Canada is in the midst of a new wave of right-wing extremism and radicalization, but is ill- prepared to deal with the problem. Examples of this new wave include the domestic terrorist attack in 2017 at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City that resulted in 6 deaths and 8 injuries, the right-wing-inspired murders of three RCMP officers in Moncton in 2014, and the increase in reported hate crime against Canadians of Muslim faith and Canadians of South Asian descent. Between 2014 and 2015, there was a 60 percent increase in reported hate crimes against Canadians of Muslim faith and hate crime against Canadians of South Asian descent more than doubled between 2015 and 2016.
The past three years has also seen a dramatic increase in the defacements of Mosques and Synagogues throughout the country, violent demonstrations to stop immigration, and almost weekly distributions of racist flyers on campuses and streets. Nor does it count an alarming 600 percent increase between November 2015 and November 2016 in online hate speech using hashtags #banmuslims, #siegheil, #whitegenocide and #whitepower.
Along with domestic terrorism and hate crime, ultranationalist and white supremacist groups continue to grow at an alarming rate in both size and number. Groups include Soldiers of Odin, Storm Alliance, Proud Boys, Patriots of Canada Against the Islamization of the West (PEGIDA), Alt-right and La Meute (French for wolf pack), to name a few. Membership in these groups is difficult to estimate with any accuracy since some boast of their membership while others keep membership secret. For example, La Meute boasts of having more than 40,000 members. While this number is inflated, over 6,000 new members were counted in just a few weeks after the domestic terrorist attack in 2017 at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City. In British Columbia alone, the Soldiers of Odin has rapidly expanded and has chapters in at least 6 cities, including Kelowna, Kamloops, Maple Ridge, Surrey, Abbotsford and Vancouver. Some of these chapters may be small, but newspaper photos of members patrolling streets sometimes show dozens.
There is little doubt that the election campaign and presidency of Donald Trump has given further licence to racism and hate. For example, Trump’s statement in the context of the riots and murder in Charlottesville, VA that there is a good side to racist groups has definitely provided fuel for right wing extremism throughout the USA and Canada.
However, it is important to note that Isamophobia was increasing dramatically in Canada well before Trump. Some Canadian politicians before and after the last federal election in Canada have painted Muslims as terrorists, or terrorist sympathizers, undermining the cultural fabric of Canada. Wearing the hijab and niqab were often portrayed as a sign of disrespect for Canadian values and the Conservative Government sponsored hotline to report “barbaric cultural practises” did not help the growing climate of intolerance in Canada. Senator Beyan’s website that broadcasts racist rants against members of First Nations groups and seeks to justify residential schools has also not helped.
Despite the alarming rise of right-wing extremism and violent hate crime, the main focus of Canadian government and intelligence agencies since 9/11 has been Islamic radicalization. The 2011-2013 Canadian Security Intelligence Service report states that: “Right-wing extremism has not been as significant a problem in Canada in recent years. Those who hold such extremist views have tended to be isolated and ineffective figures.” The 2016 Public Report of the Terrorist Threat to Canada does not even mention right-wing terrorism or the right-wing-inspired murders of three RCMP officers in Moncton in 2014.
Policing agencies have failed to anticipate the problem because of the conceptualization of right-wing extremism as simply a matter of a small number of “lone wolves” acting out of rage against minority groups. Right-wing extremism is not seen as part of a social movement, but a problem of disorganized, disaffected, uneducated working class youth acting out of ignorance and rage. This conceptualization has led to the failure to recognize the problem of right wing populism and the business of hate group recruitment based on the use of more sophisticated messaging and the much better coordination and financing of extremism and radicalization.
The new messaging, financing and coordination of hate groups can be seen in terms of the recent increase in public demonstrations and rallies of the far right. Many hate groups have also dropped much of the explicit racist terminology in public and sell right-wing extremism through the national distribution of flyers, public websites and social media on the basis that they are fighting for democracy, the protection of European culture, the end of illegal immigration, the supposed undue influence of Islam and the end to the encroachment of Sharia law in western countries. The messaging focuses on “Saving the white race” and “It’s OK to be White.” This messaging is based on the successes of anti-globalization and ultranationalist fascist political parties and groups in Western Europe and is central to the multimedia campaigns throughout Canada.
The recent weaponizing of social media takes two forms; while groups like La Meute in Quebec maintains a Facebook group that are overtly racist, it is private. The public Facebook page bans racist comments as do many chapters of the Soldiers of Odin. Some versions of far right flyers conceal anti-semitism by using brackets to refer to the Jewish religion, leaving little if anything on flyers to overtly identify them as anti-semitic. As a result, the mainstream media is tending to paint hate groups as simply pro-European white nationalists and concerned about illegal immigration and foreign control. Rallies and marches sponsored by extremists argue that they have Charter rights to freedom of expression and assembly.
To counteract this recent manifestation of racism and xenophobia, Canadians need to acknowledge the problem that right-wing extremism poses to public safety and democracy. While there is no simple recipe to end right wing extremism, a critical issue is the need for new laws to prohibit advocating racism andgenocide. Canada lost one of the most important tools to fight hate and radicalization with the repeal of Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act in 2013. Section 13 made the promotion of hatred online an offense. Unlike the Criminal Code of Canada, the consent of the Attorney General to lay charges was not required to invoke Section 13 and intent to incite hate did not have to be proven. The argument made for the repeal of Section 13 was that it infringed on freedom of expression as protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and international treaties. However, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld Section 13 as a justifiable limitation as it protected vulnerable groups against racism and hate propaganda. One of the most important tools to stop hate was therefore lost and we need to lobby members of parliament to restore effective legislation to prevent online hate.
While legislation against hate is critical, it is not enough. The mobilization of community groups, unions, religious organizations, political parties and politicians is critical in addressing right-wing extremism and radicalization. Unfortunately, the province of BC eliminated through cost cutting measures crucial community anti-racist initiatives in recent years, including victim support and effective programs and training to de-escalate, re-educate and reintegrate those susceptible to right wing recruitment and radicalization. Governments must ensure victim support, education against racism and Islamophobia through sustainable community programs to counteract hate group recruitment.
In recent months, the political climate may have begun to change as some political leaders in Canada have supported, or helped further community initiatives. For example, the province of Ontario has begun again to study domestic radicalization and racism and the government of Canada is holding hearings on the elimination of racism and Islamophobia. On August 19, 2017 one of the largest peaceful anti-racism rallies in the history of Canada was held in front of Vancouver City Hall with the encouragement and support of the Mayor of Vancouver and city councillors.
While these are important developments, a more comprehensive provincial and national model of government, police and community relations must be developed to support real change. An effective model of anti-racism was developed in the province of British Columbia during the late 1980s and 1990s in response to some of the worst outbreaks of violence and public demonstrations of racism seen in modern times. This time period was marked by rising hate crime, murders, including that of Nirmal Singh Gill who was kicked to death outside a Mosque in Surrey by five racist skinheads – one a former member of the Canadian Armed Forces. There were many meetings of racists in publiclibraries, skinhead concerts in community halls, and demonstrations and marches of organized racist groups like the Heritage Front, KKK, Odin’s Law, WAR, and Aryan Nations in downtown Vancouver and other cities and towns throughout the province.
Due to the crisis of right wing extremism affecting public spaces, schools, social agencies and virtually all aspects of public life, the immediate need for an effective model of police-community relations was realized. Several community groups held meetings with the Attorney General of BC to lobby for a special policing unit to address hate crime with community support and backing. The new model was based on communication and cooperation between various levels of government, police agencies, professional associations, First Nations, schools and community groups. The Ministry Responsible for Multiculturalism provided support by arranging regular meetings with key groups and the Hate Crime Team and a productive relationship developed.
Success was not immediate. But it did happen. The new model used by police agencies and anti-racist groups was marked by a number of prominent leaders of hate groups publicly renouncing their roles in promoting hate and radicalizing youth and the facilitation of the rehabilitation of members of hate groups. The collaboration of community groups, police and political leaders was recognized by the provincial and federal governments and resulted in a period in which racist groups no longer felt accepted or tolerated and incidents of hate crime declined. The change was so dramatic that some academics and even activists opposed calling themselves, or groups, “anti-racist” since they felt that the term sounded too radical and aggressive.
However, it was perhaps predictable that when organized hate groups faded from public view and incidents of racism declined, less attention was devoted to the problem in the mainstream and local media and governmental priorities shifted.
Now we are faced again with a growing crisis and we are ill prepared. There is a long list of changes we need to make to stop racism and improve the lives of many Canadians. We need improved policing and intelligence that recognizes that we are facing not just a collection of lone wolves acting individually out of rage and ignorance, but a dangerous ultra-nationalism based on white supremacy and fear. We need educational materials for schools based on a correct understanding of how hate groups recruit and how they radicalize youth. We need school and family and social services agencies that operate based on the right to protect children from radicalization and hate. We need much better methods to de-weaponize social media through education and social mobilization – if the extreme right can do it, why not persons concerned with human rights and equality? We need skills and patience to critically engage friends, families and clients in constructive dialogue about racism and the need to protect human rights. We need to follow a protocol suggested by Sharon Ellison who specializes in what she calls “powerful nondefensive communication.” Ellison recommends that we make interventions a dialogue not an inquisition. Question the ideology not the intelligence or morality of those we need as allies. This approach can have a dramatic effect on right wing extremism and, in fact, on extremism of all kinds. It does not work in every situation, but it sometimes does with dramatic effect.
Critical to bringing positive progressive change is the need for social mobilization through our professional organizations and agencies. We can see some of this mobilization through the past year with the growth in the number of peaceful anti-racist rallies in Winnipeg, Montreal, Ottawa, Vancouver and smaller communities. Through greater attention to human rights and equality, we are again building popular support to develop new models of counteracting hate groups and hate group recruitment.
But much more needs to be done. Professional teaching and children and family services have a special role. Children must be protected and as they are a direct target of right wing recruitment and radicalization. As an example, one young man from Alberta was encouraged by his father to join an international right wing anti-semitic group based in Hayden Lake, Idaho. He went on to assault a journalist and became at a very young age a major recruiter in both Canada and the USA until he was jailed in Tacoma Washington for deportation to Canada. The young man met with anti-racists while in jail, decided to renounce hate, and participate in a documentary designed to help young people choose human right and equality over hate and violence. Active intervention by caring groups and professionals can make a big difference in the lives of young people attracted to cult-like violent groups.
As a community, we also need to be very aware of the treatment of vulnerable groups and intervene if someone is making racist remarks or insults. If it is safe, ignore the attacker and chat with the victim and then escort the victim to a place of safety, if need be. Incidents should always be reported to a local anti-racist community group and/or the RCMP or local police agency. Report incidents to the Canadian Anti-racism Education and Research Society at www.stopracism.ca.
By Alan Dutton and C. Dale Cornish, M.A.
Canadian Anti-racism Education and Research Society
July 5, 2018