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Fighting the extreme right, building the left

While street mobilization is important, it alone will not be enough to defeat the far-right

Canadian PoliticsEconomic CrisisQuebecSocial Movements

Masked Proud Boys at a protest in Raleigh, North Carolina. Photo by Anthony Crider/Flickr.

This article is a response to “Banning the Proud Boys—be careful what you ask for” by John Clarke, published in Canadian Dimension on January 16, 2021.


The federal government’s addition of the far-right group the Proud Boys to the Criminal Code list of terrorist entities has sparked some debate among progressive groups.

In a recent article in Canadian Dimension, John Clarke argues that we should be wary of relying on the state to legislate against the threat of fascism, partly because it can backfire on the left. He cites the example of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP), which had been charged with “domestic terrorism” by the Toronto Chief of Police for holding an anti-homelessness protest that led to a confrontation. He also reiterates the fact that solidarity with the Palestinian people’s struggle for freedom is often identified by the ruling class as hate speech.

He is right to say that if extreme right-wing organizations can be banned, we must not ignore the dangers for the left that comes with it, or place great hope in the state as our protector. It is the crises of capitalism that create the conditions for the growth of fascism, and we are in such a period of crisis.

If there is a risk of the knife flipping over to the left, then what should we ask for?

For Clarke, part of the answer is in mobilizing. However, while it is true that mobilization in the streets is important and necessary, it alone will not be enough to defeat the extreme right.

The anti-terrorism law: Discretionary and undemocratic

In the first place, one cannot rely solely on an undemocratic and discretionary law. For Dominique Peschard, a long-time activist with the Ligue des Droits et Libertés and co-chair of the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group (ICLMG), the anti-terrorism law is ideological: it applies according to the government’s notion of what a terrorist is. For example, a Muslim group in support of Palestine for the liberation of the Gaza Strip is obliged to have relations with Hamas, but the latter is on the list of terrorist groups. It is therefore deprived of any possibility of financing.

The Criminal Code, which contains the necessary provisions, allows for a public trial and remedies. In fact, reference to the Criminal Code must be made before the anti-terrorist additions of Acts C-36, C-51 and C-59, and it is the Criminal Code that was used in the case of Alexandre Bissonnette, who murdered six worshippers at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Québec City in 2017.

This law is far-reaching and deprives individuals and organizations of their rights without them being able to defend themselves. It could, for example, apply to environmentalists blocking railroad tracks. Its arbitrary nature is particularly evident on the international level, when we look at who is considered a terrorist by Canada.

In a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the ICLMG explains that the use of anti-terrorism laws has been denounced by legal experts, civil liberties organizations and racial justice activists because of the threat they pose to fundamental rights and because they perpetuate the racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia inherent in the ‘war on terror.’

The answer lies instead in what legal, civil liberties and anti-racism experts have called for since 2001: there are tools in the Canadian Criminal Code that can be used to protect our security and combat organized violence, without having to resort to anti-terrorism laws that undermine due process and violate our rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Far-right Storm Alliance protest at the migrant camp at the Champlain–St. Bernard de Lacolle Border Crossing, September 30, 2017. Photo by Harrison-Milo Rahajason/The Link.

The history of the law

Following the events of September 11, 2001, the Government of Canada undertook a review of federal legislation, including the Criminal Code, the Canada Evidence Act and the Proceeds of Crime (Money Laundering) and Terrorist Financing Act.

The Senate passed Bill C-59, the National Security Act, 2017 on June 18, 2019, and the legislation received Royal Assent on June 21.

On June 20, 2017, the Trudeau government introduced Bill C-59, an act relating to matters of national security. According to Dominique Peschard, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) were given new powers to maintain population data sets, subject to ministerial authorization and approval of the new intelligence commissioner. These procedures were designed to be secret, and the new legislation gave CSE legal existence for the first time.

According to the ICLMG, while Bill C-59 made significant improvements, it continued to allow CSIS to exercise secret and dangerous threat-disrupting powers and to preserve overly broad rules on information sharing that infringe on privacy and the freedom of expression. It gave new surveillance powers to the CSE and CSIS, including the collection of metadata, “publicly available information” (which is loosely defined), and “unselected information,” an incredibly broad category that essentially means any information. It also introduced new powers to give CSIS officers, or designated persons, immunity from committing crimes within their jurisdiction. And it allowed the CSE to engage in new and extensive “active cyber operations” with minimal supervision, creating a risk of retaliation, as well as of attacks caused by new cyber weapons.

But if the solution does not lie in the anti-terrorist law, what are the means to be used to defeat the extreme right beyond criminal prosecution?

According to Amnesty International, it is necessary to fight prejudice and demonstrate the false and dangerous nature of these ideas; to fight against unemployment, misery and all forms of exclusion; to listen to the complaints of the population and to work on the ground to solve people’s concrete problems; to facilitate dialogue, meetings and mutual understanding among different religious, political, ethnic, cultural or philosophical communities; to practice “democratic harassment,” offering a firm political response to every expression of the extreme right; and to engage in a legal and institutional struggle against extreme right-wing parties and personalities, in strict compliance with the law and in all cases provided for by it. It is also necessary to respect personal moral values and collective ethics. This respect should be paid to every citizen, political or otherwise. It is also necessary to inform the public about extreme right-wing parties and ideologies and to remove the mask of respectability and denounce their lies.

Other measures include teaching history, educating for tolerance, raising awareness of citizenship—in the family, at school, and within society. It is important not to trivialize the extreme right or racist discourse but to react publicly to it, defending one’s opinions and asserting one’s values. The field of expression cannot be left to them.

And finally, we should remove the ground on which right-wing ideas grow—fight unemployment, inequality, racism, exclusion. It is necessary to politicize these issues and unite people around them.

The rise of the right

The rise of far-right groups corresponds to the rise of the more respectable right. In Québec, even if the extreme right does not represent a new phenomenon, it began to emerge with the rise of identitarian nationalism. More precisely, we can say that this dormant phenomenon took its place in the sun at a time when Québec politics opened a wide space for a discourse of exclusion with the Charter of Values, and all the more so when public figures, like Jean-François Lisée, former Parti Québécois leader, as well as Louis Plamondon and Gilles Duceppe of the Bloc Québécois, openly used the niqab and the burka as scarecrows for electoral purposes. These behaviours contributed to the unleashing of dormant far-right movements.

The Ligue des droits et libertés emphasized in its Portrait de l’extrême droite au Québec, published in 2019, that the project of the Charter of Values seemed to have given political legitimacy to extremist identity-based discourses. In fact, it was from 2015 onwards that a new panoply of nationalist, xenophobic and anti-immigrant groups arose across the province.

In 2016, the head of France’s right-wing Front national party, Marine Le Pen, came to Québec to propagate a vision of the extreme right on what she considered to be fertile ground, emphasizing the issues of “mass immigration or the migratory flood that is at work, not only in the European Union, but here as well.” In the rest of Canada, the rise of the right has been very much linked to the defense of the oil industry and its jobs, hijacking the popular mobilization symbol of the yellow vests in France, which arose in response to the increase in the consumption tax on energy products. A 2019 Globe and Mail survey showed that right-wing extremist groups in Canada are largely composed of radicalized youth, openly portraying themselves as sexist, racist, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic and anti-immigrant.

Fighting the extreme right, building the left

One cannot fight effectively against the extreme right if one does not at the same time understand the importance of building left-wing alternatives.

In Québec, the construction of Québec solidaire has so far made it possible to present an alternative to the nationalist discourse. But the road is still long and perilous. The foreseeable economic crisis resulting from the pandemic, combined with the climate crisis, will require an enormous level of politicization and mobilization and the building of international alliances.

In this respect, we are without real prospects for a left-wing alternative with regard to the federal state itself. The perspective of a Québec socialist state in the context of the struggle for independence is the only visible and possible horizon for Québec’s left movement. But this can only be fully realized in an alliance of the Canadian and Québec working classes and with the Indigenous nations for a broader social change that goes beyond Québec. Indeed, to defeat the right, strong and robust alliances of the left must be built.

Translated with assistance from David Mandel.

André Frappier is a regular contributor to CD and a member of the magazine’s coordinating committee. He also serves on the editorial board of the online weekly Presse-toi à gauche and has been a member of the FTQ Montréal Labour Council for many years.

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