Vanessa Beeley had been due to speak at a number of events across the country and had been described by the tour’s organisers as an “internationally-acclaimed independent journalist”.
She has also been a key part of the extensive Russian-backed disinformation campaign against the White Helmets, the group that rescues people from the rubble of Syria’s civil war, saying the humanitarian workers are “legitimate targets” for Russian airstrikes.
Titled “Canada’s Dirty War Against Syria: the White Helmets and the Regime-Change-War Billionaires,” Beeley’s conference series was organised by the Hamilton, Ontario, chapter of the Stop the War Coalition.
Beeley’s claims that the White Helmets are “members of terrorist organisations” have been extensively debunked but she retains a small following that includes a number of academics at UK universities.
After a vocal backlash, the University of Montreal (UdeM) and University of Winnipeg announced the talks at their respective institutions had been cancelled.
A spokesperson for the UdeM told HuffPost Canada in a statement that the department providing the room for the event was worried the 20-person room would be too small and that the event would not go off peacefully.
History professor Samir Saul, who sponsored the event, has decided not to try to re-book it, the statement said.
In an interview with Radio-Canada, Frédéric Mérand, director of the Montreal Centre for International Studies where Saul is a researcher, clarified that his organisation was not involved in organising the conference.
Asked if he felt uneasy about Beeley’s visit to the university, he said the line was very fine since she isn’t a researcher but calls herself a “journalist”.
“All points of view are welcome at the university, but it is not the place to spread lies, fake news or false truths,” he concluded.
Beeley has been described by the Guardian’s former middle east editor Brian Whitaker as “the Syria conflict’s goddess of propaganda,” and has played a central role in Russia’s attempt to discredit humanitarian workers in the country.
After discovering her theories dovetailed with their military aims in Syria, she has been ceaselessly promoted by various arms of the Russian government and then presented as a credible source on Russian state media channels and by members of the Syrian government such as MP Fares Shehabi.
Beeley is also a member of Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media (WSPGM). It established by Professor Piers Robinson of the University of Sheffield, who last year was revealed by HuffPost UK to be a believer in long-debunked conspiracy theories about the 9/11 attacks.
The group’s reports echo Russian disinformation lines and suggest western governments or those working for them are actually responsible.
Kristyan Benedict, of Amnesty International, told HuffPost UK earlier this year: “What they’re doing isn’t different from other war-crimes denialists we’ve seen.
“The people who spend hours online peddling disinformation campaigns about the Syrian conflict ought to explain why they’re so resistant to allowing greater independent international scrutiny of what’s happening in Syria.
“They’re just in the realm of conspiracy theorists as far as I’m concerned.”
One member of the WGSPM, Tim Hayward from the University of Edinburgh, reacted with outrage at the decision to cancel Beeley’s talks, claiming it was the result of “the bidding of regime change agitators”.
Beeley has made regular trips to Syria as a guest of Assad’s government, which in 2011 brutally suppressed a popular democratic revolution. Assad has been fighting a civil war ever since which has morphed into a proxy war for various regional and international powers.
Russia has been fighting alongside the Syrian government since 2015 and between them are responsible for 94 percent of the more than 200,000 civilians killed in the conflict.
Thousands of these deaths happened in state jails and confirmation of them has come from the government itself in a steady stream of death notices.
And since admitting still possessing chemical weapons in 2012, the Syrian government has also been found likely responsible for numerous chemical weapons attacks including one in 2013 that killed up to 1,400 people.
But Beeley rejects all this, insisting the 2011 revolution never happened and was in fact a CIA-backed plot to topple Assad. She lauds the Syrian army and once described meeting Assad as “my proudest moment”.
A piece written last year purporting to expose the “egregious western media chemical weapon fraud in Eastern Ghouta” inadvertently details how regime officials are her only source and shepherd her around, ensuring they control what she is able to witness, long after any fighting ended.
Beeley repeated Syrian government claims unchecked, such as the allegation a site in Eastern Ghouta had been used by anti-Assad forces to produce chemical weapons.
A report by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) later concluded these sites were no such thing.
Urve Eslas, an advisor to the former Estonian President and adjunct fellow at CEPA – an organisation that monitors disinformation – told HuffPost UK earlier this year: “Academic freedom and journalistic rules should require the presentation of different viewpoints, but only if they are factually valid.
“Beeley’s arguments are not. The rule of balance, when exploited by propagandists and conspiracy theorists, is a means of deceiving the audience if it does not provide accurate information.”