Did Far-Right Internet Chatter Inspire An Arson Attack on Refugees in Toronto?

On October 2, a lone arsonist entered the Radisson Hotel Toronto East and ignited a can of gasoline. It was left burning in a hallway on the third floor, but was found by an employee and kicked down a stairwell before the fire could spread very far. The arson attempt terrified the 577 refugees and asylum-seekers housed at the Radisson by the Canadian government.

Mario Calla, executive director of COSTI Immigrant Services, told City News that “white nationalists” had gathered outside the hotel earlier on the day of the fire.

The Toronto Police have not yet found any particular motivation behind the crime. Media Relations Officer Caroline de Cloet told Bellingcat that the department had “no reason” to believe the arson attempt was linked to anti-refugee sentiment. “We don’t speculate on our investigations,” she added.

This has not stopped many others from speculating that the arson attempt was the end result of what The Star dubbed an “online anti-refugee campaign.” Reporting on this campaign has tended to focus on a single 5 minute 51 second video entitled “Trudeau’s Refugee Hotel Exposed.”

The video was uploaded by ProperGander TV, a small far-right channel dedicated to “promoting Nationalism.” In it four young Canadians wander around the Radisson’s mostly empty and quiet halls, pointing out stains on the walls and alleging that such stains come from feces. They repeatedly claim the smell in the building is unbearable. Despite this, an unedited video of their trip reveals they spent more than thirty-four minutes inside. At one point they approach a garbage can and sniff it and then begin to retch and cough as if moved to nausea.

Since the five minute version of the video received more than 200,000 views, some have suggested it sparked the arson attack. But ProperGander’s video was actually just one small piece of an ongoing digital assault on refugees housed in hotels by the Canadian government. This article will piece together the evolution of this anti-refugee campaign and document the eventual violent threats it provoked.

The “Terrible” Toronto East

The Radisson Hotel Toronto East was never a nice place. This is the picture one puts together from reading the online reviews posted back before the hotel started taking in refugees. In 2002 one reviewer called it “The most terrible hotel I’ve ever stayed [in].” A review from 2010 described the rooms as “very dirty, floors covered in stains.”

The earliest reference I’ve found to refugees being hosted there is from Lifeline Syria in 2015. It merely notes that the Radisson will be discounting rooms for Syrian refugees. The major push to start hosting refugees at the Toronto East Radisson came at the beginning of 2016.

The first negative review to mention the refugees was posted on January 18th. Its observations on the hotel’s dirtiness are in line with prior reviews. At the end, the reviewer notes the presence of Syrian refugees and claims they were “not friendly at all.” The reviewer’s primary complaint is that she was not informed refugees would be at the hotel when she booked her room.

In February 2016, Canada’s National Post published a largely sympathetic article about the Refugees: “Toronto hotel becomes temporary housing for Syrian refugees who dream of their own homes.” Anti-refugee comments in reviews fell in frequency by late February and were replaced by bad reviews that simply attacked the hotel’s cleanliness and staff.

The first right-wing media coverage of refugees in the East Radisson was published by The Rebel, a right wing news and culture site whose previous contributors include Proud Boy-founder Gavin McInnes, in May. This article focused on the cost of hosting refugees in hotels and served as an attack on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The article did not attack the refugees themselves, or name the Toronto East Radisson specifically.

Digital chatter on refugees in Canadian hotels was fairly quiet for more than a year. The few comments made about refugees simply listed their presence as undesirable.

There was a comment about “permanent residents” in a one-star May 2017 review for the Radisson. More bad reviews mentioning refugees popped up in February of 2018.

In April, a one-star review by Brent P. made the first specific allegation of bad behavior from a refugee guest. “There were two mid teen residents of the hotel there. They were constantly staring at my 7 year old daughter and her friend who was 6. They looked them up and down and then turned to each other and said something. They then turned to my daughter and said you look very good, very pretty girl here (oh did I mention she was in her bathing suit). Completely unacceptable conduct.”

In the weeks following this review references to refugees in Tripadvisor reviews were scattered and vague, noting their presence but alleging no bad behavior beyond occasional rudeness.

The “Campaign” Begins in Earnest

On July 25, 2018, The Daily Caller, a right-wing news site part-owned by Tucker Carlson, published an article: “Trudeau’s Border Control Plan: Place Illegals in Hotels.”

The next day Tucker Carlson himself covered the refugee situation at the Toronto East Radisson on Fox News. The video clip of the coverage uploaded to Fox’s YouTube account titles the segment, “Trudeau’s immigration solution: put illegals in hotels.”

The video is mostly an attack on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The video and the Daily Caller article do not name the Toronto East Radisson. They don’t allege bad behavior on behalf of the refugees either. The main focus of their criticism are the government’s immigration policies

A one-star review was left on Tripadvisor the same day as the Fox News segment. The review, unfortunately, does not note the exact time of day it was posted. We can’t know for sure it was posted in response to Tucker’s segment, but it blames the “government” for filling “probably ninety percent” of the hotel with refugees. Another one-star review follows. Neither review attacks the refugees themselves.

The tone of the debate changed on August 1, when The Rebel published what they presented as an expose of “shocking damage” done to hotels by “Syrian migrants.” The Rebel articles displayed several government documents that listed complaints of damage done to the hotel by refugee occupants. The YouTube version of the first article has received more than 260,000 views.

The Rebel published five more stories about refugees in Canadian hotels. All of the stories were based on documents covering unnamed Ontario hotels in the first three months of 2016. None of the The Rebel’s coverage acknowledged that they were reporting on two-year-old allegations of petty theft and vandalism. In fact, the way The Rebel displayed their articles made it easy for careless viewers to conclude that it was coverage of something that was currently happening.

In early August, after these articles were published, Tripadvisor received a surge of negative anti-refugee reviews. This surge is difficult to document exactly because the site has since removed a number of reviews they deemed false or abusive. One such deleted review seems to have been directly inspired by The Rebel’s coverage. It was posted four days after an article describing refugees as “ungrateful” — and used the same word to describe them.

The Threats Begin

I was only able to find that last review because it was included on a compilation of bad reviews posted to 4chan’s /pol/ board on September 19, 2018. “Tripadvisor reviews for refugee camp” is the first 4chan thread on this subject. It’s also first time we see the Radisson Hotel Toronto East listed as a specific target.

In the very first response to the thread, two weeks before the actual arson attack, an anonymous member of 4chan expressed a strong desire to light the hotel on fire.

Another poster calls on his fellow “leafs” (Canadians) to take some sort of action against the hotel, for “lulz.”

In an immediate response to him, another user urges “anon” (any user reading his message) to “go shoot up” the hotel. He follows by declaring that politicians who vote to take in refugees should be executed as traitors.

Eventually, one channer claims to be headed to the Radisson “this Sunday,” which would’ve been September 23.

The ProperGander video was uploaded less than a week later. That same day, Tuesday, October 2, a review was posted that falsely stated “some goats were being slaughtered” in the hotel bathrooms by refugees.

The review has since been removed and management of the Toronto East Radisson denies any goats were slaughtered.

Later, on the night of October 2, a hooded arsonist attempted to burn the hotel down.

Toronto police have released security camera footage of the culprit, who appears to be a young Caucasian person.

After the Arson

The day after the arson attempt, Sue-Ann Levy, a Canadian right-wing journalist, published an article in the Toronto Sun; “Irregular’ migrants continue to flock into Toronto.” Her piece was the first to widely publicize the false claims about goats being slaughtered.

According to Buzzfeed, Levy’s article received more than 13,000 shares on Facebook. A few days later, on October 8, Infowars published, “Toronto: Migrants Housed In Hotel Slaughtered Goats In Public Bathrooms.

The Infowars piece received more than 7,000 Facebook engagements. The story has been spreading on far-right media ever since.

One prolific spearheader of the “goat slaughter” myth was prominent far-right YouTuber Faith Goldy. She used it to drum up support for her mayoral campaign.

Goldy is unlikely to become the next mayor of Toronto: only around 6% of those polled support her candidacy. But that still accounts for a great number of Canadians, and Goldy’s retweet of the Toronto Sun article received more than a thousand likes. Her endorsement suggests that the story had gained substantial traction among the white supremacist and fascist elements of the Canadian far right.

Goldy was banned from Patreon earlier this year when she recited the “14 words,” an infamous white nationalist slogan, on a YouTube interview conducted by Scottish alt-right activist Colin Robertson. During the interview, Goldy feigned surprise that the statement, “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children” was seen as controversial.

Robertson responded to her, “Let’s put it this way: those fourteen words used to be more controversial than they are nowadays.”