MONTREAL — Concerned that the tide of far-right ideology could become mainstream in Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government has for the first time earmarked millions of dollars in the national budget to counter racism.
The budget, approved in February, stated that diversity was a cornerstone of Canadian identity threatened by the rise of “ultranationalist movements and protests against immigration, visible minorities and religious minorities.” The new funding will bolster the existing Multiculturalism Program.
Canada is worried that such ultranationalist movements could also harbor violent elements. In its annual public report on the terrorist threat to Canada in December, Public Safety Canada listed right-wing extremism as a “growing concern” for the first time. While much of the far-right activity was concentrated online, the report said, there were risks for physical violence.
In the past year, media have reported less than a dozen physical assaults motivated by hate. But the memory of the 2017 shooting at a Quebec City mosque that killed six and injured dozens lingers in Canada. In his trial this week, Alexandre Bissonnette pleaded guilty to six counts of first-degree murders and six counts of attempted murder.
Police-reported hate crimes have been on the rise since 2015, according to Statistics Canada. In the latest data available, in 2016, police-reported hate crimes against Muslim population increased 40 percent compared to 2014. South Asian, Arab and West Asian communities have also been also increasingly targeted.
“The majority, 61 percent of hate crimes targeting Muslim populations, were nonviolent,” said Warren Silver, an analyst at Statistics Canada. “The most common offense was mischief such as vandalism and graffiti.”
But events abroad, including the rallies in Charlottesville and the subsequent car attack that killed one and injured 19 others, contributed to a sense that far-right movements needed to be better understood to prevent potential future violence.
“We've known about the presence of the extreme right for decades, but suddenly, with the international and national context, we've seen a fast growth that needs to be addressed now,” said Michel Juneau-Katsuya, a former intelligence officer specialized in far-right movement with Canada’s spy agency, CSIS.
The country’s far right ranges from small neo-Nazi groups to much bigger nationalist groups that promote anti-Islam and anti-migrant rhetoric online, in demonstrations and at conferences.
Barbara Perry, a far-right specialist at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, said far-right groups in Canada have been growing online and offline. She estimates there are about 125 such groups active in Canada.
“We’ve seen quite a dramatic shift in the past year and a half or so,” she said.
Rising nationalist groups have specifically targeted Muslims and migrants who, they say, threaten Quebec’s and Canada’s Christian and white identity. Interest in these groups has grown alongside the rise of far-right political parties in Europe such as the National Front in France and the political rhetoric coming from the United-States.
“We had some of those fears and then, they were enabled and emboldened by what came up from the U.S. during Trump’s campaign and his subsequent election,” Perry said.
In the year after President Trump's election, more than 20,000 asylum seekers crossed the Canada-U.S. border. Some feared for their safety in the U.S. while others, such as Haitians, began arriving in June 2017 after the Trump administration announced that their temporary protected status would end in January.
The surge in asylum seekers spurred fears of massive unregulated immigration. The Albertan chapter of the paramilitary group the Three Percenters, an offshoot of the American group, warned it would patrol the border while some groups in Quebec organized protests attended by several hundred people in Quebec City and at the border.
In Quebec, far-right groups are having an outsize effect in places where polls regularly show higher anti-Muslim and anti-migrant sentiment than in the rest of the country. According to Maxime Fiset, who works at Quebec’s anti-radicalization center, one of the rising groups, La Meute (The Wolf Pack) has toned down its hateful messages to appeal to a wider audience and become a more legitimate voice.
“La Meute was at first exclusively devoted to fighting Islam,” he said. “Progressively, there’s been a shift in their public communications. The group is now opposing what they call radical Islam.”
The group claims to have 55,000 followers. While experts argue there are more likely 5,000 active members, the growing reach of this far-right group still worries some politicians, including Prime Minister Trudeau.
He addressed them several times including at the commemorations of the first anniversary of the Quebec City mosque shooting, where he referred to them in French as “racists” and “dumdums who walk around with dog paws on a T-shirt” who contributed to inflaming tensions. La Meute was not involved in the mosque shooting.
But Trudeau's Liberal Party has warned the government to tread carefully in its efforts to address racism and nationalism. A previous motion by the party to condemn Islamophobia last year sparked a major backlash and outrage in the opposition Conservative party.
“The risk is it sort of feeds into [the far right’s] victim mentality now they're being targeted by the government,” Perry said. “It could have a backlash in terms of further entrenching their positions.”