The rise of Canada's far-right | The World Weekly
Last weekend, around 100 people arrived in Quebec and marched to the US-Canadian border. Drawn from multiple far-right groups, their self-proclaimed purpose was to protest the number of asylum seekers crossing into Canada illegally from the USA. Speaking to local media, protesters accused the Canadian government of presiding over a failed immigration strategy, and even contended that Islamic State (IS) fighters were slipping into the country – claims firmly rejected by federal authorities.
The US border has become a key focal point of protest in recent months, as illegal immigration has spiked. As in past cases, far-right groups were joined last weekend by counter-protesters from anti-fascist and open border advocacy groups. They showed their support for people trying to enter Canada and lambasted the “racism” on display in the far-right groups.
Tensions were high. Unverified footage from the march shows a woman being tackled and assaulted by members of the far-right group known as the Three Percenters after she apparently tried to photograph their car number plates, according to online blogging site Anti-Racist Canada.
Canadian hate groups have expanded their operations in recent years, say observers. Around 130 such groups are currently operating in Canada, Barbara Perry, expert on hate groups at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, told The World Weekly. “New chapters are forming, attracting people across class and age boundaries.”
The groups range from tiny online-only organisations, to several with a national scope and hundreds of active members. Soldiers of Odin, an anti-immigrant group formed in Finland in 2015, now has chapters in most Canadian cities. The Three Percenters, an American armed militia group who were involved in the far-right march in Charlottesville in August 2017, established itself across Canada within the last year.
“A more frightening change has seen some of these groups engaging in considerable coalition building in the last eight months, gathering together to increase their impact and numbers,” says Professor Perry. Last weekend’s march, for instance, saw members of the ultranationalist Storm Alliance group joined by Three Percenters providing ‘security’ at the rally. Given Canada’s ban on openly carrying guns in public, Three Percenters generally arm themselves with charged stun canes at marches.
Evan Balgord, executive director of the newly formed Canadian Anti-Hate Network, explained to TWW how in 2014 groups particularly targeting Canada’s Muslim community began to expand. This activity, says Mr. Balgord, “exploded” with the election of Donald Trump as US president in 2016, buoyed by Mr. Trump’s thinly veiled discriminatory rhetoric – a stark contrast to their hatred for Canadian Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s espousal of multiculturalism.
But he stresses that it was the passage of Motion 103 through the Canadian Parliament in 2017, condemning Islamophobia, which truly galvanised far-right groups to show their anger in public. “In their mind, this criminalised criticism of Muslims, and it has been used to justify protests ranging in size from 50 to 500 people across Canada.”
Motion 103 is a non-binding parliamentary motion, not a piece of legislation, which condemns “Islamophobia and all forms of systemic racism and religious discrimination”. It led to a report recommending greater national action to address hate crimes.
Whilst disparate in organisational structure, far-right extremist groups espouse a broad ideology of prejudice and hate generally directed at religious and ethnic minorities, along with members of the LGBTQI+ community. In some cases, particularly amongst neo-Nazi groups, this can manifest in outright calls for violence.
The December 2017 report from the Canadian minister of public safety on terrorism threats listed right-wing extremism as “a growing concern”. It presented the movement as largely online, underlining that “right-wing views often attempt to create an online culture of fear, hatred and mistrust by exploiting real or imagined concerns when addressing an online audience”.
Members who have left these groups speak of a feeling of dread and anxiety about losing their place in the nation. Far-right groups, in their minds, see themselves as defending white, Christian Canadian identity.
Patriarchal ideas of masculinity can play a role as well, says Professor Perry. “For young men disconcerted by a perceived loss of white male privilege, hate groups can be a venue for them to re-enact their masculinity in very violent and aggressive ways.”
Indeed, the relationship of masculinity to the far-right was thrust into mainstream discussion in Canada last month. Alex Minassian drove a van through Toronto, killing 10 people – mostly women. His online activity shortly before the attack suggested he was involved in “incel” online subculture, an area of the internet dominated by young men bemoaning their sexual inactivity – generally through violent threats against women, or “Stacys”.
Experts widely agree that the internet has provided a potent new platform for all these ideas to spread quickly on an international scale. It offers a “speed and capacity” for recruitment and organisation “unimaginable for far-right groups operating 15 years ago”, says Professor Perry.
Online forums are particularly potent, allowing for the discussion of shared hateful ideas and reaffirming a collective sense of identity – without meeting in person. These spaces are increasingly compartmentalised, with the most violent rhetoric reserved for private groups. Mr. Balgord describes monitoring these forums and witnessing “radicalisation” in action, seeing a tragic process of young teenagers introducing themselves and steadily be encouraged in their hatred of certain groups in society by “power users” of the forum.
Online messaging regularly has real-world consequences. B’nai Brith Canada, a Jewish advocacy organisation, recorded 1,752 anti-Semitic incidents in 2017, with levels of anti-Semitic graffiti reaching levels not seen since 2013. It highlighted rising anti-Semitism “from both the far-right and the far-left of the political spectrum”.
Equally, parents dropping off their children at an Islamic school near Toronto on Tuesday encountered anti-Muslim graffiti sprayed on an entrance to the building. One mother described it to CBS Toronto as a “rude awakening” for her.
Many far-right groups use the threat of protest to attempt to shut down events. Last month, an annual event organised by a Muslim community group in Montreal to celebrate girls who wear the hijab had to change venue twice. The venues cited security fears after online posts threatened protests if the event was held there. The event was eventually held in the community group’s office, with a small police presence outside. Many of these attending expressed their defiance, with one girl declaring she did not “care about the looks of others”.
Canadian police reported 1,409 hate crimes in 2016, of which 563 were violent. Crimes targeted against an individual’s sexual orientation were the most violent, constituting 71% of such reported crimes – compared to 45% targeting ethnicity.
The spectre of violence hangs over far-right groups’ activity. The Montreal Gazette, in cohesion with leading anti-fascist groups, recently revealed that the neo-Nazi personality known as ‘Zeiger’ was working as an IT consultant in Montreal. He is famous on the far-right news site The Daily Stormer, and had reportedly been organising meetings with like-minded individuals in the city.
Zeiger was a prolific voice on the now defunct Iron March online forum, where his publication of neo-Nazi propaganda is believed to have been highly influential on the formation of Atomwaffen – a group linked to five murders in USA. The Montreal police hate crimes unit has now opened an investigation into Zeiger’s alleged identity.
The Canadian government maintains it is committed to preserving Canada’s multicultural national identity. The Trudeau administration’s February 2018 budget for the first time allocated $23 million in funding to counter racism through cross-cultural consultations and multicultural programmes.
Canadian law has some avenues for charging individuals for hate crimes, with Section 319 of the criminal code banning “stirring up hatred in a public place”.
However, many of those monitoring the far-right contest that these laws give too much scope to rights to freedom of speech, allowing potentially intimidating activity to escape punishment. Section 13 of Canada’s Human Rights Act, repealed in 2013, is regarded as something of a lost asset, previously allowing individuals to be held to account for spreading hateful propaganda.
In this difficult legal atmosphere, detailed exposure of the practices of far-right groups is regarded as essential. Mr. Balgord aims for the Canadian Anti-Hate Network to be a professional and nationwide organisation with this goal in mind, building on the previous “great” work by city and regionally-focused groups across Canada. “Civil society is only now starting to stand up and counter these hate groups.”
Canadian activists always stress that the far-right in Canada, whilst smaller in size than their US neighbours, is a proportionately significant threat. Their work exposing and critiquing the far-right never seems to end.
On Wednesday, six masked members of anti-immigrant group Atalante, which claims links to neo-Nazi organisations, burst into the office of VICE NEWS in Montreal. They tossed leaflets everywhere and handed a journalist a trophy reading: “VICE media trash 2018”. The fact that VICE had run a story on Atalante’s increased activity one week before highlighted yet again the increasingly combative attitude of the Canadian far-right in 2018.