Canada falling behind in response to far-right security threat, experts say

With levels of extremist activity not seen in generations, advocates argue it’s time to do more than just conduct studies
Photo: Michael Burns
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Canada is lagging behind in combating right-wing extremism.

Recent intelligence efforts and new funding to study right-wing groups is not enough, experts argue. The government needs to move beyond just researching groups — and quickly.

“Extremism and extremist sentiment is being normalized in mainstream media, language and communication, and it’s being normalized into children’s lives”

“Extremism and extremist sentiment is being normalized in mainstream media, language and communication, and it’s being normalized into children’s lives,” said Candyce Kelshall, president of the Vancouver branch of the Canadian Association for Security and Intelligence Studies, one of relatively few groups of researchers tracking the growth of the far right in Canada

“That’s something we haven’t seen since the KKK or national socialism.”

Right-wing attacks, protests and groups have become increasingly common in recent years, gaining visibility in media and in mainstream society. The far right resists easy political or organizational definition, though, which is what makes it dangerous, Kelshall said.

Recently, the Canadian government added neo-Nazi network Blood & Honour and its militant wing, Combat 18, to its official list of terror groups.

But these types of groups are often decentralized, functioning more as movements than formal terrorist organizations, and often reform and rebrand at unusual speeds to avoid detection.

“We understand organized crime. We understand groups like the Hells Angels. We understand terrorist groups,” said Kelshall. “We look for hierarchical connections, communication, evidence people have gone over for training, and that’s how we classify actions we would consider to be terrorist.”

Social media fuels spread of extremism

The federal government’s 2018 Public Report on the Terrorist Threat to Canada describes right-wing extremism as “sporadic and opportunistic” — the same language used in 2017’s report.

“CSIS continues to engage government and law enforcement partners on the right-wing extremism landscape and emerging threats and continues to provide extensive analytical advice,” wrote CSIS spokesperson John Townsend in an email, using language directly taken from the 2018 report.

“CSIS has increased its posture to gain a better understanding of the landscape in Canada, gain insight into the key players and assess the nature of the current threat environment.”

44 per cent of Canadians now see the far right as the biggest threat to national security, more than any other movement.

But a January 2019 CSIS report obtained through freedom of information requests includes an international assessment of right-wing extremism, acknowledging “identifying links” between European, American and Canadian movements formed by social media.

“Social media is transnational by nature and allows individuals and groups from around the world to share their extreme right-wing views,” reads the assessment. “Several studies analyzing social networks demonstrate the ease by which European and American extreme right-wing content is consumed by like-minded Canadians.”

In some cases, lone actors are inspired by greater movements even though they may not be an official member of a far-right group, like the perpetrator of the 2017 Quebec mosque shootings.

Reports in the Globe and Mail and VICE have revealed that Bryer Schmegelsky, one of two wanted young men linked to a series of murders in northern B.C., owned Nazi flags and symbols. The exact nature of his motivations, however, remains unclear at this time.

A Mainstreet Poll found 44 per cent of Canadians now see the far right as the biggest threat to national security, more than any other movement. However, many experts in the field say that public response is lagging.

Canada’s response still in the research phase

The 2018 budget earmarked $23 million in funding for Canadian Heritage to “support cross-country consultations on a new national anti-racism approach” in response to “the rise of ultranationalist movements, and protests against immigration, visible minorities and religious minorities.”

Earlier this year, Public Safety Canada announced it would give $366,985 to Dr. Barbara Perry and Dr. Ryan Scrivens of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology to assess the number and membership of far-right groups in Canada. In 2015, they estimated there were well over a hundred.

Experts say this funding is inadequate, and isn’t yet applied towards actual security measures.

“Almost all the funding is in jihadism and countering that terrorism.” said Kelshall. “There’s virtually no funding, with the exception of the recent money, invested by public safety. And that’s it.”

“Almost all the funding is in jihadism and countering that terrorism. There’s virtually no funding ... invested by public safety.”

They also point out ties between anti-hate organizations and law enforcement are often non-existent.

“Our relationship with them is we provide them with information, and we just hope they act on it,” said Evan Balgord, executive director of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network. “It’s completely opaque.”

Balgord said some activists are frustrated with local police, who they see as relatively inactive.

“The impression among the anti-racist community is that they’re not doing anything,” he said. “When it comes to proactively monitoring those hate groups, in general, we don’t see them.”

The 2017 report promised RCMP would begin a “dedicated module” on right-wing extremism as part of its First Responder Terrorism Awareness Program.

In a statement, RCMP spokesperson Caroline Duval wrote that it “is offered to first responders namely health services, police of jurisdiction, firefighters and paramedics, as well as to those with a nexus to critical infrastructure.” She declined to say how many officers were involved in it.

The RCMP also clarified it will not actually investigate these groups unless they have already committed a crime.

“The RCMP does not investigate movements or ideologies but will investigate the criminal activity of any individuals who threaten the safety and security of Canadians,” wrote RCMP spokesperson Michelle Schmidt. “The RCMP investigates any act of potential terrorism regardless of political motivation, including ideologically violent groups such as the far right or the far left.”

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