It is a painfully clarifying reflection on the ideological state of the Canadian establishment.
The Indigo case is shocking not because the alleged perpetrators attacked a Jewish business on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, and not because the incident happened during a week in which Jewish schools were shot at and a Montreal synagogue was firebombed. Neither was it shocking because the targeting of Jewish businesses would later develop into a tactic of the anti-Israel movement in Toronto, with a Jewish grocery store burned in January and a highway off-ramp to a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood occupied by protesters.
No: The shocking part is that the people of Canada effectively paid for the vandalism – which turned out to be entirely consistent with the politics of our cultural institutions as they have devolved over the past decade.
In 2022, York University paid Lesley J. Wood, one of the Indigo 11, an annual salary of $168,878.14 plus benefits as a prominent scholar of social movements. “Cops are cops are cops, right?” she wrote in her 2014 book Crisis and Control: The Militarization of Protest Policing. “We expect certain behaviors from police officers and are perfectly comfortable with stereotyping this ‘armed gang,’ given that their power puts them outside ordinary social life.” Another defendant, Karl Gardner, is currently on administrative leave from the University of Waterloo pending the outcome of an investigation. Nisha Toomey was working as a curriculum-design consultant for Toronto Metropolitan University, and in 2023 served as a research consultant for the federal government, before being charged earlier this month.
The situation in which the accused academics find themselves must, I imagine, be confounding to them. The state, which has actively funded their research and the promotion of their ideology, has now suddenly charged them with conspiracy to commit an indictable offence for allegedly performing it.
Current debates about Gaza in Canada will have exactly zero effect on the future of the Middle East, obviously. Canada has no power to alter its messy reality one iota. The effects of the Gaza conflict on Canadian electoral politics will also be negligible; the appetite for left-wing extremism in the Canadian population is highly limited, a fact that even the Ontario NDP understands, having removed MPP Sarah Jama from caucus in October. Ms. Jama has actively denied Hamas’s rape and torture of Jewish women. (“There’s no actual evidence of these rapes and the babies with their heads cut off. All of these are pieces of misinformation,” she said.)
But the Gaza debates will certainly have an effect on Canadian institutions. They have set off the implosion of progressive activism as a force in public life here, particularly cultural life, because its pure toxicity is actively driving people and institutions away.
The foundation of Canadian multiculturalism rests on a basic piece of common sense: Leave your shoes at the door. Importing the world’s geopolitical nightmares into our country would end multiculturalism, and right quick. If the police and the courts allowed Ukrainian Canadians to vandalize the businesses of Russian Canadians who support Vladimir Putin, or if Sikhs were allowed to vandalize the businesses of Narendra Modi’s supporters, the result would be chaos, despite the entirely justifiable rage of those communities.
But common sense, as usual, doesn’t apply when it comes to the Jews.
Naomi Klein, Canada’s most famous living political writer, is a prime example of how far the left has declined into self-consuming purification, having become a prominent defender of hate-motivated mischief over the past three months. “The extraordinary raids, arrests and property seizures of the Indigo 11 represent an attack on political speech the likes of which I have not seen in Canada in my lifetime,” she wrote in the aftermath.
Ms. Klein’s defence of the Indigo 11 is grounded in the idea that Indigo is a fair target because Ms. Reisman has supported Israel and its military, co-founding an organization that provides scholarships and other awards for Jewish people who have moved to Israel and completed service in the Israeli Defence Forces. By that logic, hundreds of thousands of Jews in this country could become legitimate targets, given that, through one vehicle or another, a vast number has given money to the state of Israel and, thus, the IDF, at some point over the course of their lives. She has also staunchly defended Ms. Jama, whom she has called “morally courageous” – a woman who, just to reiterate, claimed that the reports of the rapes committed by Hamas on Oct. 7 were “misinformation.”
Ms. Klein, of course, has just published a book about misinformation – and her book is still available behind the very window that was vandalized. Boycotts, divestment and sanctions are for others, one supposes.
The old phrase typically used to describe such loud and credulous cause-pushers was “useful idiots.” But describing tenured radicals such as Ms. Klein or academics such as those among the Indigo 11 as useful would be a misnomer: They are quite useless. Everywhere they survive, they are losing. Academic humanities departments, which regularly promote identity politics using government funding, are struggling: In Ontario, there was a 20-per-cent decline in undergraduate enrolments in the humanities between 2008 and 2017. The extremist champions of the establishment left are driving progressivism toward a lonely, impotent future.
Their defeat is already under way, especially among the young. In August of last year, Abacus Data found that nearly 40 per cent of millennial Canadians and 32 per cent of Gen Z Canadians planned to vote for the Conservative Party, support that had been tracking upward for some time. Support is now strongest for the Liberals among Boomers. It’s a new reality, but it’s coming: “left-wing” will soon mean “old-fashioned.”
The youthful right turn is happening around the world, too, and it’s often not toward rational centrism, but rather to radical populism. The majority of young Americans disapprove of Joe Biden’s handling of the Gaza conflict, a Times/Siena poll showed, but that same poll showed that voters in the 18-to-29 age group prefer Donald Trump over Mr. Biden by a 49-to-43 per cent margin. In last year’s French presidential run-off election, Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally won nearly 40 per cent of the 18-to-24 demographic and almost half of the 25-to-34 demographic. Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy was the preferred party among Italians younger than 35 before the country’s 2022 election. In Holland, Geert Wilders’s hard-right Party for Freedom is the most popular party among those younger than 34.
Last month, in the left-wing journal In These Times, investigative reporters Kathryn Joyce and Jeff Sharlet mourned the enormous number of committed leftists who have decamped to the far right. “We, the authors of this article, each count such losses in our own lives, and maybe you do, too: friends you struggle to hold onto despite their growing allegiance to terrifying ideas, and friends you give up on, and friends who have given up on you and the hope you shared together,” they wrote.
Why are the young turning away from progressivism so sharply? The answer must lie, at least partly, in the sheer divisiveness of its discourse. I remember interviewing an FBI specialist on political extremism for my book The Next Civil War, and asking him about why right-wing groups managed to organize so much more effectively than left-wing groups, even though they had similarly violent intentions. He told me that the left tends to blow itself up before it can blow up anybody else.
The war in Gaza has been a perfect flashpoint for self-immolation. Progressive politics as it has come to exist in the social-media era has lived off the dopamine hit of moral clarity, but the Middle East is the graveyard of moral clarity. Whatever side you pick in the Israel-Gaza conflict, you are on the side of monsters: To support Benjamin Netanyahu is to support the most fascistic and incompetent government in the history of Israel; if you attend a rally where the Hamas flag is flown, you are endorsing a political entity whose military tactics include systematic rape and the use of human shields.
The Gaza war, then, is a moment of clarity for Canada’s administrators. They are realizing that affiliating themselves with today’s progressive activism is a particularly unpleasant form of institutional suicide.
There used to be a magazine called Canadian Art which, in 2020, embroiled itself in debates about white supremacy and colonialism. It began a process of being “collectively reimagined,” and then in 2021, amid financial woes, decided that the best structure would be to stop existing. A similar process of self-immolation was under way at the National Gallery, until Jean-François Bélisle took over as director and CEO. “What is decolonization? What would it entail?” he asked in a recent interview. “I’m not even sure I’m interested in thinking about it. I’m interested in building something, not de-building it.”
The Canadian cultural institutions that have not yet cut themselves free from identity politics are waking up to find themselves chained to the corpse of a dead ideology. The CBC, for instance, has plenty of money and talent, but a 2017 survey found that a majority of Canadians believed that it was the most biased national news media outlet in the country, an opinion shared by Canadians of all political stripes. Since then, it has lectured Canadians about who they ought to be, rather than telling them stories they might want to hear. Last year, the CBC’s third-quarter report contained the phrase “trending below target” more than any document should; the viewing audience of CBC Television dropped to 4.4 per cent of the Canadian public.
I want the CBC to exist; I love the CBC, even. But if it continues to marginalize itself, who will defend it when a Prime Minister Pierre Poilievre comes to kill it off?
For years, in the United States, liberal campuses were the major bastions of the left, and they have devoted themselves intensely to the exclusion of conservatives. The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), which tracks academic crackdowns on freedom of speech, noted that there are more attacks on professors now than during the McCarthy era. “According to the largest study at the time, about 100 professors were fired over a 10-year period during the second Red Scare for their political beliefs or communist ties. We found that, in the past nine years, the number of professors fired for their beliefs was closer to 200,” FIRE president Greg Lukianoff wrote in The Atlantic last November.
But things are changing, as people on the left become the targets of the tactics they once espoused. “People who once claimed that cancel culture doesn’t exist – or that it’s really just ‘accountability’ or ‘consequence’ culture – are lamenting the issue now that they agree with the group suffering the consequences,” Mr. Lukianoff wrote. FIRE is now defending left-wing speech on campus, which is being cracked down on to a ludicrous extent.
The left has been hoist with its own petard. If you can be driven out of a university for your opinion on Halloween costumes, say, you can be fired for attending a rally where speakers call for the extermination of the Jews. If a university demands a statement for diversity, equity and inclusion from its professors, it will eventually make other political demands, like declarations of loyalty to the state.
There is a way out of this profoundly stupid cycle of purge and counterpurge, however: standing for values that transcend politics.
In 2019, Vickery Bowles, as city librarian for Toronto, resisted transgender rights activists who tried to shut down a feminist speaker at a local library. More than a dozen police officers had to shepherd the speaker out the back door with bodyguards. The office of then-mayor John Tory even asked Ms. Bowles to cancel the event; she refused on principle.
Because she stood her ground on freedom of speech, Ms. Bowles doesn’t have to worry about the news cycle. Her decision was courageous, but it was also eminently practical. Activists are like mosquito bites: if you don’t scratch, the itch will go away. Once you touch it, it gets worse and worse.
Every political party that is interested in being in power – including the Liberals, once they figure it out, and the NDP, once they grow desperate – will soon begin rejecting identity politics with force. Soon enough, they will be falling over themselves to renounce the connection as hard as they can. Identity-driven activists are about to find themselves lonely jokes, like hippies in the 1980s; their ideas and their language will serve as straw men and punching bags.
Canadian institutions have a choice: to transcend political debates, or to be consumed by them. The implosion of the left isn’t even a matter of conviction. It’s a Darwinian fact of life. The institutions that ignore activists will survive; the ones that don’t, won’t. The question that follows is how much of our cultural infrastructure will be left standing in the aftermath.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that HESEG, the foundation co-founded by Heather Reisman, provides scholarships and other awards to soldiers in the Israeli Defence Forces. The foundation provides scholarships to Jewish people who have moved to Israel and have already completed service in the army.