What would you do for some Klondike Papers?
A new conspiracy theory emerges where you least expect it: On the left.
You’re getting a bonus Bug-eyed and Shameless this week, thanks to popular demand.
I get asked (sometimes it’s more like I’m being told) why so much coverage of disinformation and conspiracy theories fixate on the political right.
And my response is: You go where the work is.
Over the past few years, the non-right-wing (from ardent centrists to proper Marxists) certainly met the chaos of our current reality with a lot of wishful thinking — that the Trump pee tape was real, that Trump would be exposed as being on Putin’s payroll, etc — but that lacked the corkboard-and-twine myth-making of, say, QAnon.
But amidst the political center-to-left in Canada, a rapidly-expanding conspiracy theory is proving that the right does not have a monopoly on magical myth-making.
To my American subscribers: Consider Canada as the canary in the coal mine, here. You could be next.
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It’s come to be known as the Klondike Papers: A sprawling (see: confusing) tale of religious zealots, plotted kidnappings, and a wild plan to provoke the anti-vaccine convoy that stalled Ottawa for three weeks earlier this winter.
Let me try and unpack this rapidly-expanding tale — what’s true, what’s not, what’s kooky, what’s reasonable — because there is no better time to catch and study a conspiracy theory than when it first appears in the wild.
And maybe it’s time to ask why we’re so keen to believe.
At the very core of this story is the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church.
The Church is an offshoot of the Exclusive Brethren evangelical sect, which has been around (in various forms) since the 19th century. They believe in isolating themselves, even from other evangelicals, to avoid being tainted by evil and sin — hence the exclusiveness. That has certainly led to some cult-like behavior, including cutting off and disowning those who seek to leave the church.
The movement started taking shape in the early 2000s, started by Australian businessman Bruce Hales.
Hales wanted the church more politically involved — from trying to influence Australian Prime Minister John Howard to campaigning against gay marriage in Canada to making sizable donations to George W. Bush. In 2012, he incorporated the Church as an independent entity.
Since then, he has engaged in some pretty nefarious behaviour, including hiring private investigators to spy on former members who spoke out against the Church. Their haphazard attempts to intimidate, hack, and surveil ex-members has been repeatedly exposed by a network of escapees who have tried to hold the church accountable.
In early 2021, a user began dropping “leaks” from the sect — details on how they’ve tracked former members, from Australia to the United Kingdom to Canada.
If you’ve never heard of this group, it’s because — at least in terms of their actual size — they’re pretty small. We’re talking about a church that boasts somewhere below 50,000 members worldwide.
Enter David Wallace.
In 2021, a video was uploaded by “PBCC Leaks,” featuring audio of a conversation between an unnamed private investigator (Wallace) and the friend of an ex-member of the Church. In the conversation, Wallace reveals he had been hired by the Church to track down this ex member — perhaps to even seize his phone and computer. The gig was arranged through Klondike Lubricants, a company that appears to be part of the Church’s corporate arm.
Wallace’s decision to blow the whistle was certainly costly. Burning his client, I’m told, made him virtually toxic to his other clients — all his retainers dried up suddenly.
Wallace went a step further, releasing his entire email inbox, text messages, and Twitter DMs.
Details from those emails have filtered out from various other news outlets.
Emails obtained by the Toronto Star, show that an Alberta cabinet minister hired Wallace to obtain journalist’s call logs in order to ferret out a leaker. Earlier this year, left-leaning media site PressProgress revealed that figures linked to the Church donated about $40,000 CAD to fund an advertising campaign against Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Then, earlier this month, Press Progress followed up by revealing a (frankly, unexciting) attempt by Wallace to arrange a 2018 meeting between recently-installed Premier Doug Ford and the Russian ambassador. (The meeting didn’t happen.)
These emails have, in whole or in part, landed with other journalists across the country.
At this point, all of this is — at least in broad strokes — true and supported by actual evidence, both from Wallace’s inbox and from other sources. We’ve got a secretive religious denomination that has a habit of using cloak-and-dagger tactics to go after their critics and to push their social conservative leanings. A bit like Scientology, you may note.
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In late May, Wallace started a fundraiser for himself — saying that, because of his efforts to “expose corruption in right-wing politics in Alberta and Ontario,” he’s lost his entire income. He’s seeking $10,000 to help him move back from Alberta to Ontario. (To date, he’s raked in just over $2,000.)
In early June, Wallace appeared on a podcast hosted by former radio shock jock Dean Blundell. Wallace began by detailing how he was hired to surveil the ex-Brethren member. But this is where things really take a turn: He begins explaining how the surveillance was arranged by lawyer Gerald Chipeur (which is true) who, he claims, “is the conduit of conservative darkness.” and claims he had a hand in launching the trucker convoy that took over Ottawa in January.
Wallace says he was approached by a number of conservative operatives to “stage a coup against the prime minister.” He implies that it may have been an attempted assassination.
Through the course of the interview, and a follow-up conversation, Wallace makes the claims that donations to the trucker convoy were placed in two U.S. blind trusts by Chipeur and the Church and laundered through casinos; that Republican “dark money” flows into Canada through Chipeur; that the Postmedia newspaper chain is own by Russian intelligence; that Conservative Party leadership candidate Pierre Poilievre is secretly Chipeur’s son; and so on. (A lot of it comes back to Chipeur.)
“Don't think for a minute that Russian money, and other foreign money, has not been pouring in [to Canada]. And the money is directed towards fringe movements like convoy,” Wallace said.
Wallace has been joined by a fellow Conservative organizer, Nathan Jacobson, who largely endorsed Wallace’s claims. (Jacobson also went off script a bit, claiming that American and Canadian money was funnelled into Ukraine to provoke war with Russia, which is a Kremlin talking point.)
Some of the claims that are thrown around in these conversations are easily disproved. They claim, for example, that Chipeur is lawyer for the Conservative Party and Pierre Poilievre — he is not, and hasn’t represented the Party in some years.
Nevertheless, in the days that followed, with the help of Blundell and fellow broadcaster James DiFiore, who broke down many of these claims on his website Blackball Media, and others, a meta-narrative took shape. It goes like this:
The Plymouth Brethren Christian Church a front for foreign dark money, largely from Russia and the United States, and they have been on a righteous quest to turn Canada into a arch-conservative hellstate — knocking off politicians who, say, oppose their plot to launder money through casinos. Along with members of the intelligence service, who are “completely compromised” by the Church, they helped take over the so-called freedom convoy in an attempt to overthrow the government. (And maybe kill Trudeau.)
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Piling on to the theory, social media users have been bolting on their own suppositions — just watch any of the TikTok videos I’ve embedded in this newsletter.
What’s in the papers?
So while reporting out this newsletter, I got a copy of the Klondike Papers.
I’ll keep this section short, but suffice it to say: There is a lot of stuff in there.
There are a significant number of journalists sifting through these papers, trying to figure out what’s real, what’s invented, what’s bluster, what’s legit. There are certainly claims being made by Wallace — for a variety of reasons — that are just untrue.
The details that have been reported publicly, such as the Church’s habit of surveillance, the planned meeting with the Russian embassy, Wallace’s role in trying to identify journalists’ sources: That’s all backed up by these documents.
And, certainly, these papers prove that there are a handful of political fixers and lawyers in Canada who aren’t too scrupulous about what clients they take on — whether it’s a vindictive religious sect or the Russian government. And there is ample evidence in here of, as we say, ratfucking. It certainly implicates Chipeur, Wallace, and Jacobson in all that business.
But let’s talk about what’s not in here.
There’s nothing about the convoy, nothing about Chipeur (beyond his contracting Wallace to track down this ex-Church member), and nothing about shady Russian financing. In fact, it seems Wallace was the one advancing all kinds of Russian interests in Ontario. There is nothing to back up this planned assassination plot. Again, not a thing to prove that Chipeur laundered (as Blundell wrote) “million in missing convoy donations.” Nothing about any intelligence services.
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I asked Wallace about this directly: Where is the proof for this complex illicit financing campaign, and for the idea that the convoy was organized, or at least enabled, by this one lawyer?
“Gerald Chipeurs involvement with convoy is in the files, loads of it,” he wrote.
When I pushed back, noting there was no mention of the convoy in the files, asking for specific page numbers, Wallace declined.
“Seems you already have an opinion,” he wrote. “I'll wait till I see what you come out with before I drop something on you.”
I love getting threatened!
Motive, motive, motive
Ok, so why is anyone doing any of this?
Let’s start with the ex-members of the Church: It seems relatively clear to me that there is a genuine and well-intentioned effort to call out this insult sect, protect ex-members who have been targeted, and to try and help current members leave. It’s tough to find any fault with that. The vast majority of the claims being made about the Church itself seem to be well-founded in evidence.
Blundell and DiFiore’s motivations aren’t hard to suss out: Both are running media startups that are trying to emulate the right-wing media ecosystem, but for liberals. Their content is about provoking emotion — from viral videos to political outrage, to unverified stories that other news outlets wouldn’t run. From their end, it doesn’t really matter if Wallace’s claims are true because they feel true.
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But it’s with Wallace and Jacobson that we should be a bit more suspicious.
There’s a lot to respect about Wallace’s decision to leak his emails to the ex-Church members. But there’s also plenty of reason to be skeptical of anything that he can’t prove with documents.
Wallace, according to multiple sources I’ve spoken to and backed up by these emails, was not just some pawn of powerful people — he had a habit of taking aim at journalists, then turning around and trying to sell his services to politicians looking to discover where those reporters got their information.
But he also has a long history coming up with some fantastical theories. He tweeted obliquely in 2018 of “a cabinet minister's escapade with a royal family member in the Middle East.” The same year, he told his followers to “direct your attention to the man behind the curtain @OpenSociety @georgesoros.” We also know that, in 2018, he paid an anti-feminist Youtuber $10,000 to…do….something. (He might not be the most capable of fixers.)
In these Klondike Papers, it’s clear Wallace moved to Alberta in hopes of a longer-term working arrangement with the Church, only to be left high and dry. In 2021, not long before contacting the ex-Church member he was hired to surveil, he sent a series of threatening emails to Chipeur and members of the Church, writing that if they didn’t reimburse his moving expenses: “i promise i will take it ALL DOWN. Fix this today.”
Jacobson, meanwhile, has been largely isolated from Canadian politics since pleading guilty in 2010 to money laundering. (The case against him was later dropped, and his guilty plea withdrawn, but Jacobson did have to forfeit some $4.5 million.) A source used the word “toxic” to describe his reputation. Jacobson also has a habit of making big claims for which there is not a scintilla of evidence — claiming he had evidence that would exonerate him, which never materialized; and accusing his former lawyer of being in bed with the Ukrainian mob.
In one interview with Blundell, Jacobson says: “I got stuck with a huge sum of money in a Russian bank, which has now been confiscated by the U.S. Treasury.” How much money? “More than I ever could have dreamed of. $190 million.”
So, make of that what you will.
It’s hard to say what’s motivating Wallace and Jacobson. Maybe it is fully altruistic. Maybe they will eventually be able to back up some of the grandiose claims they’re making — but I wouldn’t bank on it.
The fact is, both men had burned their professional relationships. Their Russian contracts (of which there appeared to be several) are likely long over. They may well be trying to reinvent themselves as liberal whistleblowers, trying to take down the conservative regime — embellishing a few stories, settling some old scores, and raising some money along the way. To do it, they’re hitching themselves on an well-meaning quest to take down an arch-conservative church with a tight grip over its former members.
So, to reiterate: The vast majority of the big claims being made, here, at hokum. Journalists are not, as some have suggested, ignoring these emails or being gagged by lawsuits. There is no conspiracy afoot to keep this silent.
What did we learn, class?
This is how conspiracy theories get made. Find an audience who want to believe, give them a villain, make a deluge of allegations — some true, some partly true, some outright fake — and hope the desire to believe overcomes innate skepticism.
QAnon formed out of the upsetting revelations about Jeffrey Epstein, and the extraordinary lengths powerful people went to protect him. Indeed, that conspiracy isn’t a theory, and there remains more details to uncover about just how far his powerful friends went to enable his abuse.
Parlaying real details about powerful people using their influence for evil makes it more digestible for adherents to believe baseless innuendo about those same powerful people doing even more outlandish and horrible things.
If you know that Bill Clinton traveled on Epstein’s jet, then it’s not hard to believe that he also flew to the financier’s private island, where he was known to traffic underage girls. If you believe that claim, for which there is only shaky evidence, then you may be susceptible to believing that Clinton was involved in actively covering up Epstein’s abuse. But then you start thinking: If Clinton is involved, how far down does this culture of secrecy and wrongdoing go? You start thinking that maybe the entire political class if not divided by left and right, liberal and conservative, Democratic and GOP: It’s all the same beast. And then a pseudonymous figure, claiming to be part of the American intelligence service, comes along to explains that Epstein was only one tendril of a wide-ranging pedophile ring that includes a wide array of elites. He goes on to say that Donald Trump is on a quest to destroy the deep state and stop these pedophiles. If you get hooked by that — and why wouldn’t you, at this point? — then you’re primer for any number of other conspiracy theories that come down the pipeline.
That’s what’s going on here. These leaks about the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church have fed into a deeply-held belief on the left that the evangelical movement is significantly more powerful and nefarious than anyone lets on. And so when the originator of those leaks claims a wide-ranging conspiracy, people are inclined to believe it.
The test now is whether those intrigued by this conspiracy remain skeptical and hesitant (as, to their credit, some have) or whether the momentum behind this movement will become self-perpetuating.
The question now is whether the buzz, excitement, and desire to believe will overwhelm healthy skepticism, and whether the Klondike Papers will morph into a liberal QAnon.
Look out for another Bug-eyed and Shameless later this week.