Scenes from a small liberal arts university in the year 2016.
It’s early September. Student groups gather on a large courtyard in front of the library. One of them, alone among the others, displays one of those Make America Great Again hats—you know the ones—and plays excerpts from Donald Trump’s campaign speeches on a loudspeaker. More than a few people find this upsetting. Complaints are lodged.
A few days later a student is sitting in class when his professor criticizes Donald Trump’s immigration policies. The student happens to be the president of the group that brought Mr. Trump to Clubs and Groups Day. He’s sick of hearing the same old liberal talking points. He argues back.
Things get heated. Campus security is called, and the student is removed from class, but not before the exchange is filmed and shared on social media. Before you know it word spreads that there’s some sort of alt-right firebrand on campus. A couple weeks later the student paper publishes a denunciation of the Trump supporter. The writer, a fellow student, calls him a “white nationalist.” The paper receives a letter: the student says he’s suing for libel.
At this point, I’m sure a good many people involved are thinking, let’s just get the election over with.
The sooner this guys loses, the sooner we can forget about his troublesome followers. But not our friend in the Trump hat. No, he’s sure that history’s on his side. And in a way it is.
Trump is elected. This is welcome news for some, but for many others things turn ugly. All across North America there’s a steep increase in hate crimes, for instance, and our little liberal arts campus isn’t immune. Several students say they’ve been subjected to racist and sexist abuse by fellow students, though in some accounts the perpetrators have concealed their identities, so it’s hard to say who, exactly, committed these acts.
One thing’s clear, though: the student body will not tolerate this. A sizeable protest is convened in front of the library, on the very same courtyard where we heard from candidate Trump two months before. People take to social media. The local paper shows up. The school’s president tells the paper that the US election “has disturbed the sense of security on campus.”
With the US election looming over just about everything—even Peterborough—these last few months, it’s no surprise that it would eventually make its way to Trent University, whose student body has long had a reputation for political activism. Protest and counter-protest on the banks of the Otonabee: par for the course, I thought.
But others disagree. In November, Arthur, Trent’s student newspaper, published a letter from more than 25 professors calling attention to a deeper breakdown of the campus environment. They claimed that the US election had complicated a set of preexisting dynamics, that “many students already felt unsafe on our campus, and in our community at large.”
I spoke to several people, both on and off the record, who share this view. They say the present unrest, while stirred up by the Trump phenomenon—which these days is what we talk about when we talk about American politics—involves a small but determined group of students who in recent years have tried to bring a louder and more confrontational brand of right-wing politics to Trent.
At the forefront of this movement is the Trent Conservatives, a formal affiliate, through the Ontario PC Youth Association, of the provincial Conservative Party. The group’s current president, a fourth-year economics major named Corey LeBlanc, has probably done more than anyone else at Trent to weaponize the disdain for what Trump and his fervent supporters often disparage as “political correctness.”
LeBlanc is himself a fervent supporter of Donald Trump (he’s called him his “spirit animal”) and the controversies of the last six months—LeBlanc was the lead actor in the drama outlined above—have garnered him a certain notoriety, both on campus and off. Footage of him defending Trump in class, uploaded to YouTube in September, has been viewed more than 40,000 times in the last six months. But he was a divisive figure before this year.
In 2015, Arthur alleged that LeBlanc, then vice president of the Trent Conservatives, had plotted a right-wing “takeover” of student council (he doesn’t deny a takeover was discussed, but he insists that his words were taken out of context). And he caused a stir last spring when he ran for student council president under the slogan “Make Trent Great Again.”
“I actually took Trump’s imagery,” he told me with obvious pride a few days after the Republican victory in November, “cropped out his name and put mine in instead.” It was supposed to fire people up, and it worked: within hours, several of his campaign posters were defaced with swastikas and anti-Trump messages.
“I wanted to show that there’s conservatives on campus,” he says. “I never expect us to outnumber progressives, obviously: Trent’s known as one of the most left-wing schools in the country. But I at least wanted people to know that conservatives are here.”
Though the Trent Conservatives are relatively small—a 10-member executive and 15 to 20 core supporters—LeBlanc speaks fervently of a “silent contingent” of conservative sympathizers on campus. “We know this,” he says, “because every year people message us saying things like, ‘I’ve admired you guys from a distance, but now I’m just really sick of the political correctness on campus, the slant in my classes, and I want to get involved.’ ”
Though LeBlanc’s antics, and the outsized attention they’ve received in recent months, have made him many enemies, he seems to relish it.
“This is the gig,” he says. “People have tried to make me pay a price, but I refuse to allow myself to be bullied. I don’t think I’ve done anything or said anything that’s unacceptable. Period. And I won’t let people force me out of the conversation. I have a responsibility to the other conservatives on campus, and this has made me a caricature to the left. When I wear the Trump hat, it’s not me they’re mad at—they’re saying everything to me they wish they could say to him.”
When we met at the Ceilie, the campus pub, in November, LeBlanc was accompanied by someone he called his director of communications, a guy named Ross. Before we started talking, he set his phone down on the table and pressed record; “we’d just like our own copy of this,” LeBlanc explained.
Ross was silent for the entire hour-long interview, except when I asked how LeBlanc’s views have been received on campus. Ross interjected: “Neither of you noticed, because your backs were turned away, but that group of ladies over there—they were giving you two the death stare. You’re talking about Donald Trump on campus. That’s a dirty word.”
LeBlanc says the invective he received as a presidential candidate last spring made him realize that he’d “much rather be the stick than the piñata.” It’s a revealing choice of words.
What LeBlanc likes to present as political conviction, many others see as belligerence. Alexander Walsh, one of founders of the Trent Republic, a previous iteration of the Trent Conservatives, describes LeBlanc as someone “who’s willing to create controversy so that [conservatives] who aren’t as confrontational will get involved.”
But many see a much darker side to the Trent Conservatives’ official public image.
I talked to Matt Davidson, a Trent alumnus now doing a PhD in history at the University of Miami, who recalled the negative influence that people like Walsh, and especially LeBlanc, have had on campus discourse in recent years.
There was always a running debate between the right and the left, Davidson says, but things soured with the arrival of the Trent Republic, and even more when some of its members rebranded themselves as the Trent Conservatives about three years ago. “They served as something of a lightning rod for people who weren’t interested in debate, who were open to dog-whistle racism, who shared a more extreme right-wing view,” he says.
The winter of 2015 was an especially fraught time, according to Davidson. As coordinator of OPIRG Peterborough, he had helped organize a series of events calling on the university to divest from fossil fuels and, more controversially, demanding an Israeli withdrawal from the Occupied Territories. He characterized the Trent Conservatives’ response, which he says included threats and harassment, as that of “real-life trolls.”
Davidson claims that after one OPIRG member sent out an email discussing an Israeli boycott, LeBlanc posted a screenshot of the message, with the sender’s address clearly visible, on his Facebook page. Within hours, they had received numerous emails threatening physical and sexual violence. I asked LeBlanc about this, and he denied any role. “When I swing, I prefer to do it in an arena, with people watching,” he told me.
Like many of us, LeBlanc’s preferred arena seems to be social media. I first became aware of him on Twitter, where, along with his own personal account, he helps curate the Trent Conservatives’ online presence.
LeBlanc and his group often use the platform to troll ideological opponents, and one of their favorite targets is Peterborough MP Maryam Monsef. But their criticism rarely has anything to do with specific policy, and it’s often conveyed in what many would call misogynistic, Islamophobic, and racist language. In a conscious echo of Donald Trump, LeBlanc refers incessantly to “Lyin’ Maryam.”
He sounds especially Trumpian when he invokes Monsef’s cultural heritage.
As one of the louder proponents of so-called birther rhetoric, LeBlanc did his best to turn a relatively minor controversy into a major one after the Globe and Mail reported last year that Monsef was born in Iran rather than Afghanistan. And after Monsef released a “happy holiday” message this past December, the Trent Conservatives took issue with a previous reference to Eid al-Adha, the Muslim holiday: “Does anyone else find it odd Iranian-Afghan-Canadian MP @MaryamMonsef says the name of this holiday but not Christmas or Chanukah? Strange.” When it was shown that this was false (Monsef had recognized Christmas and Chanukah), the Trent Conservatives replied with the usual comeback: “too bad PC crowd.”
Some people claim that in the past LeBlanc’s online statements have crossed the line to out-and-out racism. I was shown screenshots, for example, of various tweets that LeBlanc had apparently sent out in the last two or three years. They were unambiguously racist, certainly, but I noticed that they came from a different account, one I’d never seen before. When I confronted LeBlanc about this he claimed that someone had tried to impersonate him, and he produced documentation showing that Twitter had suspended the account after he made a formal complaint.
Genuine or not, these tweets come up repeatedly in conversations about LeBlanc and the Trent Conservatives. And yet I came to see them as something of a red herring, one that tends to overshadow another troubling aspect of LeBlanc’s behaviour.
He often complains that campus discourse doesn’t allow those on the right to voice their true opinions, and he frames his attacks on political correctness as a defense of free speech. But it’s worth noting that LeBlanc’s choice to threaten Arthur with legal action is part of a larger pattern of behaviour, one that seeks to limit the speech of others.
When I mentioned this lawsuit, Matt Davidson said that this is consistent with his past experience. “He was constantly threatening to sue me and OPIRG, to make us nervous and to limit what we could say.” When I asked LeBlanc if he’s been quick to threaten lawsuits in the past, he admitted that “in situations where I’ve seen a constant narrative come up, sure. But I think it’s warranted.”
What to make of a group that maintains a formal connection with the provincial Conservative Party (and which includes “Trent” in its name), but whose tactics bring to mind what’s now euphemistically called the alt-right?
When I asked Zafer Izer, author of the controversial Arthur piece on LeBlanc, if he thinks the Trent Conservatives are as moderate as their official status suggests, he spoke of “the dissonance between the group’s message and its members’ day-to-day behaviour.”
The night of the US election Izer dropped by a downtown bar where the Trent Conservatives were hosting a viewing party. “These guys were parading around in Make America Great Again hats and Trump flags,” he says. “Officially, on Facebook and Twitter, they make themselves out to be the representatives of the federal and provincial Tories, but that’s just the most acceptable name they can choose.”
Predictably, LeBlanc repudiates the alt-right label. But he does speak approvingly of such controversial figures as Milo Yiannopoulos (until recently an editor at Breitbart News, the leading alt-right platform) and Lauren Southern (a pundit with Rebel Media, Canada’s closest Breitbart equivalent). In this way he’s signalled his allegiance to a larger group of far-right polemicists trying to shift what he calls “the window of acceptable political discourse.”
According to LeBlanc, the university environment is now such a constricted space that the very idea of free speech is now in mortal danger. “Things like illegal immigration,” he says. “All of a sudden, it isn’t acceptable to talk about that anymore. It isn’t acceptable to talk about Islamic terrorism anymore. I don’t think these topics are too radical; I think taking them out of the discussion is.”
Others see it differently. Matt Davidson, for one, while he concedes that the Trent Conservatives are skilled at using the rhetoric of free speech, insists it’s just that—rhetoric. “They’re not actually interested in free speech on campus. They want to stop debate,” he says. May Chazan, a professor of Gender and Women’s Studies and the lead author of the faculty letter published in Arthur in November, is similarly troubled by the group’s “recourse to open debate. We have freedom of speech,” she says, “but we don’t have freedom of hate speech.”
And yet, like a good many other schools, Trent finds itself struggling to define the limits of acceptable political discourse, and of civil behaviour more broadly. What, exactly, the university can or should be doing about this is another question altogether, but in an increasingly polarized climate, calls for civility and dialogue have had little effect.
Nona Robinson, Associate Vice President Students, admits that recent events have “rewritten the rule book in terms of what’s acceptable.”
She says the question going forward is, “how to ensure that we can say difficult things while being sensitive to how other people are going to experience that?”
The answer has so far proven elusive. As Alexander Walsh says, “people are willing to talk about things that were previously taboo, and that’s inspiring other people to come out. Whether these conversations are viewed as acceptable is a conflict that hasn’t been resolved yet.” The way forward isn’t at all obvious. But one thing is: a growing number of students are troubled by the increasingly combative role that LeBlanc and the Trent Conservatives seem determined to play.
Photos by B Mroz.