Last week, the Montreal Gazette reported that one of North America’s most influential white supremacists was, in fact, a 30-something IT consultant living in Montreal. Known online as “Zeiger,” Gabriel Sohier Chaput had allegedly been producing media for neo-Nazi blog The Daily Stormer and organizing from his home for years. Montreal police have since opened an investigation into neo-Nazi recruiting practices in the city. The federal government views extreme right-wing activity as a growing domestic security concern (though, critics say, it may still not be taking the threat seriously enough).
Evan Balgord, a former political campaign manager and a research affiliate with the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security, and Society, had been tracking Zeiger’s online activity for some time with other researchers. He’s recently written about extremist right-wing groups for Vice, Canadaland, and the Canadian Jewish News, and he says he’s found himself sharing information with other journalists working on similar stories.
“I realized there was a real sense amongst people who cover this issue that we didn’t have an organization like the Southern Poverty Law Center here in Canada,” he says. “Something well-resourced, official, and that could speak authoritatively on these issues in Canada.” So he teamed up with a set of legal experts, scholars, and anti-racism advocates, including Bernie Farber, former head of the Canadian Jewish Congress: as he announced on Monday, the result was the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, an organization that aims to track and report on hate groups and right-wing extremist activity in Canada.
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While they’re still fundraising for a set of permanent research staff, they’ve received a start-up grant from the SPLC and hope to have an online resource set up soon. TVO.org spoke with Balgord about the state of right-wing extremism in Canada today and CAHN’s plans for the future.
Tell me about your background in the study of right-wing extremism.
I’ve been on this beat for over a year now. At the time of Donald Trump’s inauguration, I went down to watch the Disrupt J20 demonstration to see if the press would be prevented from doing their jobs that day. I saw the ground-level energy that people had surrounding the election of Trump — of hate groups and anti-racist and anti-fascist groups in the streets of D.C.
Flash forward to February 2017. I went to the Rebel Media conference; the [anti-Islamophobia] M-103 motion was the theme. The crowd was over 1,000 people, and there were strong emotions in that crowd. At one point, one of the speakers encouraged people in the crowd to stand up, point at the journalists on the edges, and shout “Fake news!” at us. That was the first time I’d seen that happen in Canada.
Immediately following that event, these anti-Muslim groups started holding almost monthly demonstrations at city halls and places across Canada. I didn’t see much media attention at the time, because people were afraid to give it oxygen.
Why do you think that is?
Journalists ask me if we should be reporting on this all the time. I point out that major news outlets are no longer gatekeepers to knowledge. These [hate groups] have their own media ecosystems of sorts — content generators, people sharing things on Facebook — and a lot of it is generating hatred of Muslims. There are stories that are fabricated or in some cases true, but used to push this agenda of fear that Islamification is happening in this country. They have an entire media ecosystem all their own that doesn’t require any interaction with the mainstream system.
Given that they don’t need mainstream attention, necessarily, some groups want that attention. But others really don’t. When we expose these groups credibly, in their own words and with their own actions, as neo-Nazis, it hurts those groups and those movements. Any allies who might have been turning a blind eye to the fact they were neo-Nazis might not want to be associated with them anymore. That’s what the power of good journalism can do in this sphere.
How does the Canadian public generally tend to understand what a hate group is?
I think people have an understanding that when you say hate group, it means a racist group. A lot of these groups extend their hate beyond one thing: they’re also extremely hateful toward women, non-binary persons, LGBTQ persons. In terms of defining hate groups, for our purposes, we built our definition on two things: the Southern Poverty Law Center’s definition of a hate group, and our own here in Canada based on the Canadian Human Rights Act. Our definition of hate group is a group that spreads hatred of and dehumanizes an entire class of people.
Should far-right ideology be considered a source of radicalization and a potential cause of terrorist activity?
I think that conversation is shifting a bit because of the [Alexandre] Bissonnette trial. We know from his trial he was consuming anti-Muslim propaganda and key alt-right figures. I believe that’s partly responsible for him making the decision to go into a mosque and kill people.
We know with the recent van attack allegedly carried out by Alek Minassian that he had apparent connections to the so-called incel movement. The incel movement is part of this broader men’s right movement that was the early stages of what became the alt-right. The incel movement overlaps with the alt-right in that it spreads on sites like 4chan, where both movements spend a lot of time.
What’s the structure of your funding and support?
We have a grant from the SPLC, and their public endorsement. They’ve provided the network with information, which in turn we’ve shared with journalists regarding the Zeiger investigation. We do intend to fundraise to have full-time staff: we need a permanent staff of researchers to get information into journalists’ hands. And also self-publishing: everything we do will be on the basis of investigative journalism, just like SPLC’s Hatewatch does.
Is this the first effort of its kind in Canada?
There are other organizations that have had a similar mandate. Back in the day, Anti-Racist Action Network, a collection of anti-fascists across North America, organized and shared information. But they weren’t mainstream and weren’t an incorporated entity. Anti-Racist Canada, a blog, has been the closest thing here for over a decade, but they’ll be the first to tell you they’re missing a ton of stuff. There’s simply too much going on. The operator of Anti-Racist Canada advised us in getting started up and is a member of the network. There are others that have carried out similar work who are monitoring racists in their communities. But it’ll be the first in that we’ll be able to speak on these issues to all sorts of people, including journalists, law enforcement, and government. I think it’s fair to say, for those reasons, that we’re the first of our kind in Canada.
What role can Canadian policymakers play in addressing this issue?
I believe there’s a growing appetite to address the issue of these groups. But beyond that, I would welcome more action on this. We saw with recent reports of CSIS internal documents debating how important this is as an issue — there seems to be handwringing in some circles.
To put it in context of whether this is a problem or not: back in the day of the Heritage Front in the 1990s, they were able to bring 200 to 300 members to a hate rock concert in Ottawa. Anti-Muslim groups today are holding hundreds-strong meetings across the country every month. Some of these groups have demonstrated ties to neo-Nazis. I think this is the biggest the problem’s been in recent history.
I look forward to civil society recognizing this as more of a problem and joining us in this fight. These ideologies have a body count and are making Canada a worse place to live in for a lot of people, and we need to contain and counter them.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.