In the first year of the pandemic, Alberta has seen a rise in hate motivated attacks and the visibility of organized hate groups.
Recently, a video of a man in a shirt reading “Proud White Christian Man” punching a counter-protester at a demonstration against public health measures in Calgary has been shared widely on social media and in the mainstream press alike. Though egregious, assaults associated with anti-mask rallies have been infrequent. The soft violence of hate symbols and racist rhetoric, however, are commonplace.
One month before, on February 20, the same Walk for Freedom group that organized the event in Calgary staged a demonstration in Edmonton. Promotional images from the “Jericho Torch March” used pictures from the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, North Carolina, in 2017.
Undeterred by criticism, demonstrators proceeded to march to the legislature with tiki torches and banners. Snaking through the streets with them were individuals associated with hate groups and members of patriot militias.
“These are transitioning to white power demonstrations,” warned Ward 9 councillor Gian-Carlo Carra at a Calgary Police Commission meeting following the incidents in Calgary.
The anti-mask rallies have been near weekly events since the summer, and there has been a consistent presence of identifiable far-right extremists like the Soldiers of Odin, Three Percent Militia, and—until they were declared a terrorist organization in February of this year—the Proud Boys.
Even with negative attention and condemnation coming from public officials, it appears the confidence of these far-right groups is growing in stride with the increasingly emboldened anti-lockdown community.
“They love to get involved in different protest movements,” explains John McCoy, Executive Director of the Organization for the Prevention of Violence. The OPV is an Edmonton based think tank that monitors extremism in the province.
As happened with the Yellow Vest protests of 2019, members of far-right groups become active within reactionary movements and attempt to exert influence over them.
“Sometimes those individuals have tried to place themselves in leadership roles in those movements, but the results for those protest movement itself has usually been very negative for that movement as a whole,” says McCoy.
While they may find sympathy from some sections of the protest movements, people who joined them only because they are upset about health restrictions or the state of the economy are put off by the presence of hate groups, and many do not return.
With heightened public focus on the racist elements within the anti-lockdown protests, organizers and sympathizers have turned their efforts to disavowing these groups and members and assert that anyone is welcome.
Following the assault in Calgary, one organizer circulated a call via Telegram for “natives, asians, blacks, Hispanics, east Indians, and basically anyone thats not white [sic]” to help form an ethnic coalition within their movement, to join future protests and carry signs to prove to the media and the world that their group is not discriminatory.
There is much to be said about the implicit racism of anti-mask and COVID-denying groups, but to what extent is the involvement of the overt racist elements in these protests reflective of the strength of their organizations?
The pandemic has provided an opportune environment for the far-right to recruit. During economic downturns, when people’s incomes are precarious and their anxieties elevated, xenophobic sentiments predictably rise.
Every recession comes with a scapegoat, and this time is no exception. Discrimination against Asian communities has spiked over the last year, and a recent wave of attacks on Muslim women in Alberta give measure to how hostile the climate has become.
At the same time, the conditions imposed by the pandemic have hindered the far-right’s ability to exploit this situation.
“In some ways, somewhat counterintuitively, for some of these groups their activity has really fallen off,” McCoy says, “because there are limited avenues for organizing in person in any sustained way.”
Many of these groups rely on their ability to organize in public spaces, something that has been obstructed by the limitations on social gatherings imposed through public health measures. Events that branch out into the general community, like the Sons of Odin dinner organized at a Grande Prairie Legion hall, were methods that these groups relied on to improve their public image and to compensate for their diminished reach on social media.
With the de-platforming of racist and extremist groups that have occurred, and the unwanted attention being given to these groups’ online activity by activists and journalists, they have been unable to maintain the pool of supporters that made their offline activity possible.
Patriot and militia groups provide a clear example of this. The Three Percent Militia, an anti-Islamic group that promotes survivalism and arms training, had its beginnings in Canada as a nationwide Facebook group in 2015. The group translated this online attention into regional chapters, finding particularly fertile ground in Alberta where the oil price plunge and election of Rachel Notley had created widespread, if misdirected, discontent.
These groups, with their prominent anti-government ideology, capitalized on the endemic hostility towards the newly elected premier and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to draw people into their organizations.
According to the OPV’s 2019 report on extremism, these favourable conditions allowed patriot and militia groups in Alberta to grow at the fastest rate since “the Klu Klux Klan in the 1920s and 1930s.”
Though once boasting thousands of followers online and between 300-500 active members, the monitoring of white supremacist activity on Facebook and other major platforms has all but eliminated this base. The groups can no longer engage in the large community events that made their organization popular, and the large online support pages have disappeared—though members of the Three Percenters still maintain a page promoting survival training that is “used for recruitment purposes only.”
There is no sure way to know how this shrinking reach will affect the stability of these far-right groups, or whether it will be long lasting. Using the size and volume of far-right organizations to measure the threat of hate and violence in the province may also give a skewed perspective of the situation.
“When you start to focus too much on group versus movement-based phenomena, you lose the essence of what’s going on,” says McCoy.
“So much of it is taking place among individuals who identify with the movement but lack that physical connection or have a very limited physical connection to the movement.”
With only a few search terms separating the average person from virtually any type of information they might be interested in, the group dynamics that have traditionally fostered extremist ideologies are no longer necessary.
As was the case for many, someone who was largely apolitical before April of last year may have been exposed to the “Plandemic” documentary or the like through social media. With the explosion in conspiratorial misinformation involving COVID, they could easily migrate to more grandiose theories.
Within a few months the language of “globalists” and “Q” and “the deep state” was a part of their vocabulary. And, in a relatively short amount of time, they had been incited to act on these new beliefs such as joining an anti-lockdown protest or postering their neighbourhood.
Thousands of Americans with no history of political action quickly became enraptured with Q Anon theories and fell into an internet rabbit hole that emerged at the steps of the Capitol.
This same process is driving the violent activity associated with hate groups.
“What exists today is an extremist marketplace of ideas that exists primarily online,” McCoy says. “So if some kid in rural Saskatchewan becomes interested in new age neo-Nazis and accelerationism, they can start talking with people on certain platforms and identify themselves with Atomwaffen or The Base. But have they ever gone to a rally or met anyone? No.”
While the number of terrorist attacks has been declining over the last few years, those carried out by members of the far-right in the West have increased 250 percent since 2014.
Violence carried out by the far-right is now the most frequent and deadly form of extremism threatening the West.
In the Global Terrorism Index 2020 report, the researchers confirm that “the majority of far-right terrorist attacks are carried out by lone-wolf actors who are not affiliated with a specific terrorist group or far-right organisation, even though they may have had contact with other far-right individuals, or been inspired by other far-right attacks.”
In far-right online communities, the people who carry out these attacks are venerated. Icons of the Christchurch shooter, Brenton Tarrant, are shared on message boards and public channels, and his killings continue to inspire others to carry out violent acts on their own.
This trend in far-right extremism challenges how we think of radicalization and presents an even greater challenge in confronting it. Outside of internet forums, these extremists may never give any prior indication of the ideology that, in the end, inspires their violence.
Thomas Dang, NDP MLA for Edmonton-South, put forward a motion on March 22 that would ban the use of racist symbols and demonstrations. With it there would be consequences for those flying the Confederate flag, or white nationalists organizing torch marches.
These symbols antagonize racialized communities, promote the acceptance of racism, and have no place in public spaces. They are also symbols more firmly rooted in the American context. You would sooner find fascists in Canada flying the Red Ensign than the rebel flag. Because extremist culture now primarily exists online, it is subject to the same rapid turnover of memes that make legislating against its symbology virtually impossible.
“The process that’s going on there challenges us to think about what radicalization looks like,” McCoy reflects about the spread of extremism online, “and the type of radicalization we’re concerned about in a democratic society.”
Brett McKay is a writer and journalist based in Edmonton, AB. You can contact him here.