In our own backyard: A look at right-wing extremism in Ontario

ANALYSIS: A brief history of the extreme right in Ontario — and of strategies to combat radicalization
By Michelle Pucci - Published on Sep 12, 2017
White nationalists descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, in August to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee from a public park. (Steve Helber/AP)

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Across the United States, statues honouring Confederate figures have prompted debates about the role of public space in commemorating a racist past. On the streets, that discord manifests in protests between those who demand the removal of such monuments and those who favour an alternate version of the Civil War: the so-called Lost Cause, which promotes honour and tradition, rather than slavery and white supremacy. These frequent confrontations culminated in the recent protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, which, under the guise of a “Unite the Right” demonstration, were designed to challenge the removal of the statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee in the recently renamed Emancipation Park. But the rally was effectively a call to arms for white supremacists and featured neo-Nazi slogans such as “blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us.”  The weekend rallies drew tiki-torch-bearing white nationalists from across North America. One man sympathetic to the cause plowed his vehicle into a crowd, killing Heather Heyer and injuring a dozen others.

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And while Canada doesn’t have Confederate statues in its parks, it’s home to some white supremacists of its own. A 2015 national survey of right-wing extremism in Canada, by Barbara Perry of UOIT and Ryan Scrivens of Simon Fraser University, estimated there were 20 extremist groups in Ontario — second only to Quebec’s roughly 25. All told, the paper estimated there were 100 white supremacist groups across Canada, although Perry is already looking to update those findings.

Ontario, Quebec, B.C., and Alberta are the most populous and most diverse provinces; according to Perry, they’re also where the highest concentration of right-wing extremist activity is reported. These hate groups may be subtly different from one another, but they’re all rooted in extreme right-wing values and white identity. So-called blood and honour groups, for example, fit the conception of 1990s neo-Nazi gangs: recruiting through white power music and embroiled in violent rivalries with other groups. Newly formed organizations such as Gavin McInnis’s Proud Boys call themselves Western chauvinists, but they’re primarily misogynists and white supremacists: in Halifax, on Canada Day, members confronted supporters of a Mi'kmaq ceremony denouncing the city founder’s colonial legacy. Soldiers of Odin and Pegida, which have roots in Europe, are racist street gangs that patrol communities to preserve so-called Canadian values using anti-Muslim messaging.

Ontario has long been a hotbed for white supremacists: it’s home to neo-Nazis, Toronto’s Ku Klux Klan, the Aryan Resistance Movement, and the Edmund Burke Society (later the Western Guard). Right-wing extremism saw a resurgence in the ’70s and ’80s, in response to increased immigration. Skinhead gangs appeared on the streets of downtown Toronto, and by the ’90s, neo-Nazi music had achieved greater underground popularity. One of the most well-known white supremacist record labels among skinheads, Resistance Records, was founded in Windsor by Heritage Front youth leader and Rahowa (an abbreviation of “racial holy war”) frontman George Burdi. The label was raided by Ontario police for violating hate-speech laws and re-emerged a few years later in California. Racism was given a podium at the University of Western Ontario, where Jean-Philippe Rushton taught psychology for 25 years and peddled racist beliefs that attributed intelligence to race and genital size. In 1989, geneticist David Suzuki begrudgingly debated Rushton on campus in front of 2,000 students, as well as reporters and camera crews.

By the mid-2000s, infighting and police pressure reduced the number of skinhead gangs on the streets across Canada. Holocaust-denier Ernst Zundel, who lived in Toronto and died in August 2017, was deported as a national security threat in 2005. That same year, Heritage Front founder and Toronto-based KKK member Wolfgang Droege was murdered. Still, subscription to white supremacist ideas grew online. The go-to white-power forum, Stormfront, was founded in 1995 by a former Alabama Klan member; the number of registered members increased, from 5,000 in 2002 to more than 300,000 by 2015 (though only a fraction of members actively posted). Widely considered to be the oldest white-supremacist website, Stormfront was an insular yet international community of white-power and neo-Nazi propagandists. Users shared articles about white genocide and rebranded white supremacy as a nationalist endeavour. Right-wing extremists used local forums, including Canadian and provincial sub-forums, to recruit new members, inviting them to barbecues. Twenty years after it was founded, Stormfront, like the commentary site the Daily Stormer, was taken offline by its domain provider in the weeks following the Charlottesville rallies.

Richard Spencer, the Montana-born white nationalist who coined the euphemistic term “alt-right” and who advocates a whites-only America, has said he launched the website for his National Policy Institute from a Toronto apartment in 2010. In the years since, Twitter has banned him (later lifting the ban), and a number of universities have barred him from speaking at events on campus. In his three-piece suits and gold cufflinks, Spencer attempts to offer racist ideology in a presentable package — a tactic borrowed from former “Grand Wizard” of the Ku Klux Klan David Duke, who traded in his white robes for tailored suits as he embarked on a political career (he went on to win a seat in the Louisiana House of Representatives, holding it from 1989-1992).


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In 2014, several prominent white supremacists sought municipal office in the GTA. Nationalist Party of Canada leader Don Andrews ran for Toronto mayor (finishing with 0.1 per cent of the vote). In Mississauga, Paul Fromm — co-founder of a number of white supremacist organizations, and international director of a U.S.-based group cited as an influence by Dylann Roof — made a bid for the mayoralty, finishing 10th out of 15 candidates. Nazi Party founder John Beattie ran for office in Minden. Former Edmund Burke Society member Jeff Goodall briefly vied for an Oshawa city council position before dropping out. And Christopher Brosky, a skinhead convicted of the racially motivated murder of a black man in Texas, ran for Toronto city council (winning 1 per cent of the vote in Ward 28).

Though such candidates are unlikely ever to win an election, their participation in the political process adds a level of legitimacy to their beliefs and offers an official platform from which to present them. These fringe views can alter the course of mainstream politics when legislators reach further right to satisfy a broader base. In the lead-up to the 2015 federal election, major right-leaning political parties adopted anti-Islamic rhetoric. The Conservative Party of Canada dedicated part of its campaign to promising a niqab ban during citizenship ceremonies, as well as a hotline for “barbaric cultural practices,” not unlike subsequent promises for “Canadian values” screening by Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch. Tory politicians in Canada may now be distancing themselves from Ezra Levant’s far-right-wing website The Rebel, but over the course of his leadership campaign, Andrew Scheer did interviews with the outlet, which provided favourable coverage of the Charlottesville extremists. The Rebel has also organized rallies to protest anti-Islamophobia motions in general and Alberta premier Rachel Notley in particular; that demonstration devolved into chants of “Lock her up,” echoing the familiar anti-Hillary Clinton refrain that could be heard at Donald Trump’s many rallies last summer and fall.

“So much has changed just in the last year,” Perry says. “Leading up to Trump’s election and subsequent to that — it’s really changed the environment, both in terms of a dramatic uptick and resurgence of right-wing organizing. But also it’s also forced a broader public dialogue, finally, about the right.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups in the U.S., says the number of anti-Muslim hate groups has grown since Trump entered the White House. FBI statistics show an increase in hate crimes against Muslims during the presidential campaign in 2015. A month after the election, the SPLC reported 1,000 incidents of bias, including threatening letters sent to mosques and extremist flyers appearing on campuses. Numbers in Canada were also up in 2015, according to Statistics Canada’s latest findings, though hate crime reports declined slightly in Ontario, where nearly half of reported incidents take place (the province represents just under 40 per cent of the Canadian population). Thunder Bay has the highest rate of hate crimes, most of them against Indigenous people. While annual Toronto police reports on hate crimes show that Jewish and Black communities are most frequently targeted, since 1998, the number of police-reported hate crimes against Muslims has steadily increased each year. Mosques in Canada are regularly vandalized and threatened, and earlier this year, a shooter in Quebec City killed six congregants during prayer.

Police and security agents are taking the prevalence of extreme right-wing gangs more seriously, instead of dismissing hate crimes as one-offs committed by “losers without a cause,” Perry says. “Law enforcement needs to be working with schools and public-health and social services, in order to really engage and consider viable options at the local level.” Violence, trauma, and social alienation are factors that contribute to radicalization, so support programs that involve communities — including mental-health centres, schools, and agencies that help with housing, employment, and skills — provide resources that can mitigate those factors in at-risk individuals.

In Canada, research on violent extremism has for the most part been exclusively interested in Islamist extremism, and prevention and exit strategies are in their infancy. By keeping programs on a community level, and moving away from the police or criminal-justice approach, support workers can tailor de-radicalization programs to individuals to suit their needs. In Montreal, the Centre for Prevention of Radicalization Leading to Violence is led by experts in various social and health sectors. Toronto police have for the past two years been quietly running a counter-extremist program, although the force declined to talk to TVO.org about it.

At UOIT, Perry is proposing a new “Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism” — a home for research that could be applied to anti-extremism community programs and workshops. In late June, Public Safety Canada launched the Canada Centre for Community Engagement and Prevention of Violence to study and prevent violent extremism across the spectrum. And in their March 2016 budget, the Liberal government promised $35 million over five years for counter-radicalization programs. The office is soliciting program proposals until October. In contrast, the White House has decided to pull federal funding from community counter-extremism programs and will instead award grants to police departments. Groups such as Life After Hate, which connects former extremists with current members looking for a way out, have lost funds promised by the Obama administration.

Part of preventing right-wing extremist violence requires support for hate-crime victims and social awareness campaigns. In May, the provincial government introduced a three-year anti-racism strategy, with the intent of highlighting discriminatory treatment and hate crimes, focusing on education campaigns, providing training on anti-Islamophobia and Indigenous cultural sensitivity, and increasing access to social services to reduce education and employment disparities caused by racial and religious bias. Cities across southern Ontario, including Guelph, London, and Markham, have adopted similar plans to reduce barriers for workers and residents most often facing discrimination. These plans acknowledge that communities are successful when they include everyone. And by fostering diversity and inclusion on a local and regional government level, the programs can also counter hate groups that pander to communities’ fears of the other.

“We do have to think more broadly when we’re talking about challenging right-wing extremism,” said Perry. “In some respects, we still are a racist and homophobic culture. To some extent, these are almost normative values.”

CORRECTION: Don Andrews is leader of the Nationalist Party of Canada. An earlier version of this article mistakenly referred to the organization as the Canadian Nazi Party. TVO.org regrets the error.

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