The case for labelling Proud Boys a terrorist organization

The federal government’s move earlier this week to designate the self-described “Western chauvinists” a terrorist group caught many by surprise, including anti-hate activists

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      How did a group obsessed with masturbation end up posing a threat to national security?

      The federal government’s move earlier this week to designate self-described “Western chauvinists” the Proud Boys a terrorist organization caught many by surprise, including a few anti-hate activists in Canada.

      The Canadian Anti-Hate Network called the designation “interesting”, noting in a blog post that “it’s the first time a very public far-right group has been designated in Canada. And the Proud Boys have always pushed back on being called white supremacists.”

      Other commentators offered that listing the Proud Boys as a terrorist organization is “a mistake”.

      Writing in Maclean’s Adnan R. Khan argued that “We should not confuse what is merely a group of criminal chauvinists for a disciplined and determined organization willing to commit mass casualties for their cause.”

      He concluded that “Designating the Proud Boys as a terrorist organization only gives its hardcore members the recognition they crave, and the group the legitimacy it does not deserve. Now we really might have a terrorist organization on our hands.”

      The chatter on far-right social media sites following the group’s designation seems to suggest otherwise. Most far-right groups online mocked the group and its designation as “laughable,” since its U.S. head has now reportedly been exposed as an FBI informant.

      Was the decision purely political as some critics are suggesting, a consequence of the group’s notoriety thanks to Trump following the raid on the U.S. Capitol on January 6?

      If that’s the case then all Canada’s mainline parties share the responsibility, since they all voted in favour of an NDP motion tabled in the House to declare the group a terrorist entity before Public Safety Minister Bill Blair made it official a few days later.

      There are arguments that can be made why the Proud Boys shouldn’t be considered a terrorist organization—at least in Canada where the group has splintered into two groups and the offshoot has been disavowed by Proud Boys’ original founder, Gavin McInnes. He’s the former Rebel News personality who got bounced from the far-right website after a booze-fuelled Holocaust-denying rant back in 2017 got the Rebel in trouble with its Jewish pro-Israel donors.

      McInnes has kept up the suspect company since, including with one Tommy Robinson, the British far-right figure and cofounder and former leader of the anti-Islamic English Defence League. The two were banned from a speaking tour of Australia in 2018. McInnes’s Twitter account was permanently suspended in 2018 as part of the platform’s policy of purging violent extremist groups. In June 2020, YouTube suspended McInnes for violating its policies on hate speech. He’s also been removed from Facebook.

      But let’s not go too far down the rabbit hole.

      Critics of the terror label say the most that can be said about the Proud Boys in Canada, besides being purveyors of white nationalist-fuelled rhetoric, is that they’ve been involved in some street-level violence.

      But that ignores the fact that a number of members of Canada’s military have been linked to the group, most notably following a 2017 confrontation with Indigenous protestors in Halifax, after which a number of members of the Royal Canadian Navy who took part in shouting matches with protestors were revealed to be members the Proud Boys.

      The incident, says the former head of national defence staff Jonathan Vance, was a “wake-up call”—it revealed a more sinister side of xenophobia and hate had infiltrated Canada’s military. To be sure, the recruiting of former and current members of the Canadian military has become a focus of the far-right.

      Stateside, the Proud Boys have also been viewed as a gateway to indoctrination into more violent white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups.

      According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, while the Proud Boys may publicly disavow bigotry, their participation in violence at far-right rallies tells a different story. Last week, one Proud Boy arrested for his part in the Capitol Hill riot was found to have weapons and a bomb-making manual in his house.

      Terrorism is a global problem. Most of the organizations on Canada’s list are international in scope. Many don’t necessarily have a base in Canada, but that doesn’t make them any less dangerous, especially in an increasingly digital world where hate has migrated online in a big way.

      The nature of terrorism is also changing. It’s not just about Jihad. Ideologically-motivated and politically-motivated acts of terrorism have become part of the lexicon. As CSIS, Canada’s national security agency, noted when it broadened its definition of extremism in 2020 to include “violent misogyny,” words matter. In fact, attacks carried out by violent white supremacist groups pose a bigger threat today.

      At the same time as the feds added the Proud Boys to the list of terrorist groups, they added Atomwaffen and The Base, neo-Nazi organizations with ties to Canada, but also part of an international network with tentacles abroad. The Russian Imperial Movement, another group added to the list, is described as “a transnational movement ideologically aligned against the Western principles of ‘liberalism, multiculturalism and tolerance’ according to its manifesto.” Its affiliations also run to neo-Nazi groups.

      Those opposed to the Proud Boys designation also forget that for communities most affected by far-right violence here in Canada—in particular, Jewish and Muslim groups—hateful rhetoric has real consequences.