Since Donald Trump’s election in 2016, far-right hate groups have gained increased attention, especially in the United States. While most attention to far-right hate groups has been aimed at the United States, Canada has its own serious – and growing – problem with far-right hate groups. Although barriers to tracking far-right activity exist, criminologist Barbara Perry estimates that the number of hate groups in Canada has risen by 30 per cent since 2015. Her conservative estimate places the number of far-right groups in Canada at close to 130. According to other studies, however, far-right hate activity has more than tripled in the last 5 years around the world and in Canada.
Far-right hate groups are commonly defined as those which position themselves against some defined group of society, most typically a protected class outlined in Canada’s Criminal Code, Charter of Rights and Freedoms, or Human Rights Code. The most common far-right hate ideologies are anti-Semitic and Islamophobic, although many groups also position themselves against immigrants, women, LGBTQ2IA+ individuals, and other minorities.
Far-Right Hate Groups in Canada
In the last three decades, more than 120 instances of violence have occurred in Canada that can be traced to far-right hate groups. Recent incidents include the Toronto van attack in 2018, which killed 10 pedestrians and injured several others, and the 2017 Quebec City mosque shooting.
But these violent instances are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to far-right activity in Canada. While some members of far-right groups commit violent acts, the vast majority stick to online activity. According to a recent report published by the UK-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue and funded by Public Safety Canada, Canadians are active on more than 6,600 far-right hate channels online.
Such hate groups are a unique type of social group. Members build bonds – often very close relationships – without ever seeing each other’s faces or even knowing each other’s real names. With limited meaningful interaction between members and the outside world, hate groups become echo chambers that allow extreme ideologies to fester.
Challenges to Addressing the Far-Right Hate Group Problem
While the danger posed to society by far-right hate groups is clear, the best route to address their rise is much less clear. Groups are highly disorganized and decentralized, and members hide behind pseudonyms. Furthermore, groups often use sophisticated technologies to evade discovery by law enforcement.
The issue is further compounded by the reality that much of the activity on such chat boards is not clearly criminal. Many members might simply seek friendship and advice from others, without looking to get involved in criminal activity. This is clearly the case with communities such as incels, men who are unable to find a romantic or sexual partner due what they view as a dating hierarchy that gives women a disproportionate level of power. While the ideologies espoused by this group clearly have the potential to lead to dangerous activity and violence, the vast majority of incels never commit mass violence. As a result, disbanding entire chat boards is often deemed unjustifiable by websites hosting some of these forums.
The underground nature of far-right hate groups also makes researching them quite difficult. As a consequence, little is known about the best practices for handling the rise of far right hate groups. To find out more about far right hate groups, increased government attention is needed. Thus far, however, attention from the Canadian government and the public on this issue has been fleeting.
Canada’s Dangerous Myth of Multiculturalism
Aside from the clandestine nature of far-right groups and other issues inherent to accessing these communities, there are several broader barriers to addressing Canada’s far right hate group problem. One major roadblock is the mass national denial of the idea that Canada is not a perfect beacon of multiculturalism. The idea that Canada has one of the highest involvements in far-right hate activity per capita simply does not fit comfortably with our national narrative.
A related issue is that, when far-right hate group members do physically attack, they are often treated as “lone wolves.” Attackers are rarely considered “terrorists,” even when their attacks are clearly motivated by dangerous extremist ideologies. This may be rooted in racist ideas of what a terrorist looks like, as far-right extremist attackers are typically white. While there have been 120 instances of violence motivated by the far right in the last three decades, only seven attacks have been related to Islamist extremism. This reality, however, does not seem reflected in our national psyche.
While addressing far-right hate groups is a difficult task, it is also a pressing one. This is particularly the case as the number of Canadians engaged with far-right groups risks increasing during the pandemic, as youth spend more and more time online and find themselves in precarious financial and social circumstances.