Radio poubelle: Quebec City’s merchants of hostility

In the capital city, talk radio hosts set the agenda, determine elections and traffic in fear and distrust
Photo: Amanda Di Genova for The Rover
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The disc jockey delivers his sermon into the airwaves over Quebec City.

Dominic Maurais works himself up slowly, letting the anger build as he describes the misery of living under COVID-19 restrictions.

“Walmart was almost empty this weekend. I could have organized a ball hockey game in the middle of Costco,” he says. “That’s how empty it was. This is hurting businesses like hell. There are repercussions!”

This, he says, is why the Freedom Convoy is in Ottawa. But the “dishonest media” won’t report that.

Since nearly 90 per cent of the capital’s commuters drive to work, and a great many of them listen to the radio, there’s money to be made on the airwaves.

Technically, there are two things wrong with that statement. While it’s true that COVID-19 measures have shut down businesses across Quebec, Walmart is hardly struggling. In fact, the U.S. wholesaler has seen its market value increase by 17 per cent over the past two years.

Second, Maurais is one of the most powerful voices in Quebec media. His show on CHOI 98.1 — the station is also known as Radio X — is the top-rated program in the capital city’s 25–54 demographic.

In other words, he is the media.

“They pay me to do a show and have an opinion. I’m not a journalist. I was but I’m not anymore,” he says, washing his hands of any pretence of balance. By contrast, he rarely misses an occasion to accuse “elitist journalists” of spreading propaganda.

Back to the sermon.

Today’s topic — just like yesterday and the day before that — is the Freedom Convoy that’s occupying sections of downtown Ottawa. He paints their fight to end vaccine mandates and COVID restrictions in apocalyptic terms. It is a battle between the people, le peuple, and a federal government intent on robbing them of their dignity.

And whose fault is it? Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Quebec Premier François Legault.

“They’re the instigators of this division,” he says, his anger simmering. “We’ve never been this divided. Never. Both referendums? That’s kids’ stuff. Kids’ stuff. People would argue but it was never like this. That was the minor leagues. This is the big leagues.”

A snowstorm batters the provincial capital, bringing traffic to a crawl. As idling cars inch into the city on this Friday morning in February, Maurais’ audience is captive for a little while longer. Tens of thousands of them are still stuck on the Pierre Laporte Bridge or backed up on Highway 440.

Quebec’s car culture undeniably plays a role in Radio X’s success. Of the eight largest metropolitan areas in Canada, Quebec City has the lowest share of residents who use public transit. Since nearly 90 per cent of the capital’s commuters drive to work, and a great many of them listen to the radio, there’s money to be made on the airwaves.

That’s where the outrage comes in.

Radio X is part of what its critics call radio poubelle, or trash radio — a collection of conservative talk-radio stations for whom controversy is a business model. Though Radio X may be the most notorious among them, stations like FM 93 and NRJ have also earned a reputation for using the airwaves as their personal bully pulpit.

The anger on Maurais’ show is rarely explosive. He has four hours of airtime to fill so he lets the bitterness drip drip drip into his microphone, peppering in segments about the Super Bowl and Valentine’s Day so he can catch his breath.

Radio X is a glimpse into what feels like a uniquely angry moment in Canadian politics. You can see it in the “F*ck Trudeau” bumper stickers that Maurais chuckles about or the protest signs calling for the prime minister to be jailed and executed.

I can feel it in the death threats that reporters share with me. Some are vague enough to not technically be considered a threat but others describe gang rape, hangings and executions in great detail. News agencies have started hiring security to accompany reporters to protests.

When I started writing this piece, I thought I’d be in and out of Quebec City’s radio ecosystem in a few days. That was four weeks ago. I’ve since listened to hours of Maurais’ show. I’ve spoken to people who say the station has brought nothing but misery into their lives, and also to those who feel represented by it.

Experts claim the populist outrage we hear on Radio X has an outsized influence on provincial and federal politics. An endorsement by one of its hosts can push a political party to victory, or sink a candidate’s chances. Most recently, conservative talk radio in the capital helped fuel the rise of a right wing political party with a former DJ at its head.

In a matter of just a few months, the Quebec Conservative Party went from 5 per cent voter support in the polls to 14 — making it the third most popular choice behind the governing Coalition Avenir Québec and the Liberals.

“Something is happening here,” said pollster Jean-Marc Léger, in a statement published Wednesday. “We can no longer just dismiss this as just noise.”

Radio X declined to respond to questions for this article.

Scapegoating Muslims

It was a cool morning in June when they found the severed pig’s head outside their mosque.

Someone had gift-wrapped it in cellophane and affixed a card that read “Bon appétit.” Boufeldja Benabdallah says he can still smell the bloody, rotting carcass nearly six years after he discovered it in 2016.

“It wasn’t a particularly subtle message,” said Benabdallah, who co-founded the Centre culturel islamique de Québec. “We’re Muslim, we don’t eat pork, so someone thought it would be funny to cut off a pig’s head and leave it there to scare us. The message was clear: Your kind is not welcome here.

“I was so angry that I don’t remember if we threw the pig’s head in the garbage or the police did. But we called 9-1-1 because this is a hate crime and there’s no reason for us to live in fear in the country we call our home.”

The pig’s head didn’t come from nowhere. It was the most aggressive in a string of attacks against Muslims in the capital, including street harassment and swastikas spray-painted onto the mosque.

“Where does it say, in the Criminal Code, that I can’t give someone a pig’s head?”

After news of the carcass made national headlines, FM 93 host Éric Duhaime said it wasn’t an Islamophobic prank and it certainly wasn’t a hate crime.

“Where does it say, in the Criminal Code, that I can’t give someone a pig’s head?” Duhaime said on his radio show. “It may be a dumb joke … it may be a little ridiculous … but it isn’t hateful.”

Duhaime is now leader of the Quebec Conservative Party.

In the years leading up to the mosque incident, the capital city’s radio hosts had filled countless hours of airtime denigrating Muslims.

“All the terrorists who threaten the world right now, they’re all Muslim,” said Radio X host Dany Houle, a few months before Benabdallah discovered the pig’s head.

“There’s no such thing as moderate Islam,” Maurais said on a March 2015 episode of his show.

Former Radio X host André Arthur would routinely have Benabdallah on his show and demand that he denounce the actions of Muslim terrorists halfway around the world. It didn’t matter that Benabdallah had been in Quebec since the late 1960s. Nor did it matter that he raised his kids in the capital, taking them to Carnaval, to the cabane à sucre for maple taffy and insisting his family take part in so many of the rituals that make Quebec City such a lively place. When Quebec got its own NHL team in 1979, Benabdallah would attend games at the old Colisée or invite friends over to watch them play on Hockey Night in Canada.

“I still have my old Nordiques tuque, it must be a collector’s item,” Benabdallah said. “I wear it sometimes but my team was always the Canadiens; Beliveau, Mahovlic, Dryden, the glory years.”

But to Arthur, Benabdallah would always be an outsider who had to prove his loyalty again and again.

“When there would be a major terrorist attack, we’d be the first to denounce it,” said Benabdallah. “But (Arthur) found that we weren’t denouncing systematically enough so we must therefore agree with the attacks. It brought a lot of negative attention to us.”

Three months after the pig’s head incident, a post on Maurais’ Facebook page referred to the barbarism of Islam. The following month, former Parti Québécois minister Jacques Brassard went on Maurais’ show to say that Islam was “incompatibale with Western values.”

“Even a Muslim who is not a terrorist, if they apply sharia law they’re incompatible with Western values,” he said. “A Muslim who has integrated (into Quebec society) is no longer a Muslim.”

The attacks on Islam accelerated. Then, on the evening of Jan. 29, 2017, a 27-year-old man walked into a Quebec City mosque during evening prayers and opened fire.

Alexandre Bissonnette killed six people and shot another five as they gathered to worship. The killer was an obsessive consumer of conservative media — particularly sites that were hostile to Muslim refugees.

There is no evidence he was an avid listener of Quebec City talk radio.

“Of course you can’t prove a direct link between Quebec’s talk radio and the shooting,” said Dominique Payette, a Université de Laval researcher who authored a scathing report on the capital’s talk radio stations in 2015. “But you can’t completely disprove it either.

“The one thing these stations are known for is setting the agenda. They will take one topic — maybe it’s news about people on social assistance, maybe it’s Islam — and they’ll talk about it from the morning until the drive-home show. They focus on subjects that align with their ideology and they keep on it.

“When you talk about propaganda, one of the most effective tools is repetition. The effect of that repetition is very important to the structure of these radio stations. We can’t ignore that.”

Payette says the political climate on Quebec’s airwaves got better after the mosque shooting. A few days after the massacre, FM 93 host Sylvain Bouchard — in a rare moment of vulnerability — wondered why he had so few contacts in the capital’s Muslim community.

“We often speak about them but are we speaking to them? Not enough,” Bouchard said. “I didn’t live up to my duty (as a radio host).”

After the shooting, Quebec Mayor Régis Labeaume said “we must reject those who enrich themselves with hate.” He didn’t explicitly mention the radio, but it was clear to whom he was referring.

Bouchard’s moment of contrition was not echoed by other radio personalities. Just a few months after the massacre, Maurais ad-libbed during a live commercial for the St-Hubert restaurant chain.

“They put a lot of pork in there,” he said of the restaurant’s menu. “As far as I know, you’ve got the whole pig in there. Well, you’re only missing the head but, the head, you give that to foreigners. The head you give to foreigners.”

Supersized political influence

“Quebec City’s electoral map is like a donut.”

Marjorie Champagne’s assessment of her hometown’s political scene brings a smile to my face, but it’s also a helpful analogy. In addition to hosting the morning show on CKIA FM — a small, left-leaning radio station in the capital — she’s been an activist in Quebec City for most of her life.

“All around the edges it’s Coalition Avenir Québec country, conservative folks in the suburbs. The donut hole is a much smaller, more progressive core in downtown Quebec City. That’s where Québec Solidaire won both its seats in the capital region.

“If you’re running for mayor in Quebec, you have to seduce the voters on the edge of that donut. You can’t do that without Radio X. This goes all the way back to the municipal mergers in the early 2000s, when cities like Quebec and Montreal grew by absorbing the suburbs. You can’t win in Quebec without the ’burbs.”

That might explain why it was so hard to get politicos to speak critically of the talk radio station. When I reached out to a half-dozen politicians and staffers who work in the capital, I got two kinds of responses.

“They set the agenda for Quebec City. They can take an issue that might be seen as irrelevant to a national audience and hammer away at it for weeks until that’s all anyone can talk about.”

“It isn’t worth it for me to comment on this,” one Member of the National Assembly wrote to me. “I’ve made my views on that station clear and I’m not going to change them or their listeners. They’ll just attack me on the air and I don’t need that.”

The other response was silence.

Québec Solidaire MNA Catherine Dorion’s people initially turned down an interview request, writing “we’ll pass our turn this time.” But she called me a few days later. Not one to shy away from a fight, Dorion is one of the station’s favourite boogeymen.

“They set the agenda for Quebec City,” said Dorion. “They can take an issue that might be seen as irrelevant to a national audience and hammer away at it for weeks until that’s all anyone can talk about. That’s their ‘talent’ and I hate to even call it that.”

Dorion says that by the time Radio X really started laying into her, she was already an MNA with staff support and enough of a platform to defend herself. Plus, her downtown Quebec riding is an oasis in a region known for conservative politics. Before she was elected in 2018, the district voted in a Parti Québécois candidate in seven consecutive elections. But with the PQ embracing populism wholesale four years ago, voters in the district turned to Dorion’s party.

To make enemies with Radio X is seen as so politically costly in the capital that Mayor Labeaume waited until his fourth and final term in office to take action against the popular station. When Radio X began trafficking COVID-19 misinformation, Labeaume ordered the city to stop buying advertising space on CHOI’s airwaves.

But the punishment was short-lived.

Last year the mayor’s successor, Bruno Marchand, campaigned on a promise he would revisit the question of advertising on Radio X. Popular CHOI host Jeff Fillion then said Marchand would be “a good mayor” and, a few months later, the candidate won a by a razor-thin margin to replace Labeaume.

Quebec City is once again advertising on the controversial station.

A bounty on his head

There is a grassroots resistance to the city’s brash radio culture.

“Their power is enormous,” said Alexis, who runs la Coalition sortons les radio poubelle, a collective that monitors CHOI and highlights the station’s most offensive material on its website and Twitter account. “The biggest proof you need is that if you want to read any criticism of Radio X, you have to go to La Presse or Le Devoir — two Montreal newspapers. Our media doesn’t touch them because they know the shitstorm that would trigger.”

Alexis is an alias. In truth, DJs at Radio X have been trying to figure out who he is for 10 years. And with good reason. When the collective publishes segments from Radio X, it draws the attention of Quebec’s press council and outside media who aren’t so easily intimidated by a few local shock jockeys.

Six years ago, Fillion made a comment that was republished by Sortons les radio poubelle and resulted in a complaint before the press council. After several Indigenous women in Val-d’Or came forward to accuse local police officers of sexual assault, the host said the officers couldn’t have possibly assaulted the women because the victims weren’t attractive. The press council ruled that Fillion trivialized violence against First Nations women.

“That clip was one of the most widely shared ones we ever published,” Alexis said. “It didn’t make us any friends at Radio X.”

They rail against cancel culture and refer to leftists as “sensitive little rabbits” but, when faced with an opinion they don’t like, they bully their enemies into hiding.

While the press council has no authority to levy fines against Radio X, one source who worked at the station back then called it an “extremely embarrassing” moment for Fillion. Radio X subsequently brought enormous pressure against the coalition, threatening legal action unless Sortons les Radio Poubelle shut down its YouTube and Facebook pages.

Alexis says Fillion has offered a $1,000 reward for any listener who can help unmask the people behind Sortons les radio poubelle.

“He didn’t offer a bounty on my head because he wants to hug me,” Alexis said. “These are self-proclaimed free speech warriors but they go after anyone who criticizes them. I’m confident that what we’re doing doesn’t constitute libel or defamation but not confident enough to wager everything I have on it. So yeah, we took our Facebook page down.”

Despite their actions against the collective, hosts like Fillion and Maurais claim to champion free speech. They rail against cancel culture and refer to leftists as “sensitive little rabbits” but, when faced with an opinion they don’t like, they bully their enemies into hiding.

In her 50-page report on Quebec City radio, Payette, the Université de Laval professor, writes that freedom of speech — the freedom of personalities to debate contradictory, sensitive topics on-air — doesn’t mean that they should insult the same people every day for years.

Dorion says she regularly hears from community groups and people targeted by Radio X who are desperate for advice on how to handle the onslaught from the airwaves.

“They’ll say, ‘We’ve been hearing this lie about us every day for two weeks’ or ‘They’re amplifying prejudice against us with their constant jokes, what can we do?’” Dorion says. “When we hear that we say, ‘Listen, there’s a way to fight this and we’ll back you up through the process.’ But people are too scared to take them on.

“So what effect does it have? It takes away the freedom of speech of ordinary citizens. The radio hosts, they’re bullies. They create a climate of fear so they can do whatever they want. Then they’ll turn around and say their freedom of speech is under attack.

“That’s the classic behaviour of a manipulative narcissist. They make themselves the victim even though they have so much power.”

A climate of hostility

“If I can allow myself a quick comment on your question, I feel as though you’re incredibly hostile towards Radio X. It’s shaking me up a bit.”

It took about 25 seconds for the interview to go off the rails. Patrick (not his real name), an avid listener of Radio X, sensed my antipathy towards the popular station right off the bat.

“I’m someone who spends a lot of time thinking, reading, and yes I listen to Radio X,” said Patrick, a bus driver for Quebec City’s public transit authority. “Yes, I’m upset about the COVID restrictions that don’t make much sense anymore. But I’m not angry, as you seem to suggest. This station has been questioning those restrictions for the past year and a lot of what they’re saying has been coming true.

“In my line of work, I talk to a lot of people, regular people, commuters. They’re not all Radio X listeners but they’re all fed up.”

“If you’re implying Radio X are a bunch of rednecks, what does that make me?”

Patrick is fully vaccinated and he abides by the restrictions even though they don’t always make sense. But he’s also hesitant to have his 11-year-old son vaccinated.

“He’s getting bullied at school because of it, do you think that’s funny?” he said.

“No, I think that’s awful. I’m sorry that happened,” I said, my voice shaking.

He continued: “No one’s talking about that in normal media. No one. Only Radio X. I’m sorry for raising my voice but it really affects me. That’s all our public health officials and Legault who created this division.”

“I know that liberals or leftists can be condescending, but do you think maybe Radio X answers that with a level of aggression or anger that seems excessive?” I ask.

Patrick didn’t hesitate.

“Absolutely not. That’s an outrageous question. This feels like an attack on my integrity.”

“You personally?”

“Yes. Absolutely. If you’re implying Radio X are a bunch of rednecks, what does that make me?”

I tried changing my approach.

“Any media outlet — whether they lean left or right — can be guilty of excesses. Do you think Radio X is immune to that? What about their treatment of Muslims?”

Again, Patrick stood his ground.

“They never said anything against Muslims.”

At this point, it felt counterproductive to refer to the station’s history of hostility towards Islam. Patrick felt as though I was out for blood and he wasn’t entirely wrong. My questions were pointed and I’ve taken more than my share of pot shots at Radio X on Twitter over the years.

But just as I may seem immovable in my view that the station regularly goes beyond the limits of acceptable public discourse, Patrick appeared equally unwilling to recognize this well-documented phenomenon.

Once things between us cooled down, Patrick went out of his way to help me navigate the interview in French, my second language, and even offered to continue in English. I knew a lot of people like Patrick when I worked in construction: smart, thoughtful guys who would help you change a flat tire if they saw you stranded by the side of the road. Good people.

The problem here isn’t whether Patrick or Radio X listeners are racist. It's the climate of hostility that the station’s presence creates in the city and that listeners, who are just wanting to hear someone talk about something interesting, become unwitting, or witting, pawns in a culture war.

Repeat a lie often enough…

What are the effects of a network of conservative radio stations pushing the same message for days on end?

It’s hard to tell but there are some facts that jump out.

A 2020 national poll on climate change found that 13 per cent of residents in the Quebec City area are indifferent to the consequences of global warming — that’s more than twice the provincial average.

“How do you explain that?” Payette said. “There’s no other explanation than these radio stations that constantly promote skepticism about climate change. It isn’t what’s being taught in schools and it isn’t the Bonhomme Carnaval, it’s the radio culture. The only consistent source of skepticism on climate change is those radio stations.”

Here’s another fact: in the summer of 2020, FM 93 host Éric Duhaime gave airtime to the owner of a gym who said he’d open his establishment even if COVID-19 restrictions forbade it. Duhaime encouraged people to break the rules and work out at Méga Fitness Gym.

The gym owner, Dan Marino, also went on Radio X to announce he would be defying public health regulations. The interviews with Marino were scrubbed from Radio X’s website after his Méga Fitness Gym was the site of a massive COVID-19 outbreak.

Conservative radio seems to have a much greater impact here than in other provinces.

Public health officials estimate there were over 500 cases linked to the gym, including 208 where people directly contracted the virus at Méga Fitness. One client, 40-year-old Étienne Desrochers-Jean, died of COVID-19 last year.

Another interesting data point is the rise of the Quebec Conservative Party, whose leader, Duhaime, left FM 93 to pursue a career in politics. Since he quit his job last year, Duhaime has had a regular slot on Radio X where he rails against vaccine mandates and other COVID-19 restrictions. Under his leadership, the party has gone from a marginal 5 per cent popular support in the polls last fall to 14 per cent according to a Léger survey released on Wednesday.

Not only has the Quebec Conservative Party surpassed the PQ and Québec Solidaire in voter intentions, Duhaime has enough support to qualify for the leaders’ debate ahead of the Oct. 3 provincial election. Among Quebec francophones he is the second most popular party leader, and roughly one in four voters in the Quebec City area would cast their ballot for his party, according to the poll.

While the CAQ still holds a commanding lead, pollster Léger cautions that Duhaime’s rise can no longer be brushed off.

“He’s seen as a real alternative,” said Léger, who conducted the survey, in a statement.

One expert says that while populist, angry media isn’t unique to Quebec, conservative radio seems to have a much greater impact here than in other provinces.

“If you look at Alberta, where populist right-wing outlets like Rebel Media are strong, they don’t actually influence anything,” said Mike Medeiros, a research fellow at the University of Texas at Austin. “The West is such a conservative stronghold that nothing ever really changes. But in Quebec City, where races are close and ridings can flip, the need to court those voters means they have an outsized influence on policy.

“So if Radio X or the other stations have a large audience, it’s hard to win in those ridings if you don’t appeal to them.”

The CAQ came to power in 2018, in part by flipping six Liberal ridings in the capital to take eight of the city’s 11 seats. When the Liberals won their majority four years earlier, they did so by capturing eight ridings in the city. Of those, they managed to take five from the PQ and the CAQ.

In both cases, Radio X backed the winning party ahead of the vote.

During the federal election last year, regional issues like the “3e Lien” — a proposed $10-billion tunnel linking the capital to its suburbs across the St. Lawrence River — took centre stage in two of the federal leaders’ debates. Despite a broad consensus among urban planners that the 9-kilometre tunnel would be an environmental disaster, would not solve Quebec City’s traffic problem and might even make it worse, Radio X has championed it for nearly a decade.

That might explain why parties hoping to make gains in the capital, like the Bloc Québécois and Conservatives, didn’t dare oppose the project. The Bloc, which calls itself a green party, said it was up to Quebec to decide on the project. The Conservatives, meanwhile, offered to foot 40 per cent of the bill with no questions asked.

Even Prime Minister Trudeau, who opposes the tunnel, offered to fund a portion of the project if it included public transit. Only the New Democratic Party, which has one sitting MP in the entire province, came out strongly against the 3e Lien.

In the end, Premier Legault said it would be best for Quebec if the Conservatives formed a government with a strong Bloc in opposition. Though the Tories didn’t make gains in Quebec, Trudeau failed to as well, falling well short of forming the majority government he sought.

Most recently, with the Quebec Conservative Party surging in Quebec City, Medeiros said the CAQ government is on its heels for the first time since it assumed office four years ago. Two weeks ago, after saying he was shocked at the level of support for the convoy, Premier Legault announced a series of measures to loosen COVID restrictions.

“That’s not a coincidence and it’s not a decision he took based on science,” said Medeiros, whose research centres on Quebec populism. “Weeks earlier, he was speaking about COVID-19 in alarmist terms. A hundred people were dying every day. And now he’s ready to loosen restrictions, he’s taking on a much more jovial tone — it’s something he’s doing to shore up a segment of his voters.”

On Tuesday, Legault made the surprise announcement that Quebec will drop its vaccine passport by March 14.

‘It’s not going to end well’

Back in the Radio X studio, Maurais’ guest is his former colleague turned Conservative leader, Éric Duhaime.

In a rare moment of disagreement with his old friend, Maurais says he believes Duhaime is making a mistake by not attending a Quebec City rally in support of the Freedom Convoy.

“Any politician, even if you disagree with the protesters, go meet with them, go listen to them,” Maurais says. “We have to learn to speak to each other again.”

After Duhaime leaves, the host takes a call from a convoy supporter who calls himself Larry.

“This is a siege! You think this is over, we’re not going anywhere,” Larry says. “This is a chess match now. We’re just waiting for the players.… We’re here for the people!”

Maurais agrees. He says he wants to do a show from Ottawa but can’t figure out how to set up a remote broadcast in the middle of the protest. The host goes on to plug his upcoming trip to the prairies, where the Freedom Convoy originated. He calls on local businesses to sponsor his trip or join him in finding western allies for his grassroots, populist brand of conservatism.

The station cuts to commercial: Barbies restaurant, a debt consolidation firm that offers to negotiate directly with creditors, a sex shop that sells erotic oils and a call for cement workers from Quebec’s municipal government.

When the show returns, Maurais posits that John Lennon would have been friends with Florida governor and new age MAGA prophet Ron DeSantis because they both love freedom.

He seems to forget about the appeal for civil discourse he made just a few minutes earlier, chuckling as a caller refers to Premier Legault as a puppet. Now he’s onto one of his favourite targets, Québec Solidaire co-leader Gabriel Nadeau Dubois.

“He’s a radical communist who is in favour of looting when it’s his people,” Maurais says. “A real comedian, that one.”

He takes a call from a postal worker who’s on unpaid leave for refusing to be vaccinated. “I’m depressed but this convoy gives me hope,” the man says.

The disk jockey changes gears again, veering back into an apocalyptic sermon.

“One of my sources, he’s a former RCMP guy, pretty connected still,” Maurais says. “This thing in Ottawa, it’s not gonna end well. There will be a fight.”

Outside the snowstorm rages, sweeping off the St. Lawrence and into the capital but never breaking the signal that binds Maurais to his people.

This article was produced through The Rover, Christopher Curtis’s investigative journalism project with Ricochet.
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