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From Direct Action to Terrorism: Canadian Radical Right Narratives and Counter-Narratives at a Time of Volatility

From Direct Action to Terrorism: Canadian Radical Right Narratives and Counter-Narratives at a Time of Volatility
23rd September 2021 Dr. William Allchorn
In Insights

For several years now, radical right extremist groups and their terror potential have been on the radar of Canada’s Security and Intelligence Services. Noted as a growing threat, after an attack on three police officers in June 2014, another attack on the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City in January 2017 and the recent proscription of Blood and Honour and Combat 18 in June 2019, events all point to how ideologies of older white supremacist groups have been supplemented with anti-Muslim and alt-right sentiment within the more violent parts of this extremist milieu.

Indeed, in recent years, the main modus operandi of radical right extremist groups animating the Canadian scene have been direct-action style activism and protest orchestrated by the likes of PEGIDA, Soldiers of Odin (SoO) Canada, La Muete (“The Pack”) and Storm Alliance. In May 2019, for example, SoO Canada were banned from holding events at a Canadian Royal Legion facility, after a directive was issued by the National Command. Moreover, and as shown with groups like PEGIDA, Proud Boys and Church of the Creator, the international synergies and overlaps with other radical right extremists (both south of the Canadian border in the US and through national chapters of international groups) have also been notable, displaying the transnational nature of these movements, both in Canada and internationally. In particular, what is significant about the Canadian radical right scene is its inherent instability – with around 130 groups active there alone.

Radical Right Extremist Groups and Narratives in Canada: Ascendant Anti-Government Extremism, Persistent Anti-Muslim Populism & Ethno-Nationalism

In the most recent country report for the CARR-Hedayah Radical Right Counter-Narratives (RRCN) project, we researched sixteen radical right organisations and influencers that have been active in recent years; organised according to the mainstreamness of their ideology and propensity for violence. Moving from white supremacist gangs to identitarian groups the report tracked the evolving repertoire of action and violence within Canada’s radical right extremist scene. From the murder of six worshippers at Quebec’s Islamic Cultural Centre in 2014 to the ten individuals mown down by an incel-inspired van attack in 2018, it is clear that extremist lone actors and vigilante-style action by street-based radical right groups have been painting a concerning threat picture for some time – even prior to the government’s banning of several radical right extremist organisations in the country.

Turning to the narratives propagated by the groups themselves, these – like much of the organisation and trajectory of the radical right extremist scene itself – have seen Canadian radical right extremist actors mobilise around an increasingly concerning set of anti-Muslim, ethno-nationalist, and anti-government narratives. For example, La Muete – suffering splits in 2017 and 2019 – would commonly dabble in anti-Muslim rhetoric, stating that: “Islam is misogynist, homophobic, racist, anti-Semitism and violent.” Moreover, anti-immigrant, ethno-nationalist statements were found to be common among anti-Islam street movements, with the bylaws of the Canadian Chapter of Soldiers of Odin stating: “Between the [sic] allowing of illegal aliens into this country and giving them the ability to vote and drive, […] we as Soldiers of Odin realize that it is time to take back our streets, provinces, and country.” Furthermore, and an area of concern within the report, was several Canadian groups (e.g. Yellow Vests, Three Percenters, Atalante & Northern Guard) whose narratives paint a concerning threat picture both in terms of potential and actual radicalisation of citizens, with an increasing threat narrative around the government taking away ordinary citizens’ rights. For example, the Canadian chapter of the Three Percenters suggested “You cannot have our Life our Liberty or our Property without a fight. We are the Last Line of Defence” whilst the Northern Guard also issued the call for action that: “Our mission is to uphold the constitution, protect our Charter of Rights and protect our Canadian citizens from threats both foreign and domestic.”

Radical Right Countering Violent Radical Right Extremism in Canada

Throwing some light against the shade of increasingly violent actors on the Canadian radical right, what was notable when reviewing counter-narrative campaigns for the Canadian report was simply the breadth and history of programming that has been going on in the radical right space over the past ten years. They encompassed both international but also community and University-based initiatives to creatively use strategic communications to either proactively or reactively dial back vulnerabilities to radicalisation in new and innovative ways, and reflects the seriousness with which radical right extremism is taken in the Canadian context.

The first and earliest recent project noted in the report was Against Violent Extremism (AVE) network’s ‘Communitas’ project. Started in 2014, the goal of Communitas was to strengthen individual and community resilience through social interdependence, active citizenship, dialogue, and youth leadership. A second project of note was Extreme Dialogue, a counter-narrative project launched in 2015 by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD). Combining multimedia educational resources with short documentary films, the aim of the project was to develop students’ critical thinking skills and resilience to radicalisation, explore shared values, and challenge various types of extremist propaganda and ideologies. Extreme Dialogue began in Canada in 2015, and was also launched in the UK, Germany, and Hungary in 2016 with new films and resources featuring the stories of people from those three countries.

A third, more targeted initiative launched in the same year in the UK, USA, and Canada was ISD’s One-to-One programme. A small-scale pilot programme in collaboration with Curtin University, the project used ten former extremists (including five former far-right extremists from North America) to send a direct message to try and start a dialogue and sow initial seeds of doubt around the validity of extremist groups and narratives with 160 individuals considered at risk or already expressing sympathies for extremist organisations.

Moving on, there have been several University based initiatives to counter violent forms of right-wing extremism in recent years. In the wake of a terror attack in Edmonton, Alberta in 2017, for example, students at the University of Alberta created a six minute video that takes the viewer through the process of an individual being groomed into radicalisation as a result of the attack and their realisation of the simplistic and binary narratives of radical right extremists. It then leaves the viewer with the question of “Who do you want to be?”. Using such a question allowed the viewer to make up their mind after sowing a seed of doubt.

On a similar note, a more creative arts-based and research-led approach saw the launch of Concordia University’s SOMEONE (SOcial Media EducatiON Every day) initiative in April 2016. Using a web-based portal of multimedia materials aimed at preventing hate speech against ethnic minorities and building resilience towards extremism. One project that has gained particular traction is the ‘Landscape of Hate’ Project that aims to promote a dialogue about how to deal with anti-minority hatred through panel discussions, debates, live art expositions and performance. Since its launch in 2017, the project has put on six events globally, with a wide mixture of artists, researchers, and former extremists taking part in order to breakdown simplistic binary narratives of ‘Us’ versus ‘Them’ that radical right extremists frequently perpetuate.

Conclusions and Recommendations

The Canadian radical right counter-narrative report tracked radical right extremist narratives and counter-narratives at a time of increased volatility within the radical right extremist milieu in Canada. Moving from street-based activism into more direct action, vigilante forms of political violence, it uncovered the scope of violent lone actor potential within an aging movement that has recently transformed from blood-and-soil racism and into a more coded form of cultural nationalism. It also highlighted several groups (e.g. Three Percenters, Atalante & Northern Guard) whose narratives paint a concerning threat picture both in terms of potential and actual radicalisation of citizens. Added on to this, we have found specific anti-Muslim populist, ethno-nationalist, anti-government and strong-state narratives that have a deep resonance in the Canadian context, suggesting a wider pool of support than the radical right extremist groups themselves.

In response to such volatile circumstances, practitioners would be advised to find ways to interdict spaces and places populated by radical right activists in Canada (both in the online and offline space) using targeted counter-narrative campaigns focusing on the ideological specificities of groups themselves but also the more eclectic grievances voiced by individuals in the online space. Here, it is important to note that several seminal programmes have already attempted to distribute radical right extremist counter-narratives in the Canadian context. By building Canada-specific counter-narratives into and on top of the Extreme Dialogue, One-to One and Ctrl+Alt+Del-Hate initiatives, it might be possible to disrupt and de-legitimise anti-Muslim populist, ethno-nationalist, anti-government and strong-state narratives that permeate online echo chambers and filter bubbles. Moreover, by rolling such programmes out at scale in the offline space, it might be possible to inure civil society against the harms of radical right extremism (especially in the diverse contexts of Toronto and Vancouver). By building on the good practice shown before and recognising the emerging lone-actor threat, Canada will stand a better chance of building resilience and sensitising itself to solo actors that might be at risk of engaging in autodidactic radicalisation in the online space going forward, as tragically illustrated in the recent London, Ontario terror attack.