Why right-wing extremism is becoming more problematic in Canada

Trump's malignant populism has turned far-right violence into a domestic terrorism threat

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      For Canadians, there has been much to unpack after four years of Donald Trump. And while we fancy ourselves above the darker forces of racism, nativism, fear, and demonization (not to mention misogyny) that have been unleashed under Trump, our proximity to our neighbour to the south—and a porous social media—has made us particularly vulnerable to the spread of right-wing extremism of the kind witnessed during the attack on the Capitol on January 6.

      While conservative columnists dismiss the idea it could ever get to the same point here, the anti-state and anti-government sentiments expressed by those who took part have already infected the mainstream in Canada. On the same day as armed protestors attacked the Capitol, in Toronto a motorcade of supporters waving Trump 2020 and Stop The Steal flags drove from Queen’s Park to Bayview Village mall as part of a show of support for the former president.

      The truth is the cult of Trump has deeper roots than we’d like to believe in Canada. 

      Since Trump’s election in 2016, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment has been on the rise in Canada. (One of Trump’s first acts as president was to impose a ban on travel from Muslim countries.) A 2019 EKOS poll found that some 40 percent of white Canadians now view immigration as a “threat”

      Hate crimes, which saw a sharp increase during the early days of the pandemic thanks to anti-China conspiracies, have risen by 60 percent between 2014 and 2017, according to Statistics Canada. Hard to remember now in the blur of a global pandemic, but anti-Muslim protests were a weekly occurrence in Toronto before COVID-19 struck.

      More alarming, there are now an estimated 300 active far-right extremist groups in this country, some 30 percent more than before Trump came to office. It’s no coincidence.

      Barbara Perry, director of the Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism at Oshawa-based Ontario Tech University, says “a mélange of different interest groups, if you want to call them that, have come into the same space. I’ve been likening it to a Venn diagram of all that’s wrong with the country.”

      The ground is shifting. “Politically motivated” and “ideologically motivated” groups have also entered the lexicon of far-right extremism usually associated with neo-Nazi groups. They include anti-Muslim groups, conspiracy theorists, militia groups and the incel (involuntarily celibate) online subculture. Most worrisome among them are anti-state and anti-government elements “that tend to be very aggressive in language and affiliate with the militia movement in the U.S.”

      Perry says that as these groups have become more active online, the banal sort of street-level violence usually associated with the far-right has turned into something more violent: arson, firebombings, and murders. 

      In recent years, the number of acts of domestic terrorism carried out by individuals associated with far-right groups have outnumbered acts of Islamic-inspired extremism in Canada. Our national security apparatus has taken notice. So have the feds, for the first time adding two neo-Nazi groups—Blood and Honour, “an international neo-Nazi network whose ideology is derived from the National Socialist doctrine of Nazi Germany”, and its armed branch, Combat 18—to the list of terrorist organizations in 2019. 

      And while there are anti-hate laws in Canada that could be used to control extremism online, getting the police to enforce them is another matter. 

      Muslim community groups say Canada needs to go further. They’re calling for a review of current regulations to police online hate and a national plan to dismantle “xenophobic, white supremacist, and neo-Nazi groups” after the murder of a volunteer caretaker outside a mosque in Rexdale in September.  

      Experts who follow right-wing movements agree that there’s also a larger conversation that needs to be had about the role of social media in spreading hate online. But already, some conservative commentators are likening that effort to an “attack on free speech”.

      Christian Peña

      White supremacy or masculinity run amok?

      Canadians have a tendency to be complacent when it comes to our own racism.

      After the mob attack on Capitol Hill, the Globe’s John Ibbitson offered in Canada’s paper of record that it was “absurd” for observers on the left to “conflate” support for the Conservative Party in Canada (he called them Tories) with the kind of white nationalism behind Trump south of the border. 

      Opinion-makers over at the National Post argued that the attack “was not about white supremacy at all”. And that if Trump’s racist brand of populism were going to take root in Canada it would have happened by now. 

      Well, it has. The assault on Washington was more than just about goonery or malignant masculinity run amok. It was something more insidious. Yes, there were a lot of so-called “average folks” on Capitol Hill that day who believed that the election was “stolen” from Trump. One-issue types like anti-abortionists were also present in large numbers. Trump is their messiah. But five people died, including one police officer. 

      And among the cosplay types in the contingent of QAnon conspiracy theorists who sucked up most of the media attention, there were also armed members of militia groups there to “arrest” politicians for treason. Pipe bombs were discovered in front of the Republican and Democratic national committee offices, as well as in a truck near the Capitol. Weapons were also seized, which was only revealed days later after the FBI laid charges against several individuals, including attackers linked to neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups.

      Canada is not only not immune to the kind of fanaticism witnessed south of the border—it’s an active participant in the global growth of right-wing extremism. 

      The U.K.-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) has linked more than 6,600 right-wing extremist social media pages, channels, and accounts to Canadians and some 6,352 Canadian users who were “closely connected” to extremist accounts on Twitter. Its June 2020 report identified subgroups of right-wing extremists in Canada that have posted content endorsing explicit violence and illegal hate speech online. 

      The study also found that Canadians are “highly active” on forums associated with white supremacy, behind only the U.S. and the U.K. in posting on extremist message boards—including one now-defunct U.S.-based website linked to some 100 hate crimes.

      The report noted that concentrations of right-wing extremist activity in western Ontario, Alberta, and Quebec were “often defined by regional concerns that reflected the demographics or politics of the province or city in question”. But there’s been a shift since Trump came to office: Muslims, immigrants, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have emerged “as shared objects of scorn and antipathy”.

      That antipathy boiled over last July, when former Manitoba Canadian Armed Forces reservist Corey Hurren drove his pickup truck through the gates of the Prime Minister’s residence at Rideau Hall to “arrest” Trudeau. Hurren, whose social media accounts suggest he’s a fan of global conspiracy theories, was reportedly angered over what he saw as Canada “turning into a communist dictatorship.” He reportedly had four guns in his possession, including a restricted weapon. Friends and family came to his defence suggesting recent financial hardship contributed to his actions.

      It was only a matter of time. Anti-Trudeau hysteria has become a lightning rod for separatist sentiment out West. The RCMP has had to investigate a number of credible death threats against the PM, including after a pro-pipeline demonstration in Calgary in 2018, which included anti-government conspiracy theorists alongside protestors wearing hoodies with an image of a noose hanging from a tree and the words “Come West Trudeau.” 

      The cult of Trump has not only fuelled the emergence of the secessionist Maverick Party in the oil patch (Canada’s Rust Belt), it also seen the Conservative party move to lend credibility to far-right narratives to hold on to their base out West.  

      Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole’s recent removal of MP Derek Sloan over his acceptance of a financial donation from a well-known figure in white supremacist circles is only symptomatic of a growing problem in the party of giving voice to out-there factions on the far-right, including conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers, and anti-government agitators.

      Anti-Muslim antagonism, meanwhile, has been firmly rooted in the party since before Stephen Harper tried to ride the “barbaric cultural practices” snitch line to election victory in 2015. His successor, Andrew Scheer, took up the mantle by openly courting Canada’s xenophobic and virulently anti-Muslim Yellow Vest Movement. (Scheer spoke at the group’s United We Roll rally in Ottawa in February 2019 taking the mic after white nationalist Faith Goldy.) 

      Scheer followed that outrage in March 2019 with a tweet describing the massacre of 50 Muslim worshippers in Christchurch, New Zealand, as an attack on “freedom”—failing to acknowledge that Muslims had been murdered because of their faith. A hastily arranged meeting with Muslim leaders would follow in Regina.

      al Qaeda playbook for the far-right

      The landscape on the far right is quickly evolving, a fact recognized by Canada’s spy agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Services. 

      Back in May 2020, CSIS updated its definition of extremism to include “politically motivated” and “ideologically motivated” acts of violence. CSIS also identified “violent misogyny” of the kind associated with the incel movement as a form of terrorism.

      The online group (which was among those targeted by former White House strategist Steve Bannon in swing states during the 2016 election) has been linked to two attacks in Toronto. The 2018 van attack carried out by Alec Minassian, who boasted to police about being inspired by incel, killed 10 people (many of them women) and injured 16 others. More recently, the murder of a 24-year-old mother and attempted murder of two others in a machete attack has led to terrorism-related murder charges against a 17-year-old who cannot be named. 

      The pandemic, says CSIS, has added another layer to the volatile mix on the far right. According to declassified Canadian intelligence files obtained by Global News last year, extremist groups have been promoting disinformation about COVID-19 in an attempt to capitalize on the pandemic. 

      Police in Quebec have linked the burning down of cellphone towers to the conspiracy theory that 5G wireless tech is the cause of the coronavirus. In Ontario and B.C., recent anti-mask and anti-lockdown protests have attracted some familiar anti-Muslim agitators, white nationalists, and neo-Nazi enthusiasts.

      Meanwhile, militant white supremacist groups modelled after militias in the U.S. are adding new chapters in Canada. 

      According to CSIS, the tools used by these groups to recruit online—in particular members of the Canadian military—are modelled after Islamic fundamentalist groups like Daesh and al Qaeda. In January 2020, former Canadian Armed Forces reservist Patrik Mathews was arrested with two other suspected members of the neo-Nazi organization The Base after allegedly planning to attack a gun rights rally in Richmond, Virginia, with the aim of “causing chaos and accelerating the initiation of a civil war”. 

      It’s unclear to what extent members of the military are involved in armed far-right groups but it’s enough of an issue that back in December, the Department of National Defence created an advisory panel on systemic racism and discrimination to find out. The group, says Floriane Bonneville, press secretary for the Minister of Defence Harjit Sajjan, “will provide advice on how we can ensure individuals who hold racist or white supremacist beliefs are not allowed to enter into or remain in our organization.”

      National security agencies “ignoring the challenge”

      Facebook and Twitter have moved to cut off lifelines to far-right groups in the wake of the January 6 events in Washington, including here in Canada. But many of those folks are already moving to other platforms.

      Heritage minister Steven Guilbeault has signalled plans to bring in regulations to fine social media companies that don’t police online hate. Daniel Savoie, a spokesperson for the minister, says those regulations will include “the spread of illegal content, including hate speech…terrorist propaganda, as well as violent and extremist content.”

      The National Council of Canadian Muslims says that’s not enough. It’s calling for legislation separate from anti-terror laws to dismantle white supremacist groups.

      But NCCM CEO Mustafa Farooq says that so far “national security agencies have ignored the challenge”.

      He fears increased violence after the knifing murder of volunteer caretaker Mohamed-Aslim Zafis outside IMO Mosque in Toronto last September. That was followed by threats to downtown mosque warning of “another Christchurch”. The 34-year-old man charged with Zafis’ murder has been linked by the Canadian Anti-Hate Network to the U.K.-based neo-Nazi cult group known as 09A (Order of Nine Angels). Other militant white supremacist groups like the Three Percenters are said to have several Alberta mosques under surveillance.

      NDP leader Jagmeet Singh has gotten behind the NCCM’s effort, tabling a motion in the House this week calling on all parties to condemn white supremacy and list the Proud Boys, the group Trump exhorted to “Stand back and stand by” before the attack on the Capitol, as a terrorist organization. But that’s a trickier proposition. Its counterpart here in Canada, which has been linked to acts of violence, bears only a passing resemblance to the more militant U.S. group. Says Bernie Farber, chair of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network: “We have to show great care who we list as a terrorist organization so that it meets the constitutional test. You can’t call them terrorists just because they’re bad people.” 

      So what’s the solution?

      Besides pushing social media companies to police online hate, Farber says getting police to enforce anti-hate laws already in place has historically been a problem. Human rights laws have been another avenue used to keep online hate in check. But that’s become more difficult since the Harper government repealed section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act in 2013, the provision that prohibited online communications “likely to expose a person or persons to hatred or contempt”.

      “There’s no silver bullet,” says Perry, who notes “grooming” for entry into hate groups is already taking place on video gaming platforms. 

      More worrisome, she says, is the emergence of anti-state “lone actors” who do not necessarily affiliate with any particular group or movement but have been responsible for the deadliest incidents of violence in Canada. Those include Justin Bourque, who shot five RCMP officers killing three of them in a deliberate attack in 2014 aimed at sparking an “anti-government rebellion”. And, of course, Alexandre Bissonnette, the Trump fan and convicted murderer of six Muslim men at prayer in a mosque in Quebec City in 2017, whose online activity in the weeks prior to his attack included incel websites.  

      Perry says anti-state actors “have emerged as the angriest, most aggressive element” online in recent months. “And to the extent that some are connected to militia and/or patriot movements, they are also often armed and trained. That’s a dangerous combination of attitude and skill.”

      Trump may be out of the spotlight but the far-right forces given license under his presidency are already regrouping.