Does Canada take the threat of far-right extremism seriously?
Despite the recent racist violence in the U.S., and an increase in right-wing extremist activity here in Canada, experts disagree about whether Ottawa should make such groups a national security priority.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, Canada’s intelligence community has devoted much of its attention to preventing Islamist terrorism.
While right-wing extremism, including the activities of neo-Nazi and other racist groups, is monitored by CSIS and the RCMP, it doesn’t receive the same amount of resources as threats from ISIS or al-Qaeda.
Yet the outburst of deadly racist violence in Charlottesville, Va., last weekend is not without parallels in Canada. Recent estimates suggest there are dozens of active white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups across the country.
They advocate everything from biological racism to anti-Semitism to radical libertarianism. Members of groups such as the Heritage Front, Freemen of the Land and Blood and Honour have been charged with dozens of crimes, including murder, attempted murder and assault.
Roughly 30 homicides in Canada since 1980 have been linked to individuals espousing some form of extreme right-wing ideology.
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But the pattern of right-wing extremist violence in Canada is too inconsistent to merit being prioritized over the threat posed by Islamic extremists, according to two former members of the security establishment.
“I do think right-wing extremism is a national security problem, but we’re not devoting the resources to it because we don’t need to,” said Phil Gurski, a former CSIS analyst who now runs a security consulting business.
“I have seen nothing to suggest that they pose an equally dangerous threat as that posed by Islamist extremism, which in and of itself is still a fairly minor threat in Canada.”
The limited national security resources devoted to right-wing extremism is also based on a belief that such groups are fractious, ideologically incoherent and engage mainly in lower-level crime such as robbery or graffiti, said Stephanie Carvin, a former national security adviser for the Canadian government.
“The violence that results [from right-wing extremist groups] tends to be dealt with more at the police level than the national security level,” said Carvin, who teaches courses about security and terrorism at Carleton University in Ottawa.
“If you just look at the sheer number of cases of individuals who are foreign [jihadist] fighters, or potential foreign fighters or returnees, it still outweighs the potential actors on the far right.”
A dangerous oversimplification?
As recently as January, just days before the deadly shooting at a Quebec City mosque, a threat assessment based on input from Canada’s intelligence and law enforcement agencies determined there was “no indication that right-wing extremists pose a threat to migrants.”
CSIS’s own website says the threat posed by the extreme right has “not been a significant a problem in Canada in recent years. Those who hold such extremist views have tended to be isolated and ineffective figures.”
But the Quebec City shooting, which police believe was carried out by an individual holding anti-immigrant views, raised questions about the accuracy of the security establishment’s estimation of right-wing extremism.
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James Ellis, a Vancouver-based terrorism scholar affiliated with the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society (TSAS), said it’s a dangerous oversimplification to portray the majority of far-right groups in Canada as too disorganized to pose a serious threat to national security.
“You’re essentially taking your eye off the ball,” said Ellis, who until recently maintained the Canadian Incident Database, which tracks acts of terrorism between 1960 and 2015.
“The data suggests that right-wing extremism is certainly on par if not exceeding the threat from Islamic terrorism cropping up within Canada itself.”
The extremist threats division of Quebec’s provincial police told a Senate committee in 2014 that the majority of its open files dealt with the “extreme right.” In a widely circulated 2015 study, researchers estimated there were roughly 100 active white supremacist or neo-Nazi groups across the country.
“[Right-wing extremists] are becoming ever bolder and quite comfortable in the public eye,” co-author Barbara Perry told CBC News earlier this week.
“Even a year, or a year and a half ago, they were pretty much relegated to the online, social media forums.”
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The proliferation of right-wing extremist groups in the U.S. should also give Canadian authorities pause, Ellis said. There is significant cross-border activity among these groups, who have been known to exchange weapons training and funding.
“It’s just the same sort of things you would see with ISIS and al-Qaeda, but for some reason we just don’t think it’s a big deal,” he said.
Role of police
Ottawa recently created a national anti-radicalization centre, which Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale’s office says will play an important role in the fight against extremism of all stripes.
“From the tragic mosque shooting in Sainte-Foy, Quebec, to the interception of a potential bomber in Strathroy, Ontario, recent events have underlined that there is no single ideology or cause of radicalization to violence and that prevention must be an essential component of Canada’s counterterrorism strategy,” spokesperson Scott Bardsley said in a statement Tuesday.
But the reluctance of the Canadian intelligence community to devote significant resources to far-right extremism has meant much of the onus for monitoring these groups has fallen to police forces.
And their efforts are uneven across the country.
Perry’s 2015 study, co-authored with Ryan Scrivens, suggests the commitment is particularly weak in many rural areas.
Even in urban centres, the study found, officers “tend to deny the presence and threat of activists in the community.”
At hearings before the Senate’s national security committee in 2014, Quebec provincial described their proactive “broken windows” approach to policing extremism.
Rather than wait to gather enough evidence to prosecute extremists under terrorism sections of the Criminal Code, the Sûreté du Québec will pursue lesser charges, such as distributing hate literature, to prevent possible escalation and violence.
Montreal police established a dedicated hate crimes unit last year. Its officers will often visit with individuals they’ve spotted making questionable comments online.
Sgt.-Det. Stéphane Roch, an investigator with the unit, boasted of the technique’s success to the CBC earlier this year.
“We don’t ever see that again from them because they realize they went too far.”