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Release peace: the magazine

Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs

Do we need to be concerned about right-wing extremism in Canada?

Article by: Sandrine Marchand

The shocking news

Here is something you were probably completely unaware of: Roughly 100 incidents of right-wing violence have occurred in Canada since 1990. Only ten of them have been broadly publicized, receiving just a negligible fraction of the media coverage compared to Islamist attacks. The lack of media attention may deceive the public into believing Canada is immune to right-wing violence. Unfortunately, data suggest otherwise. Radicals have indeed used violence in the past to “right all the wrong”, to demonstrate their frustration with their lack of companionship, their hatred against women, or to reaffirm their islamophobia.

Globally, there has been a staggering 320% increase of far-wing extremism in the past five years. It is then only natural to wonder about the How and Why of this phenomenon, and how it can affect a peace-loving country like Canada.

Defining right-wing extremism

Right-wing extremism (RWE) is grounded in xenophobia, racism, exclusionary nationalism and authoritarianism. Individuals and groups that identify with RWE often see non-whites, immigrants, homosexuals and feminists as direct threats that undermine the legitimacy and behaviour of the state.

A pressing issue

There is a fine line between extreme beliefs and violence. About one third of extremist homicides between 2009 and 2018 were executed by individuals of far-right ideology. Even if different authorities and experts in the field have already raised the alarm, Canadian right-wing extremism is still being seriously neglected by the media. It is not surprising then, that the general public lacks awareness of this phenomenon and fails to acknowledge the extent to which Canada experiences RWE.

How Covid-19 shaped the dynamics

Recently, the Covid-19 pandemic has provided these groups with an opportunity to market their ideas and recruit followers, by being present at certain protests against government policies such as lockdowns, vaccines or other measures. They took advantage of the general public’s perception of an uncertain future and perceived rights violation, including propagating several alternative or conspiracy theories. Although not all RWE groups use violence, a 2021 analysis of their online activities indicates that there is a growing threat of ideologically motivated extremism and violence in Canada.

The Government’s response

To start addressing this issue, the Canadian Government called for a national investigation on right-wing extremism in March 2019, as well as made national security a priority. Since then, the National Security Act (2019) granted new powers to Canada’s intelligence agencies and created the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency (NSIRA). On top of that, the Government announced the creation of a new office of Director of Terrorism Prosecutions to focus on terrorism prosecutions. As a result of these measures, additional RWE groups are now identified as terrorist organizations, facilitating their disruption. This includes the seizure of weapons intended for terrorism and allows preventative arrests.

The radicalization and indoctrination process

To help contain and counter violent RWE groups, it is critical to understand how individuals can become radicalized enough to resort to violence. The Center for the Prevention of Radicalization Leading to Violence tried to explain how each piece of the radicalization puzzle fits together, considering that the process is irregular and differs for everyone. The radicalization process is deeply influenced by an individual’s personal context (e.g., the perception of injustice, lack of recognition or an identity crisis), sources of information, as well as vulnerability factors (e.g., isolation, intolerance towards ambiguities or lack of critical thinking). Depending on how an individual makes sense of the situation, it is possible that he begins to isolate from his family and friends, joins violent radical groups and engages with extremist documentation. This can eventually lead to the dehumanization and legitimization of violence against others.

International Influences

According to the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), whether inspired by international events, like the Christchurch attack in a New Zealand mosque, or global political events, Canadian RWE groups are greatly influenced by external factors. Anti-Trudeau and anti-immigration perceptions seem to be topics that are widely discussed online by RWE individuals and a major source of discontent. Littlewood et al. (2020) conclude in their book Terrorism and counterterrorism in Canada that the right-wing extremist movement “canadianized” American anti-government and far-right world views. This may perhaps help to explain why most Canadian activist groups have adopted similar positions and strategies to their international peers.

Are Canadian radical groups similar to their Southern neighbours?

However, compared to American groups, Canadian groups are less directly targeting political institutions, are less consistent or coordinated with each other, and the weapons and actions employed are less sophisticated. In addition, a study from the ISD think-tank concludes that, globally, Canadians are the most active on online platforms such as 4Chan or Telegram, creating a lot of the new content available. The majority of Canadian far-right groups and individuals use online socialization for recruitment, dissemination of propaganda, collective reinforcement, as well as the amplification of disinformation, as part of their radicalization and indoctrination efforts. They also exploit social media and platforms for online targeted harassment campaigns and promoting and planning violent activities.

But who joins RWE groups?

Research conducted in Canada also shows that individuals from all walks of life belong to RWE groups. The International Center for Counter-Terrorism reports that individuals having a past relationship with the military are particularly targeted for recruitment by the RWE groups. On the same note, a 2018 report by the Canadian Military Police Criminal Intelligence Section found that 53 serving military members were connected to hate groups or hate incidents.

Canada is not immune to right-wing extremism

Canada is not immune to the influence and actions of right-wing extremist groups. It is therefore crucial to better understand and address the root causes as well as the radicalization process of individuals to counter RWE. While ensuring that social media companies control online hate is a step forward, enforcing anti-hate laws that are already in place will play an important role in preventing a further increase in far-right extremism. However, this has historically proven to be difficult. Increasing awareness among the public will therefore become crucial in gaining support for anti-radicalisation and counter-terrorism measures, without which it is unlikely that a prudent policy will be achieved.

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