‘It never should have happened’: Royal Canadian Legion probes why Rebel News event held at Toronto branch

Three months after instituting a policy barring its chapters from affiliating with groups known to promote hate, the Royal Canadian Legion says it is investigating why one of its Toronto chapters hosted a Rebel News book event, saying “it never should have happened.”

On Wednesday evening, the legion’s North York chapter, Branch 66, hosted a signing for a book authored by Rebel News head, and self-styled “Rebel Commander,” Ezra Levant.

Ahead of the event, the legion’s national headquarters responded to tweets voicing concern over the planned event. “This goes against our anti-hate policy and the Provincial Commands have been notified,” the legion tweeted.

I have no idea what could possibly be called ‘hateful’ about our book launch last night…– Ezra Levant

The event went ahead anyway — despite a new policy instituted after one of its Alberta chapters was found to have counted members of the far-right group Soldiers of Odin among its ranks. 

In June, CBC News reported that about half a dozen members of the group, an offshoot of a neo-Nazi organization with the same name in Finland, had signed up with the Grande Prairie, Alberta branch, which had also rented a hall to the Soldiers of Odin for a community Easter dinner.

‘It clearly doesn’t apply to us’

In response, the national legion instituted the new policy, stating in part “no branch or command within the legion may affiliate itself in any manner whatsoever with a group or organization that promotes or is known to promote hatred or violence due to ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or any other social determinant. This also applies to legion support of groups affiliated with organizations that espouse hostility.”

The policy goes on to say that it is up to branch and provincial executives to “use their best judgment to ensure policy compliance.” The national headquarters makes the final determination as to what constitutes a prohibited group, it says. 

At issue is whether Rebel News constitutes such a group — something Levant vehemently denied in an email to CBC News Thursday.

“I have no idea what could possibly be called ‘hateful’ about our book launch last night … I looked at the policy you refer to, and it clearly doesn’t apply to us,” Levant wrote when asked for his response to the legion’s comments.

“We don’t promote hatred or violence.

Investigation ongoing

Levant added many of Rebel News’s personalities are members of the legion and that none of them had been advised personally of any such investigation. “We were warmly welcomed last night, as we always are, and as I expect we always will be.” 
He also said Rebel News held a legion event in Calgary just one night before the Toronto event, “and we will have more coming up.”

The legion’s North York branch declined to explain why the event was allowed to go ahead. When reached by phone, first vice president Bob Chambers told CBC News, “No comment,” before hanging up. 

A day later, Branch 66 president Steven Davis followed up with an email to CBC News.

In it, he said the branch’s policies “are in keeping and consistent with Royal Canadian Legion protocols,” adding “the only published banned groups/individuals by the R.C. Legion I am aware of are motorcyclists wearing club crests on clothing and certain identifiable extremist groups with whom I have no knowledge of, or have interacted with at any time.”

Davis did not address the legion’s investigation into the event.

In a tweet Thursday afternoon, the legion said its provincial command is investigating why the events were allowed to go forward. “It never should have happened as it is contrary to our anti-hate policy and the purposes and objectives of the legion.”

Spokesperson Nujma Bond confirmed an investigation is ongoing but that at the moment there is no estimate when it will be complete.

“We take these matters very seriously and are going to reiterate the anti-hate policy to our branches through additional communications. Once the Command provides details of the investigation we will share,” the legion said.

Legion argues event violated its policy

Asked specifically how Rebel News violated its policy, the legion said simply: “It was a group or organization that promotes or is known to promote hatred or violence due to ethnicity, religion, gender, or sexual orientation.”

Rebel Media was founded by Ezra Levant after the collapse of the Sun News Network in 2015 and rebranded as Rebel News in 2019. In October, it was among two right-wing organizations to obtain media accreditation to attend the federal leaders’ English-language debate and subsequent French-language debate. 

Ezra Levant arrives at the Law Society of Alberta in Calgary, Alta., Wednesday, March 2, 2016. The Royal Canadian Legion is investigating why an event promoting a book by Levant took place at branch in Toronto. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Rebel News and the True North Centre for Public Policy turned to the Federal Court after their representatives were denied access to the debates by the Leaders’ Debates Commission on grounds that they were advocacy groups. 

The organization has employed a host of polarizing figures including Gavin McInnes, founder of the Proud Boys, a Southern Poverty Law Centre-designated hate group.

In 2017, it faced public backlash after one of its personalities, Faith Goldy, livestreamed herself covering the alt-right rally in Charlottesville, Va. which turned deadly when a car plowed into a crowd behind her, killing one person and injuring 19 others. Goldy was later fired from Rebel News. 

Levant has denied any characterizations that his organization is racist, telling CBC News in 2017, “Our staff are multi-racial. To equate us with neo-Nazis is absurd. We have never been alt-right.” 

In September 2019, Levant published an op-ed in The Globe and Mail arguing press freedom should apply to Rebel News — an opportunity he tweeted he was “grateful” for. 

Read more at CBC.ca