Michelle Rempel Garner: I went to Davos. The World Economic Forum is not running Canada
The WEF portrays itself as a highly influential elite organization. In reality, it's an overpriced sales conference.
By: Michelle Rempel Garner
After spending the day knocking on doors during the recent election campaign, my husband and I decided to grab a late-evening meal at a local pub. We invited some friends — it was supposed to be a rare normal night amid the craziness of a campaign.
It was evening, the bar was crowded, we had just finished our meals and my husband, Jeff, spotted the trouble before I did. A thickly built man seated at the bar was paying too much attention to me. He crossed the floor of the restaurant, camera in hand. His actions and his posture clearly said that he was bent on physically harming me, causing an altercation, or both.
As he charged forward, he started yelling at us about the World Economic Forum, demanding that I answer questions about my “ties to Klaus Schwab.”
It wasn’t until much later, at home after the situation had been diffused and the shock was just starting to wear off, Jeff asked me, “Do you think people actually buy into that stuff?”
For me the question has never been whether or not people buy into conspiracy theories about the World Economic Forum.
The better question is why, and how this is impacting the Canadian political system. Concerns about “The Great Reset”, the World Economic Forum, and the apparent plan to turn Canada into a communist state is one of the underlying conspiracy theories that motivated some of the protesters who have participated in the truckers protest recently disbanded in Ottawa. It is an increasingly mainstream assumption in Conservative circles.
The World Economic Forum was founded by a German engineer and economist named Klaus Schwab in 1971. Its stated mission is to “engage the foremost political, business, cultural and other leaders of society to shape global, regional and industry agendas.”
The WEF probably could be better described as a left-of-centre think tank and lobbying facilitator that hosts annual meetings in the tony Swiss ski resort of Davos. There, lobbyists, politicians, the media, and some parts of academia from all over the world mingle in eye-wateringly expensive hotels placed between narrow snow-covered streets.
Companies who pay sizeable fees to the WEF meetings seemingly get access to members from other industries, key thought leaders, and policy influencers from around the world. In return the WEF gets the prestige of hosting these types of meetings. For thought leaders and influencers, WEF meetings and access to its broader community can serve as a way to diversify one’s knowledge in many different fields. Think LinkedIn for the c-suite but in person.
In the last two years, a volume of conspiracy theories regarding the WEF and Klaus Schwab began to circulate on social media. They arose after the think-tank arm of the WEF published what could generously be described as an overwrought leftist article called the “Great Reset.” The document was light on details and heavy on change-the-world rhetoric.
The paper suggested that global pandemic recovery efforts could be used to alter many global institutions in a way that leftists would favour. It was released in June 2020, at a time when much of the world was sitting in fresh pandemic lockdown measures.
The Great Reset was published by a global organization best known for the secrecy of its elite members during a time when fear about COVID and its response dominated global media. In other words, it was a Molotov cocktail launched into a rapidly brewing gas bed for conspiracy theories regarding the origins of COVID.
The conspiracy theories related to the Great Reset went nuclear when a video of a meeting Justin Trudeau had at the United Nations in late 2020 surfaced. In the video, Trudeau was quoted as suggesting the pandemic could provide for a "reset."
This was the proof point that made the theories believable for many.
My encounter at the restaurant in fall 2021 wasn’t the first time I had men aggressively confront me in public about the WEF, and these incidents have taken their toll. Two weeks earlier a group of men had spotted me door knocking on the street in Calgary. They spun their car around, jumped out of it and aggressively came at me demanding that I “answer questions about Klaus.” Before that, the threats and accusations had been coming into my office’s inbox for over a year. If you like to see a sample for yourself, check my mentions on Twitter.
It’s terrible. But it’s no mystery why it’s happening.
In January 2016 I woke up to an email with the subject, “You Have Been Selected as a Young Global Leader (YGL)”. I thought it was likely spam, but upon opening it I realized it was no joke. The YGL program is a big part of the broader WEF programming. Businessweek magazine described it as: "the most exclusive private social network in the world.” This is an overstatement; but members do include the likes of Sergei Brin, Ivanka Trump, Mark Zuckerberg, Amal Clooney and many of the top up-and-coming political leaders in the G20.
In Canada, Andrew Scheer is a YGL, too. So is Justin Trudeau.
I didn’t give the award much thought. I was 36 at the time and had had other similar honours bestowed upon me. Prior to running for office, at age 29, I was named one of Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women by the Woman’s Executive Network. I was 33 when I was appointed to federal cabinet. I’ve made my way on the Maclean’s Power List, won Parliamentarian of the Year awards, and other “most influential people” lists. These are all honours, to be clear. But none triggered the response that being a YGL did.
At my own expense, I went to a meeting of the community in spring of 2017 to check out what being a YGL was all about. The meeting was no different in feel from an academic conference, if a bit more global in nature and with more high-profile politicians and CEOs in attendance.
In January 2018, like many other conservative Canadian politicians have in the past, I attended the annual WEF meeting in Davos. To make it affordable for myself, I rented a tiny Airbnb about a 30 kilometre drive outside the conference site. I packed a lunch. I trudged through the snow in a parka and boots while the motorcades of world leaders drove by. I watched Justin Trudeau give a speech to an empty theatre with members of the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery who had travelled to cover the event.
At both these conferences, and in a subsequent session I attended in New York, I attended sessions and respectfully debated with others. Everyone I interacted with was professional and thought-provoking. When I interjected with my right-of-centre leanings, no one ejected me into the streets.
The WEF is certainly elitist, but, to my eyes, it fell far short of being a cabal bent on global domination.
So why all the conspiracy theories?
First, the content, timing, and title of the Great Reset document was blissfully naïve and arrogant at best, and flat-out crackers worst. Video also emerged of Klaus Schwab implying that the WEF had influence over attendees who had secured roles in the cabinets of several countries, including Canada. When I saw it, I was shocked at the presumption of the claim that he had influence over Canadian lawmakers by simple virtue of giving them an award. I guess this was done to increase the WEF’s prestige, or to convince companies to fund the organization — in other words, it was marketing — but it showed incredibly poor judgement and eroded his credibility.
Justin Trudeau didn’t help matters, either. My observation of Trudeau in policy interviews is that rather that exhibiting a depth of knowledge on a subject, he tends to repeat whatever fashionable buzzword that’s circulating. I took his “reset” comment at the U.N. meeting not as a mark that an evil super villain had got to him, but rather as a suggestion that he knew the language of the WEF and wanted an invite back to the Davos party scene, or help with a high-profile post-political gig. And frankly, the Great Reset document wasn’t much different in principle to what Trudeau had broadly already laid out in pre-pandemic election platforms and budgets. The Liberals, alas, don’t need help coming up with profoundly bad ideas.
But members of my party haven’t helped, either. Bots and trolls propagating the Great Reset conspiracy theory on social media probably made the temptation to comment on it too great. I remember giving the very slightest of nod at the onset all this in a statement. I said that Canada didn’t need a reset but a plan to get out of the pandemic, mainly because my constituency my inbox was full of people asking if I was in the WEF’s nefarious camp or theirs, and because I wanted to make clear that I thought the paper was bunk. But some of my colleagues, likely seeing a bigger political opportunity, went all-in, and suggested that fighting the evil but functionally non-existent Schwabian-Trudeau Great Reset was of paramount importance.
Et voila — what started out as an overwrought white paper became a mainstream conspiracy theory.
And I have been harassed ever since.
Where conspiracy theorists are correct to note that the WEF is elite and opaque; that is its nature. It literally bills itself as an elite club. Rather, they are wrong to assume that a legislator in Canada could be influenced in all matters simply by attending a conference, receiving an award, or reading a badly conceived white paper. In Canada’s democracy, we are accountable to the needs of our constituents.
Every day, as a legislator, I am subjected to thousands of data points; people seeking to influence me and the decisions I make. Those can range from people signing a petition asking me to do something, or a corporate lobbyist sending my office information, a constituent who requests a meeting, social media, a debate in the House, and more.
My attendance at a meeting of any type is a speck of sand in a beach of information and demands that I and every other MP is subjected to on a daily basis. And every few years, my ability to critically examine this information in a constructive, unbiased way and then make sound decisions is measured by my community via a general election. So far, I’ve managed to earn the trust of my community, which is why I’ve been repeatedly returned to serve again. Even if the WEF — or any other organization — wanted me to be a slave to their policy, it couldn’t happen. And I can confirm that it has not. And as much as I do not support Justin Trudeau, I would wager a safe guess that Canadian electoral politics and personal ambition have much more impact on his policy decisions than Klaus Schwab.
Further, Canada’s lobbying rules and accountability mechanisms for parliamentarians are strict. We cannot accept gifts from lobbyists. Corporate election donations are banned, and individual donations are capped at $1,675 a person. Outside organizations can’t buy a member of Parliament off, which is a very good thing for our democracy.
In this context, believing that Klaus Schwab has the ability to materially influence the Canadian government is preposterous.
The rise of this conspiracy theory does belie a worrying trend, however, where average Canadians feel that they have no levers available to them to change the status quo.
Over the last two years, pandemic restrictions have meant that Canadians have lived through a tremendous loss of control over their lives. They have lived through the fear of the unknown for months at the start of the pandemic. They have watched politicians weaponize critical issues like vaccine hesitancy for personal political gain. They have watched public-health officials change their position on vital public-health measures without clear explanations.
I actually can’t fault Canadians for looking for a way to blame their problems on some sort of shadowy global antagonist. That school of thought causes much less of a headache than believing that a wide breadth of government officials in their own G7 country could have royally screwed up all by themselves.
So who’s to blame that conspiracy theories and related angst are so rampant, and what’s to be done about it?
First, and perhaps the hardest problem to fix, is that the political class in Canada has a hard time resisting the urge to politically weaponize tough issues that are fodder for conspiracy theories. This needs to stop.
Second, Canadians need to value critical thinking and empower each other with tools that meaningfully change politics. Volunteering to help change political party policy and elect candidates to office are great examples of work that affects change.
Third, organizations like the WEF, who find themselves at the heart of conspiracy theories, should take a hard look and ask themselves why it is so, and do what can be done to fix it. This principle extends to governments, leaders and multinational institutions that are perceived to be so useless and infantile that they would be taken over by the leader of a glorified think tank. To ignore the impact of the growing spread of discontent with the state of our institutions — the perception that they only serve to get the rich ever richer and keep the poor powerless — is to do so at all of our peril. These institutions need to do better too. Policy impact is made though courage, personal action and sacrifice, not cocktail circuits.
Fourth, social media platforms reward user behaviour and content that deepens personal bias. Canadians need to acknowledge this and interact with these platforms knowing that they are being manipulated into not questioning the information presented to them.
Fifth, those who would mainstream conspiracy theories with newspaper columns or statements in the House of Commons need to do better. It’s fair game to critique the policies of an organization, their lobbying tactics, or their impact on politicians. It’s fair game to critique the policies of an organization, their lobbying tactics, or their impact on politicians. However, someone choosing to platform stuff that a Twitter bot should give their head a shake. All this does is validate the actions of stalkers and aggressors, and diminish the importance of using more constructive political tools to affect change.
All this has a cost. Our country is angry, and it is tired. Some are escalating their anger and frustration into larger and more organized acts of civil disobedience. So I pray that we can collectively get this right, and fast. From a personal perspective I fear that if we don’t, the next time someone approaches me on street or in a restaurant it won’t just be a phone that’s pointed at me.
Michelle Rempel Garner is a Conservative MP who represents the riding of Calgary Nose Hill.
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