Count Me Converted; Count Me a Rebel

Originally Published on Medium - June 6, 2018

4:30pm approached (we had run late, but nobody minded), and the Bucket Brigade circulated looking for communion, I was torn. Paying for a ticket to come to the 2nd annual Rebel Live was investigatory, it was completely non-associative in my mind, but donating extra money? To support this organization and movement purely for the sake of it, I was unsure what to think about that.

As is often the case when I have a hard time thinking, I try to just do, and so I did; I dropped a $5 bill into the bucket. A small amount for sure, but a significant one; I had officially become a Rebel. This is not what I expected when I first walked into the Canadian Christian College building that Saturday morning.

I cannot remember what music I was listening to on my drive to The Rebel Live, I am sure I was more in my thoughts than with the lyrics. I did not know much about The Rebel; I knew it was considered Canada’s far right-wing news, I knew that its founder Ezra Levant was considered brash and inflammatory. I have never been someone to take third party sources as doctrine, but the small amount I had absorbed from the two had seemed to confirm those diagnoses. More concerned about what people would think of me than what I would think of Ezra, my thoughts carried me to the entry, and into what would be a very interesting day indeed.

I was immediately struck by the whiteness of the crowd. Perhaps struck is the wrong word, as it had mildly been expected, but goodness were they white. By the end of the day I did see and engage with a few people of colour, but they were few and far between. After registering and entering the conference room, the next thing I noticed that one of the three exhibitors was selling anti-vaxxer books and DVDs, and my biases were starting to get confirmed already, we were off to the races.

If you happen to be one of my twenty Twitter followers, you know that these are the two things I noted in my Tweets; white people and anti-vaxxers. It was at this point that I reminded myself that BTI, and I, would be different. I deleted those tweets, and decided to give the Rebel the benefit of the doubt. To be present and participate as best I could in the day, and assess only once through it completely. I must say, I was very disappointed at first, but somehow, I ended up dropping that $5 at the end of the day.

I settled into my seat nearby a couple of the other young people in the audience. It was not completely surprising, but I felt more like I was in a bingo hall than a political or news conference. The average age of attendee was well into its sixties I believe. What wisdom did these seniors have that I was lacking, I wondered, what had brought them all to this day long event with Ezra?

The first speakers were Ezra Levant (The Rebel Commander), Katie Hopkins and David Menzies serving as Master of Ceremonies. They were mostly as advertised. More brash comedy than news or politics, they seemed to aim to rile up the crowd, and accomplished that mission. At times I felt I had been transported to a Trump Rally, particularly with the trope of Fake News in full swing. While I have many, many problems with the news media, they had been reduced to a trope. Particularly targeted was the Buzzfeed writer in attendance, Scaachi Koul, who received yells, jeers, and a keen eye from one of the security guards tasked with keeping the peace.

I don’t know what the first speakers would have done without Scaachi there, as she took up a good portion of each of their sets. Reduced to being called “Scratchy Pants” and being compared to a vaginal itch, I give her full credit for attending and sitting through that. I am interested to read her article, but am acutely aware that the feud between right-wing and left-wing media is leaving us all behind, and hope she covers The Rebel Live fairly and honestly, rather than how they hope she covers them. The more she views them at the surface, the more fodder they have moving forward.

Those initial speakers may have touched on some important messages, but I almost guarantee it was lost in their rhetoric; I can’t quite remember their topics of conversation now.

It was after Katie Hopkins that the tides began to turn. She was followed by Jennifer Breedon, an attorney with specializations in International Criminal Law and Human Rights, and Raheel Raza, a Muslim reformer, public speaker and author. They were both captivating. While they did not elicit cheers and jeers from the crowd as the earlier speakers did, they did hold its attention. Jennifer made one Scratchy joke, but it felt insincere and simply playing to the crowd. They spoke about the dangers of the Iranian regime, and the dangers of Islamic extremism. Raheel mentions that she has been called Islamophobic for questioning practices in some segments of the religion.

I am pleasantly surprised by these women, who are there to talk about real issues, and make no light of them. I am confused by the conflation of these women with the alt-right, the far-right. I am saddened by the fact that they have no better outlet than The Rebel Live. How has our discourse, our media, and our society gotten to such a point that speakers such as these are relegated to the far reaches of the internet. But I am also struck by a question, what do they see in Ezra and The Rebel that I don’t?

Due to a cancellation and some scheduling changes, we hear from Ezra, David and Katie again. The only other new speaker we hear from is Sheila Gunn Reid, who is a fantastic bookend to the morning. Sheila wants to be a politician, and thus she seemed to tow the line between being real and reasonable, and playing to the crowd. She leads a very short-lived lock her up chant in jest (“Give Scaachi what she came for”) but talks about the forgotten men and women of Canada. She talks about a need for them to unite behind someone, and I get the odd feeling she wants that person to be her. But as much as she serves as a bookend for the morning, so too does she serve as the transition to the afternoon, where I grow more okay with where I am, and more aware of the importance of these people.

After lunch we are treated to the comedy stylings of That Canadian Guy Glen Foster. Stand-up comedy is one of the great uniting artforms in my opinion. He talked about how political correctness has been around for decades, how it was his white privilege to be there, and he calls out the crowd (even this crowd) on groaning at too many of his jokes and needing to learn to relax.

We hear briefly from Lindsay Shepherd talking about identities takeover of universities. And while the anecdotes were hilarious, cherry-picking the most absurd course names from various institutions does not do much to raise my alarm bells. We hear again from Ezra Levant, this time specifically around Tommy Robinson and his battle for freedom, and we are joined by someone who serves a Lord in the British House of Lords who is fighting for Tommy’s release. It was fascinating, and did start to shed some actual light on Ezra and what he stands for. Then we are treated to the rising action before this day’s climax; a panel on The Cost of Free Speech. Katie Hopkin’s life has been threatened, Lindsay Shepherd’s academic career, Sheila Gunn Reid has been attacked, Ezra Levant was threatened with jail, and Joe Warmington, well he just keeps fighting the good fight it seems.

Regardless of my views on any of these people as people, or on any of their specific thoughts or policies, I am a believer in free speech. They should not have their life or livelihood threatened by people simply for disagreeing with them. The panel talked potently about Ezra’s original battle that threw him into the limelight (that was largely supported by mainstream journalists at the time), and all their battles to protect our rights to free speech.

I do not quite recall Joe’s contributions to the panel, but I do remember being held captive each time he spoke. A true journalist, attending this conference against numerous warnings from friends and colleagues, he knew the importance of what was going on at The Rebel Live. Following the panel, his speech talking about Rob Ford, about the person Rob Ford, was fantastic. He spoke with such compassion and empathy, something truly missing from media and politics today. Despite anything you agree or disagree with the Ford’s on, Rob was a person. A superbly flawed person, yes, just like the rest of us.

The conference wound down with discussion of the Ontario Provincial Election, which was not particularly interesting. I was focused on talking to Joe, and reconciling my current thoughts with those I had entered with.

Despite everything I had heard and expected, these were not “bad people.” I got the opportunity to talk to many attendees; they were friendly and cordial, and far more open to my opposing opinion to many people I interact with on the left. While some odd-balls in the group, overall, I was taken by how much I enjoyed the open conversations I could have with these people, in this setting. I did not have to worry about what I thought, I could speak honestly, and know that I wasn’t assumed malicious.

And that is what Ezra Levant and the Rebel stand for, and what was captured quite well in the closing remarks for the conference. Ezra claimed, in my opinion rightfully so, that in that room, on that day, we had the most open, honest dialogue around political issues that probably happened anywhere in the country. He was not his inflammatory persona at the end of the day, he was human and grateful. Grateful to people for coming in and supporting him and this movement. And it is in that moment that I believe I truly saw Ezra Levant for the first time.

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How could I reconcile the Ezra at the start, the Ezra I see on Twitter and the Ezra I can read or hear about with the person on that stage right then. How could I align THAT Ezra, the alleged racist, bigoted Ezra, with the one that fights for women like Raheel to have their fair say, for all of us to have our right to our opinion. These people are not Donald Trump, they are not overtly racist, homophobic, or anything of the sort. Above anything else, these people fight for your right to speak. And that is when I realized it. Ezra and The Rebel, they are the hurricane at the minefield, and they play their part well.

Today’s political climate is absolutely a minefield. There are thousands of things you cannot and should not say, lest you risk public and career suicide. That is the problem that led me to create Mi Politics and then BTI, and that is the problem that has made Rebel Media a necessity. I have had many conversations with friends that they are more than happy to have privately with me, but refuse to be mentioned publicly, and that a problem. More and more politics is being controlled by a select few, who have scared the rest of us into silence. We are so scared of the mines, we don’t walk the field at all.

Enter Ezra Levant and Rebel Media, while I compared him to a stand-up comic in a disparaging manner earlier, I believe it is a befitting honour now. He says and does things completely over the top, to get a reaction. He skipped happily through the minefield, trying to blow up as many as possible so that we have a path of safety.

He didn’t choose to become a hurricane, only the internet and media could grant him that power. Despite being tempted otherwise, he uses it for good. He continues to flow right through the minefield, blowing up as many as possible, so that Reza, Jennifer, you, I and everyone else can follow safely in his path. But don’t you worry about Ezra, he doesn’t mind his job; it is quite calm in the eye. He is purposely and purposefully outrageous. He fights for you. He fights for me. He fights for a better tomorrow.

And so, I drop my $5 into the Bucket, possibly my first communion ever. Count me converted, count me a Rebel.