Barbara Perry on the Far Right in Canada
Still from Vice Essentials Canada
Barbara Perry is co-author of Uneasy Alliances: A Look at the Right-Wing Extremist Movement in Canada, a three-year study involving interviews with Canadian law enforcement officials, community organizations and right-wing activists, as well as analyses of open source intelligence. She has written extensively on social justice generally and hate crime specifically, and has published several books spanning both areas, including Diversity, Crime and Justice in Canada and In the Name of Hate: Understanding Hate Crime. The interview printed below was conducted on August 17, 2017, by Cy Gonick and Andrea Levy.
How would you define the far right?
We have been defining it, in its contemporary manifestation, as a movement grounded in nationalism, and typically racial nationalism. In our context, it has tended to centre on preserving the Canadian national identity, mainly understood as the purity of the white race. But it changes over time; sometimes there is less emphasis on race and, as we are seeing now, greater emphasis on culture more broadly, which is actually a little more disturbing in my view because it includes race very often, but it also includes religion and language and values — all of those elements pieces. The current crop of far-right activists uses the term cultural nationalism as a way of muting the impact and minimizing the issue of race.
What distinguishes the far right from the mainstream right?
The traditional right is typically bound up with certain institutional structures, including political parties, whereas the far right tends to be outside of traditional institutional structures. The far right is a loose movement, characterized by a racially, ethnically and sexually defined nationalism. This nationalism is often framed in terms of white power, and is some grounded in xenophobic and exclusionary understandings of the perceived threats posed by such groups as non-whites, Jews, immigrants, homosexuals and feminists. The state is perceived to be a pawn of the Jews and an illegitimate power serving the interests of all but the white man. The extremists are willing to assume both an offensive and defensive stance in the interests of “preserving” their heritage and their “homeland.”
How extensive is Canada’s far right in terms of organizations, members and sympathizers?
When I co-authored a study of the far right in Canada in 2015, our conservative estimate was just over 100 active groups at the time. I say conservative, because we really only focused on Western Ontario and Southern Alberta. We looked a little at mainland B.C. and Montréal, because we were working with the Sûreté du Québec, other parts of Québec as well, so there are a lot of areas. We didn’t really focus on the rural areas at that time and didn’t spend a lot of time with folks in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. So that estimate of 100 groups was probably quite low, but I would say that, in the last eight or 10 months, there has probably been a 20- to 25-per-cent increase in new groups. And I say that because we are seeing new chapters of some of the groups that we identified in 2015, but we are also seeing some new groups pop up across the country. These are both signs of the growth of the movement. As for the number of members, it’s really hard to say. When we were conducting our study, what informants and participants were telling us was that the groups ranged from what officers refer to as three-man wrecking crews, to groups in the 100s.
Take the skinhead groups in Québec, for example: most of them have around 20 members or so. It’s a bit of a challenge to count them. You can look at online activities — how many likes, how many shares, other social media platforms, that sort of thing — but again, just from the chatter on social media sites over the last year, it seems like there are many more people in and out of some of those forums, so I think that both the number of groups and the number of people have increased. The number of sympathizers is the hardest to estimate.
One way of thinking about it is to consider some of the opinion polls that we have seen just over the past couple of decades: there is a fairly small but consistent minority (some people would say it’s not small, sometimes 20, 25 or 30 per cent) who would respond to different polls around race, religion and diversity in rather negative ways, or who would indicate they were mistrustful of Jewish or Muslim communities or LGBTQ communities, or disagree with the contemporary immigration policy and practice. Some of those indicators would suggest that there is a broader sentiment that might in fact be sympathetic to far-right rhetoric as well.
Would you say that their influence is growing?
It seems to have. I think more people are being drawn to the movement. They are certainly more visible and more vocal in the public realm, not just online but offline as well. We saw the leafleting right after the Trump election and the inauguration escalating to street patrols by the Sons of Odin, the Soldiers of Odin, and the Three Percenters, which resulted in violence. I think that they have quite a dramatic impact when it comes to drawing new membership, but it’s also quite dramatic in terms of the impact on the communities that are targeted. There is of course a lot of fear and anger emerging in reaction to these movements. I think one of the things that we are seeing right now, especially in the aftermath of Charlottesville, is the protest, sometimes in direct opposition to and across the street from the far-right rallies, and sometimes in cities where no far-right rallies have been held, just as a statement of solidarity and standing in opposition to hatred and bigotry.
The far right is typically far outnumbered and the voices are much louder coming from the anti-racists, so that has been a very effective. The only downside is that sometimes these groups will complain on their social media that, “Look, we are being oppressed. Poor us. Poor white man. Our voices are being silenced.” So they can use it to feed their victim mentality. But it doesn’t mean we should stop.
Are far-right groups spread across the country pretty evenly or are they concentrated in a few provinces and cities?
They do tend to be clustered in urban areas and in certain cities, which is why we focused on the areas we did: Western Ontario, Southern Alberta and around Vancouver in particular. Then just because we had a little bit of money left, we knew Québec was an area we needed to explore, so we paid some attention to Québec as well. I would say those are the key areas where we see some concentration.
Oddly, Toronto does not have the same problems that Calgary and Edmonton have had historically. Not that there is nothing in Toronto, but in Ontario the far right tends to be much more vocal and active in the tri-cities like Kitchener, Waterloo and Cambridge, and then London, Windsor and Hamilton. We also suspect that in addition to the urban concentrations that I mentioned earlier, there is a lot of activity in rural areas, but more research is needed.
How would you account for the urban concentrations?
They include many areas that have experienced fairly recent or increasing demographic change. Take Western Ontario, for example, which historically has been very homogenously white, Christian and Western European with some Eastern Europeans in the mix. In the last decade-and-a-half, we have seen really dramatic shifts with respect to the newcomers who initially settled in the Toronto and then made their way out to areas in the western part of the province, where it is much cheaper to live. For some residents, this change of complexion, culture and religion represents a threat. Again, we are talking about a very small segment of the population but one that has been very vocal and organized around these presumed threats.
What are the most prominent far-right groups and where are they active?
I think right now, the ones that are the loudest are the Sons of Odin, the Soldiers of Odin, the Three Percenters are making their presence known much more effectively in Alberta. The Sons or Soldiers of Odin are actually popping up in most urban areas; there are chapters across the country. As for La Meute in Québec, they claim 60,000 or more, in terms of online membership, anyway. Blood and Honour and Combat 18 are older groups that have been around for some time. They seem to be regaining their strength, again, mostly in Alberta, and a little bit in B.C. as well. The Skins are active again in Southwestern Ontario; the Hammerskins, mostly out west. The Storm Alliance is mostly online, but they are also active in Ontario.
How do the Proud Boys fit into this picture?
I don’t know what to make of the Proud Boys. The first we heard of them in the Canadian context was down East in Halifax. It seems that they have some chapters popping up in Toronto and Vancouver and possibly elsewhere.
They are an interesting bunch because in the first few YouTube videos they produced, I think early in the new year or sometime in the spring, they look like a bunch of over-age frat boys. They appeared not to be taking themselves too seriously. They had these steps of initiation into the movement, but that was just silliness as well. But I think in Halifax, that was an awakening, that was a new group or a new splinter or a new chapter, and they seemed to take themselves very seriously. I think the Proud Boys were very good in their use of social media and sort of spreading themselves out and other people started to take them seriously and they started to take themselves seriously.
What sorts of texts and historical movements and figures do extreme right-wing groups look to for inspiration, for their ideas, goals and strategies?
Some of the more traditional neo-Nazi groups hark back of course to Nazi Germany, so a lot of their symbolism has to do with numbers associated with Hitler, such as his birthday, August 8. There are certain present-day ideologues, even in the Canadian context, who have provided fodder and whose rhetoric is borrowed from: individuals like Ezra Levant, for example, who is still associated with Rebel and appears at some of the rallies with these people. As I mentioned earlier, some draw on a particular reading of scripture, to various threats, and historically anti- Semitism has its foundations there. There are views stigmatizing LGBTQ communities and women and feminists that are also drawn from very narrow readings and very patriarchal interpretation of scripture.
Far-right groups in Canada also borrow from political rhetoric that we hear around us, from Trump, from Marine Le Pen, from a whole array of far-right political parties in Europe. Many of the groups here are very closely connected to their brethren in Europe. Some of them are offshoots of European groups. I talked about Sons of Odin and Soldiers of Odin. They tend to derive their imagery and messages from Odinist and traditional Viking Runes.
Are there some core issues that are common to most of the far-right organizations?
Historically, the emphasis was on anti-Semitism and anti-black rhetoric. In Canada, that was also accompanied by anti-Indigenous sentiment and attacks on Indigenous communities as well. But it changes and shifts over time, depending on the target du jour, so in recent years we have seen an interesting shift.
I wouldn’t say that anti-Semitism or anti-black rhetoric or anti-Indigenous sentiments have been replaced, but they have been supplemented by a renewed focus or perhaps a new focus on Islam, which is really the target of the animosity of many of the far-right groups in Canada. Immigrants have traditionally been the target of their fear; they defined the threat in terms of whatever group of immigrants was arriving, for example the Irish in the last century. They were constructed by nativists as notwhite and a threat, here to take our jobs. You hear the same rhetoric now about immigrants. Wherever they come from, they are not European. They are here to take our jobs and use up our social services.
Anti-immigrant rhetoric dates back to opposition to Chinese labour in the expansion of the West. Anti- Semitism is also foundational to the ideology of the far right; Jews are held responsible for all manner of threats. They have tried to blame Jews for 9/11, the civil rights movement, globalization, which is a popular boogeyman for them, and they would also say Jews are responsible for multiculturalism, another favorite target.
And what would you say are the key differences between the main groups?
Pegida is one of the groups whose whole raison d’être is to target Islam. It purports to defend us from the threat imposed by Islam in Canada, what Harper referred to six years ago as the “Islamicization of Canada.” That group originated in Europe with the aim of defending against Islam and Sharia Law and that sort of thing. Many of the more traditional groups have had a more extensive list of threats or enemies, but some of them were coming to stand behind Pegida and focus on the Islamic threat. Another difference has to do with the risk of serious violence. The Three Percenters are really better understood as a militia group. You often see pictures of them in camo. They are heavily armed and they are engaging in paramilitary training.
There aren’t that many other groups that are that militaristic in their identity. I think this is a new threat in the Canadian context.
Where are they located?
They have had a presence in Québec for some time, but right now they seem to be concentrated in Alberta, especially in remote areas. They have also been visible as “security” at recent far-right — or as they call them “free speech”— rallies in Ontario. This is a relatively new development. It wasn’t something anyone mentioned outside Québec when we did our study in 2013-2014.There is another difference with respect to of their level of organization. Three Percenters tend to be quite hierarchical, and La Meute tends to be more hierarchical. Many of the groups try to have a leadership structure. Their numbers are smaller. There is a lot of infighting. So many of the groups are relatively disorganized, or at least they were when we began studying them, and tend not to last very long. They morph or splinter into a variety of different groups.
Do the splits have more to do with personality or ideology?
It’s a bit of both. It’s a pissing contest between Alpha males, so they are jockeying for leadership within the group. Sometimes it is about ideology. There is disagreement: “We should be focusing on the Jews, no we should be focusing on the Muslims, no we should be focusing on the Indigenous community,” or sometimes it’s the extremism of the ideology. Some leave a movement because it has become too extreme. Some leave a group because it is not extreme enough, so there are a number of reasons why they splinter, having to do with both the group and the nature of the individuals within the group.
Cartoon by Osmani Simanca, Brazil; Cagle Cartoons.
Well, anything that is global in nature, like multinational corporations, free trade, all connected with that notion of globalization, is for them is a threat on many levels. On the one hand, they see globalization as one of the practices, ideologies, ways of organizing that has contributed to the diversity that we see. Globalization is responsible for mass immigration and the movement of people and things. It also leads to the promotion of inclusion and respect for diversity through political policies and workplace policies. Of course, they oppose all that. And they do tend to be quite isolationist, viewing globalization as a threat to jobs and the economy here, and as a force that allows undeserving nations to benefit from our loss of jobs and control over our own economy.
For the most part, they don’t blame multinational corporations for what they see as their disadvantage and their loss of privilege, however. They are more likely to blame those people who they see as competing for jobs, and particularly immigrants. As for the welfare state and the labour movement, they would put that all down to those left-wing commie pinkos. For most people on the far right, welfare gives unfair advantage to those they label the undeserving poor and lazy people of colour. They see the welfare state and the social safety net as something that doesn’t help them very much, that they don’t have access to, and they believe communities that they consider a threat actually have greater access than them to these sorts of supports.
What social backgrounds do far-right activists come from?
It is increasingly a mixed bag. The vast majority is male and traditionally they have come from workingclass backgrounds. I wouldn’t say underclass or impoverished, but they have seen their families struggle to some extent through the economic recessions and downturns. Now this is probably much more the case in the U.S. than in Canada, since our economy is much more stable. Nonetheless, they have maybe seen their parents struggle through the latest recession. Perhaps they have been unemployed or underemployed for some period of time. Again, they don’t blame corporations, even though we see corporate CEOs with bonuses in the millions, they don’t blame them so much as they blame the labour competition and that sort of thing.
In the last few months, however, we have been seeing a bit of a shift in the demographics, and I think this is attributable to the rise of those who are calling themselves the “Alt-Right.” You see many more people from the middle class, better educated, often employed in very comfortable jobs. Think about the Proud Boys. They are university-educated and working white-collar jobs or at least well-paying blue-collar jobs. So that represents a shift, just as the “Alt-Right” has attempted to modify their posture and self-presentation to appear more articulate and erudite in their argument about the threat. This is where we see the shift in language as well from race hatred and animosity to “defending our rights.” The Proud Boys love the term “Western chauvinism,” which they spin as a preference for their own race, rather than hatred for other races.
There was an article in Maclean’s magazine in 2016 that included right-wing Zionist organizations like the Jewish Defense League, which you referred to earlier, as well as Never Again Canada and Christians United for Israel as part of the “angry, radical right.” Do you agree and how would they relate to other far-right groups which are unfriendly to Jews?
I don’t have a lot to say about that because I have only just begun to think about it, especially in the context of the anti-Muslim demonstrations that we saw in Toronto earlier this year. What we see is some sort of shared animosity towards Muslims, some of which is domestically driven. They share the fear that the growth of Islam will somehow detract from the strength of the Jewish and Christian communities and Jewish and Christian value orientation in the Canadian context, but I think that is exacerbated by what may be in some cases, a shared perspective on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in the Middle East.
What kind of activities do far-right groups engage in?
Well, there is the violence they engage in. We saw over 120 incidents of right-wing extremist violence between 1985 and 2015, typically committed by people who were involved in some sort of organized hate group. The violence ranged from verbal harassment — ongoing, not just one or two throwaway taunts, but ongoing verbal harassment — of individuals and communities to vandalism and graffiti, all the way up to arson and murder. The targets were typically marginalized and stigmatized communities: Jews and Muslims, but also Asians, LGBTQ people, and Indigenous people. There was also some internal violence within groups and between groups associated with jockeying for position. And some violence was directed toward anti-racist organizations as well. There is ongoing violence, but what we have seen a lot of again in the last eight-to-10 months has been a lot more of what you might call small “p” political activity and proselytizing.
Early on during the Trump campaign, we saw pamphleting across cities in Canada with messages about the threat and loss of privilege that they allege is being experienced by white people. Of course, we have seen a lot of online activity: back and forth dialogue, back and forth conversations about what type of threat is posed by immigrants, by refugees, by Muslims, by Jews, by all of these communities, and what we are supposed to do about them. And then there are the rallies. There were some rallies early on, but I think Charlottesville lit a bit of a fuse, so we are seeing even more rallies now.
Does the far right have a distinct social constituency, for example, a class or demographic profile that it draws members from?
Traditionally, the older longer-lived neo-Nazi groups and the like have tended to draw from a white working- class constituency, although, again, we have seen some changes in recent months. They tend to recruit in urban centres, although there is rural activity as well. They are mostly men. Very few women come to the movement. In fact, women and also families play an important role in bringing people out of the movement. Often, former members will talk about how it was their mom or a girlfriend or a wife who finally encouraged them to leave the movement, especially when they are in a relationship and they have children. That is the turning point for them. They don’t want to raise their kids in that kind of potentially violent environment.
They are predominantly white, of course, although there are some exceptions. For example, among the Proud Boys in Halifax there were one or two Indigenous members. It is interesting to see how people who are not white, not Christian, are often exploited in these groups. We saw this in Britain with the BNP bringing Muslims into the movement to defend against the charge of racism. They claim they are inclusive because they have people from this or that racialized community. It is very disingenuous.
Athens, Greece, 2013. By Cogiati, Wikimedia Commons.
You mentioned earlier that there is also a growing tendency to draw from a better educated, college-educated, university-educated white, middle-class element in society. Would you not add them as a potential constituency?
Yes, that is part of the shift we are seeing now. I don’t know how long-lasting it will be, but I do think it is important to highlight the change. It is reminiscent of the 1980s, when David Duke, who was grandmaster of the KKK at the time, said “throw off your white capes and put on your business suits.” Now it’s not business suits so much as Perry Ellis shirts and Lacoste shirts. In another era, we would have called it preppy. It’s a way to sanitize their image and expand the potential constituency.
What might be called “authoritarian professions” — the military, police, prison guards and so on — have apparently proven fertile ground for far-right recruiting efforts in Europe. Is that true in Canada as well?
I certainly think so. We saw it with the Proud Boys but also the Three Percenters. Many of them are men who have had some form of military training, so they have been in the armed services. Either they became radicalized while they were in the armed services or after they came out. They saw the Three Percenters or a similar type of group as an outlet for something they missed from being in the military: the discipline, the paramilitary activity.
This is something that we know very little about. There is absolutely no research in the Canadian context about that. No research about recruitment among law enforcement for example. So I think that is the next step. There is some research in the United States about the military and the cross pollination and the fact that historically there have been a fair number of people in the military that are also part of the movement. There was a time in U.S. history when being in law enforcement meant you were also an honourary member of the KKK, for example. But we haven’t seen much research in recent years, so that is a real gap.
Wouldn’t any recruitment among these groups be done secretly, rather than openly, so it would be difficult to expose it?
Absolutely. You’re not going to get access to the military to do interviews or surveys to find out, and people aren’t necessarily going to admit it either, so there is some methodological difficulty in exploring that any further. The best we can do is a kind of retrospective analysis: speaking to former members about their histories or about who they knew in the movement who was connected to the armed forces or the police.
What about the influence of the far right on campus?
University and even high school campuses have been some of the places where they have tried to recruit. We saw the outcry in response to one of the groups which announced that it was planning to hold a rally at the University of Toronto. I think there may be some people who could be drawn to the movement via on-campus recruiting. If we think about the shooter in Québec City, he was certainly influenced by Trump and Le Pen, and some of these far-right groups, so there is bound to be some influence on college campuses. But I think that as with the general public, a lot of students have been mobisuclized in protest against racism and Islamophobia, so from that perspective, far-right recruiting on campus hasn’t been very effective.
Is there any sign of their infiltrating the media?
Well of course there is the “Alt-Right,” as they call themselves, which has been something of a media darling. And they have their own far-right media. It looks like The Rebel might be collapsing — or rather imploding because of the early sympathy it showed to the emerging far right. I think after Charlottesville, The Rebel shot itself in the foot and lost a number of its members. I think others are bound to pop up in its place with an appetite for that kind of media in the Canadian context.
If you think back, wasn’t it Sun TV that was meant to be a kind of Fox News of the North? It was initially intended to run right-wing commentary, feature ultra-conservative guests and hosts. And it didn’t last long at all. It just wasn’t getting the audience. It failed. It’s been resurrected, to some extent by Rebel media, but even that has become fractured.
I think this sort of extreme media outlet is much less palatable to Canadians than Americans. There is a lot of shock radio in the U.S. From what I’ve read, I think the Radio Poubelle (trash radio) in Québec has played a role in stirring up anti-Muslim sentiment. Again, I think the audiences for that are fairly small across the country, but they will continue to try.
Have you noticed any connection between the rise of the far right and any church organizations?
The one thing that I am hearing about is the connection between Jewish Defence League and some of these groups. In Toronto, when we had some anti- Muslim demonstrations, we had some people from the Jewish Defence League in league, if you will, with the far-right protesters, but beyond that it is not something I have thought very much about. Some of the groups historically have had a foundation in a particular reading of scripture around the chosen people, in terms of Christians being the chosen people and not Jewish people. You don’t hear that idea much from the Canadian far right, not that there aren’t pockets of the religious right across Canada, but they don’t tend to be connected to groups such as Sons of Odin and that sort of thing.
Does the far right have influence in the Conservative Party or regional parties like the Saskatchewan Party?
The parties would say no. We don’t want to associate ourselves. They would distance themselves from those who claim to be part of the movement. I think they recognize that they can’t really afford to have clear and visible allegiances with these groups. Do they share some of the same ideologies? I think they certainly do and we saw that even with the Conservative Party, with Kelly Leitch during the leadership race. She seemed to be emboldened by Trump and figured if he could get away with it, so could she. Again, she would disavow any connection with the groups, but she provided them with some fodder, I think, some credibility.
In the mainstream parties, I think there is a fear about connecting themselves too closely to those groups, but we do see movement members engaging with the political machinery in other ways. In various parts of the GTA, we have seen people affiliated with the far right, running as independents, running on their own slate. There is the Cultural Action Party out of B.C. which has just obtained official political party status and I would certainly identify them as far right, very much opposed to multiculturalism, to current immigration patterns, to Islam as well. So there is an attempt to build political parties, much as we have seen in Europe over the past couple of decades. However, they have not gained much traction.
Do you expect to see these groups getting involved in electoral politics in a way similar to what we are seeing in France, Greece, Italy, Holland, Ukraine and so on?
I certainly see them making that attempt. But I don’t see them having the same broad public appeal as they have had in Europe. I like to think about the last election and the defeat of Harper as a repudiation of identity politics in that respect. We didn’t buy into the Islamophobia and xenophobia that seemed to be not very far below the surface in the last campaign. And with the media here there is less of an appetite for far-right politics.
What about something like the Tea Party in the U.S.?
I think the closest that we have had in terms of having a broad membership is probably the Wildrose Party, but they failed in the last election and are now regrouping under another, not far right, but just right-wing political organization. It’s another indication that there is not that much support for this sort of movement in the Canadian context.
Are there conditions that you think could change that? That could whet the appetite for far-right politics in Canada?
Certainly, I think more charismatic leadership could have an impact; that’s the sort of thing that makes these movements more popular. Marine Le Pen is very charismatic and very appealing in a certain sense, and even Trump, love him or hate him, is charismatic for a certain demographic. So that is one characteristic that often contributes to the success of these types of parties. If we should go into a sudden and drastic economic downturn, I think that could put some wind in the sails of this type of movement. There are a whole series of conditions that haven’t coalesced here.
But we are not immune.
No, absolutely, we are not immune. We have just done a better job, for whatever reason, of negotiating diversity in a way that isn’t nearly as divisive as it is in the U.S. and certainly isn’t as divisive as it has been in Europe. I think one of the differences is that many of the European countries are dealing with a kind of demographic shift that they have really never experienced before. That’s true of many Eastern European countries in particular; there has been religious diversity and difference, but there hasn’t been a lot of racial diversity. There haven’t been a lot of those sorts of divides. Immigration and that sort of demographic shift is something that is very new and jarring to a lot of Europeans, but for us, it is almost part of our fabric. We have become quite accustomed to negotiating biculturalism and finally multiculturalism. We have a longer history of integration and respect for difference.
Are there any features of the far right in Canada that distinguish it from the movements you find in the U.S. or Europe?
Cartoon by Angel Boligan, El Universal, Mexico City; Cagle Cartoons.
Are the groups networking across borders, like in Europe where the far right actually holds international congresses such as the one in Koblenz, Germany, at the beginning of this year?
Absolutely. And that is a fairly longstanding practice now. Even before the internet, they would travel. Canadians would travel to the U.S. and Europe too, to join forces with their counterparts, often in the context of the music scene because that was one of the things that really drew them together. But the networking has certainly been facilitated dramatically by the internet and social media platforms. You do see some international groups, if you can call them that, like Storm Front, which is not so much a group but a forum. There are related Canadian forums, so they are very much in contact with their peers elsewhere. I think that is a really significant development because it means they are not just building a national identity, they are building a global nationalist identity around white European heritage. That is something that is really empowering to those in countries where the movement is smaller, as in Canada.