In the wake of 9/11, right-wing extremist groups all over the global North reconfigured themselves around a new common enemy: Islam.
It’s not that there were fewer hate groups before 9/11 or that they were more accepting of Muslims; the change had more to do with the fact that the small disparate groups found in anti-Muslim sentiment the mortar which they could use to build unity among themselves, or at least coordinate their planned activities.
Fear of Islam mounted in North America with the so-called war on terrorism. In the U.S., for example, a series of polls reported by The Guardian over a roughly 15-year period revealed a steady increase in Islamophobia. Shortly after the September 11 attack in 2001, 24 per cent of Americans acknowledged harbouring anti-Muslim sentiment. The proportion rose to 46 per cent in March 2006, and to 55 per cent in December 2015.
Far from immune to this trend, Canada and Québec offer fertile ground for ultranationalist appeals to preserve our “identity” and close our borders. According to a 2015 report published by Barbara Perry and Ryan Scrivens, there are more than 100 right-wing extremist groups in the country, with at least 20 in Québec alone. It is sometimes argued that a sense of insecurity among francophone Québecers about their collective identity is conducive to greater fear of the Other and a more negative attitude to immigration.
To understand the phenomenon of hate groups in Québec, it is useful to clarify the notion of far-right “identitarianism,” a term that has gained currency in the last few years.
It is characterized by radical intolerance of difference, whether that difference is “ethnic,” cultural, religious, sexual, or something else. In Canada, the “ethnic” groups that suffer the most racism are Indigenous peoples. While they have sometimes been referred to as “invisible” peoples, they are in fact far too often the object of active prejudice. But today it is Muslims who are the main target of the major xenophobic groups in Canada and Québec, such as the World Coalition against Islam and La Meute.
Identitarian ultra-conservatism is also typically characterized by hostility toward sexual diversity. The LGBTQ community is often scapegoated by these very reactionary movements. Dismissive and hostile towards progressive political organizations, they advocate traditional roles for the family and women, reject any and all demands on the part cultural and sexual minorities and support the existing hierarchy of social classes, supposedly to avoid political chaos.
Far-right movements are widely known for their ultra-nationalist views and fervent patriotism. They believe in the ideal of the nation-state as a guarantor of a specific identitarian status quo. They view as “foreigners” both those outside the nation-state (immigrants and asylum seekers) and inside (minorities that have not been sufficiently assimilated, as measured, in their minds, against some imaginary national standard).
The wars on terror in our time have constructed this new radical otherness: the Muslim “barbarian,” an identification of Muslims with the jihadists of the so-called Islamic State. Two categories of people have been cut from whole cloth: the “moderate” Muslims on the one hand and the “radicals” on the other. But this taxonomy makes all Muslim automatically suspect. The message is: “go ahead and practise your religion but as little as possible; make yourself invisible.”
The political scene in Québec
As troubled as we must be by the growth of the far right all over the global North, it’s important to remember that the main political parties in Québec can in no way be considered extremist and no openly xenophobic party could garner more than one per cent of the vote.
In Québec, the governing party has alternated, since the 1970s, between the Liberal Party (PLQ) and the Parti Québécois (PQ). Both are politically middle of the road, oscillating historically between the centre-left and the centre-right.
The Liberal Party is seen as close to the business community and has been enmeshed in corruption scandals, particularly the government of Jean Charest (2003-2012). Under the leadership of Philippe Couillard (elected in 2013), austerity policies have sown turmoil in civil society over the erosion of the social gains made during the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s and ’70s.
But the identitarian far right has little interest in economic issues related to corruption or austerity policies, so they give economically conservative political parties a free pass. When they do criticize the mainstream parties, they do so with the sole aim of discrediting those that are too “soft” on immigration. What the far right in Québec objects to about the Liberal Party is not its economic policies but its social policies, which are seen as too favourable towards and accommodating of diversity.
The Parti Québécois is slightly more centrist on economic issues but occasionally flirts with an identitarian nationalist discourse. This was the case during the party’s most recent (and brief) term of office as a minority government under Pauline Marois in 2012-2013, which saw the unsuccessful attempt to introduce a “Charter of Values” intended to restrict the public display of religious symbols.
Current PQ leader Jean-François Lisée is promising to reduce immigration levels while trying not to appear openly hostile to newcomers. He tempers his nationalist rhetoric in such a way as to stay close to the centre for the most part.
The PQ’s main political rival in the arena of identitarian politics is the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), led by ex-PQ member François Legault, who positions himself farther to the right by defending a conservative type of nationalism while opposing Québec independence. The party seeks to appeal to a centre/centre-right constituency and carefully avoids extremist demagogic rhetoric.
The only significant party solidly on the Left is Québec solidaire (QS), which stands for a progressive economic vision as well as firmly inclusive and egalitarian social values.
The vehicles of the new far right
Faced with these primary political options, a small number of Québecers choose to support far-right groups that operate outside the parliamentary arena. They seek to express their anger at the existing parties, which all seem to them to be committed to the status quo and disconnected from the people.
The xenophobic groups typically criticize Québec “political elites” (the establishment) for enthusiastically supporting the processes of neoliberal globalization playing out in recent decades. Unlike the Left, they don’t criticize the growth of precarious employment, but rather those people they consider part of a “massive immigration” that threatens to fragment local identities.
The conspiratorial idea of the “Great Replacement” (the notion, first popularized by a writer in France, that nations with low birth rates are being “replaced” through immigration) has made considerable headway. The main idea is that the demographic shift is leading ultimately to a new phase of civilization more easily exploited by “transnational capitalism.”
Without necessarily espousing this conspiratoral vision, hate groups have recently gained momentum through social media, which allows them to reach out to eager audiences of all ages and social classes. Social media is a vehicle that makes it possible to rally thousands of people in every corner of the province.
The second major rallying point is the growing fear of Islam that seems to be gripping a substantial part of the Québec population. The instant success of a group like La Meute [ed. note: La Meute means wolf pack] appears to be symptomatic of the current climate. La Meute is considered the largest far-right group in all of Canada. But it is not the most radical group. Others identify with neofascism, look forward to violent revolution and actually engage in weapon training.
This anti-Islam organization was founded in October 2015 by ex-military men from the Canadian armed forces. Since then, their Facebook followers have grown from a few dozen to several thousands. The group is rigidly structured, modeled on a military organization. The vast pool of potential supporters on Facebook made their lightning rise possible. “We are strength in numbers,” they boast.
Many media reports number La Meute at between 40,000 to 60,000 members. These figures are completely far-fetched and only serve to lend the group unwarranted credibility. To inflate their ranks, La Meute’s leadership count the followers on all their Facebook groups, including thousands of people who were added without their consent as well as the same members counted many times over.
The real number of active members is somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 spread over 17 regional “clans.” La Meute has been rocked by an internal crisis since mid-September, following a putsch that ousted their former leader, Patrick Beaudry. Several dozen members are leaving the group every week to join rival groups like the Storm Alliance; some go on to found new splinter groups or simply quit xenophobic activities.
La Meute is an anti-Muslim pressure group whose avowed aim is to marginalize Islam in Québec and Canada. Their objective is binational insofar as the leaders call on both the Québec and the Canadian government to police the borders and ensure compliance with basic laws that protect us from “Sharia.” In their ideological universe, there is rampant Islamicization in North America and it’s up to them and their allies to halt this invasion, which will ultimately lead to our children being subjected to Sharia law.
People who happen to come into contact with La Meute out of curiosity and participate in various hateful Islamophobic exchanges can wind up being radicalized because they don’t encounter any contrary views. La Meute is a model of silo thinking in which Muslims are depicted as complete barbarians — the enemy to be defeated. According to the group’s spokesperson Sylvain Brouillette: “There’s no such thing as a moderate Muslim. There’s only one Islam and it’s radical.”
Yet this pressure group doesn’t go far enough for some people, who choose to join splinter groups that promise more direct and subversive action.
Atalante and the Fédération des Québécois de Souche
Québec City is a breeding ground for far-right groups in Québec, possibly because of the existence of a network of very popular trash radio stations. Whatever the reason, the most reactionary ideologies are more likely to find an echo in Québec City than in the rest of the province.
It is in this area that greatest number of far-right groups can be found — groups like La Meute (which is also active in other places), the Storm Alliance, Atalante, and the Fédération des Québécois de Souche (federation of old-stock Québecers). Since the Storm Alliance is similar to La Meute, I will focus on the other two groups.
Atalante is without a doubt one of the most extremist groups in Canada. It essentially consists of a few dozen neofascist boneheads (especially those close to the famous Québec neo-Nazi group, the Stompers).
The members of Atalante garnered attention this past year by organizing torch-lit marches through the streets of Québec City, distributing food to the homeless, cleaning historic monuments, and holding a mass in honour of Jeanne d’Arc on the Plains of Abraham, among other things.
In engaging in some community-oriented humanitarian activities, Atalante is following the lead of identitarian movements in Europe, such as Casapound in Italy, and Génération Identitaire and the Groupe Union Défense in France. The young activists are seeking concrete change by exhibiting goodwill toward “our own kind” and “our traditions” while behaving rudely, even brutally, toward “the others.”
Atalante’s leaders stress the group’s political differences with La Meute: they claim that La Meute believes in democracy and seeks to influence the existing political parties in addition to advocating freedom of expression and defending basic rights. By contrast, Atalante regards democracy as a cancer that must be stamped out and sees neofascism as the only alternative.
Another noteworthy group is the Québec supremacist Fédération des Québécois de Souche. It is a right-wing extremist think tank run anonymously by intellectuals seeking to promote far-right ideology in Québec. They invite far-right activists from around the world to come give interviews and lectures intended to nurture and encourage local fascists. Atalante often participates in cultural activities organized by the Fédération des Québécois de Souche. In fact, the two groups are so similar that they can be considered sister organizations.
The various right-wing extremist groups operating in Québec are not necessarily all in conflict with one another. In fact, together they can appeal to a broad constituency for hate and can recruit people based on their favourite target and preferred type of activism: anti-gay, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, arm-chair fascists, grassroots fascists, and so on.
To suggest that all this is just one form of extremism among others is a little like Trump denouncing “both sides” following the events in Charlottesville. All these groups must be taken seriously because less radical right-wing groups such as La Meute, which are fixated on the fear of Islam and immigration, can become catalysts, helping to breed more extremist views within their ranks and so serve as a stepping stone to more violent groups to which they might not otherwise have been drawn.
In the end, the extremism of white supremacists across the country can do as much harm as any other kind of extremism we might fear.
Translated by Andrea Levy.
Xavier Camus teaches philosophy at a Montréal CÉGEP. A progressive analyst of political affairs, he takes a special interest in Left-Right debates. A contributor to the online news magazine Ricochet and a radio commentator, he also maintains a blog at xaviercamus.com.
This article appeared in the Autumn-Winter 2017 issue of Canadian Dimension (The ‘Sharing Economy’).