Far-right extremism growing in Canada

Labour movement continues to play key role in fight against hate and racism

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Q&A with Barbara Perry, a professor in the Faculty of Social Science and Humanities at Ontario Tech University and the director of the Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism. She is an expert in the areas of anti-Muslim violence, anti-Semitic hate crime, the community impacts of hate crimes and right-wing extremism in Canada.

Dr. Perry is conducting research (funded by Public Safety Canada) into hate crimes, far-right extremism and related issues in Canada, building on her earlier research and a study published in 2015.

What were some of the key findings of your 2015 study of racism and hate groups in Canada? 

Our 2015 study was really the first academic exploration of the far-right movement in Canada. We focused primarily on urban areas in Ontario, Quebec, Alberta and a bit in B.C. Even with this fairly narrow focus, we identified more than 100 active far-right groups across Canada. 

We also identified more than 120 incidents of violence associated with the far right between 1985 and 2014 – from assaults on the streets and arsons, to firebombs and homicides. To put that in context, over the same period, we identified eight incidents of Islamist-inspired extremism. 

What are you discovering in the initial stages of your additional research funded by Public Safety Canada? 

About eight months into our new three-year study, we are finding that right-wing extremism is growing. We have now identified close to 300 far-right groups active in Canada, as well as ongoing incidents of non-violent racist behaviour and violent assaults by the far right. Mass murderers informed by some variant of right-wing extremism have killed 19 people in this country. 

The demographics of far-right groups are shifting. While many adherents continue to be young men, the far right is now also becoming a movement of middle-aged adults – often well educated and holding middle-class jobs. 

What factors account for the rise in right-wing extremism in Canada?  

The rise of discourses of hate from the U.S. on social media dramatically affects us in Canada because online discourse has no borders. 

Governments and political parties at various levels in Canada have also engaged in anti-immigrant language and policies, for example, talking about Islamists as the greatest security threat and about it being “offensive” when someone wears a hijab. 

Recent public opinion surveys show that more Canadians say they hold negative views of certain religious and ethnic groups and other marginalized communities, and that more people feel comfortable expressing these opinions, in part because they feel they have more “permission to hate” in light of the normalization of hateful narratives.

Are governments doing enough to respond to the rise in xenophobic hostility?

We’ve seen a number of governments make symbolic gestures over the last couple of years, such as Motion 103 in Parliament that challenged Islamophobia and systemic racism and the Ontario action plan against racism. But that Ontario plan has largely been scuppered by the Ford government, and the Motion 103 follow-up report has seen little tangible follow-up to the recommendations. 

We really need to force our politicians and policy-makers at all levels to make good on those commitments and begin to implement the promises embedded in those initiatives.

One positive step has been that Public Safety Canada has funded more research related to the far right, including our research at the Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism at Ontario Tech University. We are keen to share that knowledge through training and education in the community, but we certainly need more research everywhere. 

What is the role of the labour movement in ending racial discrimination and countering right-wing extremism?

At this particular time in our history, the role of labour in countering discrimination and hate cannot be underestimated. 

Labour must advocate for things such as days of action and anti-discrimination training in the workplace. The Ontario Federation of Labour has done an excellent job in providing leadership and support in these matters. Unions are rightly working hard to raise awareness of the far-right movement and to help individuals learn how to recognize, for example, when one of their workmates may be trying to recruit them to extreme-right causes. 

How else can Ontarians work to ensure that we are building an Ontario for all?

We can really boil it down to three key points: The first is “educate” – educate yourself and educate others about the risks of the extreme right and increasing hate crimes. 

Secondly, “challenge.” This means challenge and demand that our political leaders do more to call out and help solve these problems. 

And finally, “resist.” Show up at rallies and speak out against hate. We continue to see more anti-racists than far-right supporters showing up at right-wing events, and it’s critical that we continue to keep up that presence.