These groups are trying to expose right-wing extremists in Canada
Alex gets home from work most nights and turns on his computer to scroll through a familiar roster of right-wing extremist sites and chatrooms.
He’s not a participant — he’s a covert agent, using aliases honed over years to sneak in and out of online fora to gather intelligence, sometimes by befriending enemies. Many of his findings will end up on a blog he runs, and sometimes he’ll notify the police about alarming activities, but he says they rarely take the tips seriously.
It’s a pastime that doesn’t come without risk: He and his rag-tag group of volunteers who run the Anti-Racist Canada blog — one of the only sites that exposes right-wing extremist activities in the country — are threatened with violence, bombings, and even death.
“This is something you see people saying in the U.S. Now we have similar situation in Canada.”
On this night, he’s digging into the case of an Edmonton man who allegedly threatened two Muslim women at a public transit station with a noose, saying: “This is for you.” He looks at photos online of the suspect. A white male, likely in his 60s, with a thin build and thick black glasses. He could be somebody’s grandfather. (Since then, the man has been released by police without charge, but remains a person of interest in the case.)
“This is something you see people saying in the US,” said Alex in a phone call from an undisclosed location. “Now we have similar situations in Canada.”
On Sunday, a lone gunman opened fire inside a Quebec City mosque during Sunday evening prayers, killing six and wounding many more.
While the motives behind the shooting remain unconfirmed, the alleged perpetrator is Alexandre Bissonnette, a 27-year-old Quebecer who seems to hold right-wing sympathies, based on media interviews with those who know him.
Alex, from Anti-Racist Canada, spoke to VICE News before the Quebec carnage unfolded, breaking a self-imposed rule of not speaking to media, citing the recent amplification of the hatred and intolerance as what made him change his mind. He’s keeping his identity anonymous for fear of backlash.
Confrontations between right-wing extremists and those who oppose them are moving from online corners to the real world, including one alleged incident in Vancouver involving a pepper spray assault.
South of the border, tensions flared up at President Donald Trump’s inauguration in Washington D.C. after white nationalist and leader of the so-called “alt-right” Richard Spencer was punched in the face, twice, while posing for a photo. Spencer blamed “antifas” — anti-fascists — although the assailant was masked, and vowed to create an “alt-right” vigilante force for protection.
In Canada, there’s also concerns about potential clashes among those at opposite ends of the political spectrum as right-wing extremists ramp up their tactics. It all amounts to a recipe for more chaos, experts fear.
“We’re coming out of a long period of complacency,” said Jay, a member of Antifa Vancouver, an organization that has faced off with B.C. chapters of Soldiers of Odin. “Now it’s becoming obvious that there needs to be a sustained infrastructure in place, because it’s not just going to be these isolated events every few years anymore. At least that’s not how it feels to me.”
As incidents of right-wing extremism spread across the country since Trump came to power, so too have efforts to combat them by long-standing leftist groups. They’re starting to employ more aggressive tactics to match their increasingly brazen counterparts — like the Soldiers of Odin, a group with Finnish neo-Nazi roots that now has chapters all across North America.
Members of the Soldiers of Odin patrol their neighborhoods under the guise of keeping the public safe, but its members have been accused of sympathizing with white supremacy, and the group is widely seen by experts as one of Canada’s biggest right-wing threats. That’s why Jay, who is maintaining his anonymity, says he feels even more compelled to take the anti-right wing efforts into his own hands.
The former club bouncer says he and other Antifa members are taking weekly self-defense classes, and are already planning a spate of demonstrations this year, including one event last month at a Sikh temple in Abbotsford against the Ku Klux Klan.
There’s no real-time national tracker of hate crimes or extremist incidents in Canada, so data collection is up to informal groups, nonprofits and independent researchers. Police departments keep their own data as well, and report it to the federal government — though the data is inconsistent and often out of date.
But Jay sees reminders that right-wing extremism is thriving every day. Over the last several weeks, pamphlets promoting the KKK were distributed in an Abbotsford neighborhood for the second time, and members of hate groups continued their acts of violence and intimidation in the Vancouver area.
The rest of the country has seen countless similar acts. Last year, a bloody pig head was left on the doorstep of the Quebec City mosque — the same one that was the scene of the shooting massacre this week — and posters promoting white pride were plastered around neighborhoods in Toronto, Edmonton and B.C. Last month, police in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario announced they were investigating a swastika carved in the snow in front of a Jewish woman’s house.
“There’s a sense of holy shit this problem has been fermenting for a long time,” said Jay. “These people didn’t spring out of nowhere.”
A big difference between Antifa and Alex’s anti-racist group is that Antifa is ensconced in an international anarchist movement in which many, though not all, members reject the validity of police and the nation state. Antifa is more inclined to organize events and protests as opposed to reporting on them from a distance, like Anti-Racist Canada does.
“There’s a sense of holy shit this problem has been fermenting for a long time. These people didn’t spring out of nowhere.”
Antifa claim their comrades were recently involved in a particularly aggressive confrontation, when, according to them, right-wing extremists attacked a group of people gathering at a space known for leftist activities in downtown Vancouver with pepper spray on New Year’s Eve. Though Antifa is still investigating, they’re pointing fingers at the Soldiers of Odin.
“Obviously it was a wakeup call,” Jay said of the attack. “People [in the group] are understandably angry and I’m trying to be a sobering influence on people because I really don’t think escalation is a good idea at this time … I don’t think my community is prepared for that yet.”
Mike Montague, the president of the Soldiers of Odin Tricity B.C. Chapter, vehemently denied the accusations in a text message to VICE News.
“To be honest, when I was made aware of this claim of violence against them it really came as no surprise, as Vancouver Antifa has on numerous occasions spread multiple lies about our organization when it comes to racism within our club here in Canada,” wrote Montague. “Honestly I find it hard to take anything they say seriously.”
Barbara Perry is an expert on Canadian right-wing extremist groups at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology. She co-authored the most current and comprehensive study on the phenomenon in Canada, uncovering the existence of at least 100 such groups across the country. The report raises concerns that far too much public energy and policy is focused on the threat of jihadism, when right-wing radicals, especially as “lone wolves” pose a significant threat.
A starting point for her work on tracking right-wing groups was the blog run by Anti-Racist Canada. However, she warns it can include hearsay and rumors.
“We don’t have any monitoring going on at a local law enforcement level, nevermind at the federal level,” she said. That’s why group’s like Anti-Racist Canada and Antifa can play an important role, but their information and methods ought to be confirmed and kept in check.
The Vancouver Police Department, for example, says it would investigate any credible information suggesting a group intended to “jeopardize the safety, security, harmony and acceptance” of people in Vancouver. But it also had a word of caution.
“For safety and investigative reasons, we don’t encourage others to take those criminal investigations into their own hands,” said Staff Sergeant Randy Fincham in an email.
While most of the articles on the blog take on insider aspects of the right-wing movement, they also provide a glimpse into the inner workings of the groups.
Recent posts delve into the views of someone identified as the president of the Soldiers of Odin’s Moose Jaw chapter, complete with screenshots of his activities on Facebook that show him praising white nationalism. Another is an interview with a former leader of a Quebec Soldiers of Odin branch who reportedly left after becoming disillusioned with the group.
“This is something you see people saying in the U.S.. Now we have similar situation in Canada.”
Alex says the group’s biggest success comes when right-wing extremists disavow their ideology and leave the groups. And, although there’s no way to measure it, he believes his articles and attempts to call people out for threats of violence may have helped curb attacks or other public gatherings.
“One of the values of publicizing these groups is that they’re like cockroaches: they scurry when light hits,” says Alex.
One former leader of a white supremacist group from B.C., who wished to be referred to only as ‘Dave,’ over fears of violent backlash from people in his past, said he and his colleagues used to check Anti-Racist Canada on a regular basis. “The site was the enemy of the white race, in their mind,” said Dave. And when group members were profiled on the site, it would force them to hide their activities or lay low for awhile.
“It really affected the goings on in a lot of the groups because sometimes you will get infighting, which would weaken it in the long run,” he said. “I think groups like Anti-Racist Canada know more than the cops.”
Perry said she’s not surprised that conflict is rife among anti-fascists and right-wing groups, and warns that it’s difficult to get out of that circle of violence and intimidation.
“There’s so much more attention and chatter from the right-wing, that [anti-right wing groups] feel their role is to step up their efforts as well and to parallel the growth of the right wing with increasing the strength and capacity of the left,” she said. “I don’t think they’re terribly effective aside from drawing attention to the issue.”
She pointed out that it’s more effective to combat right-wing extremists by presenting “alternative narratives” that reinforce Canadian values around respect, rather than confronting the racists head on in ways that could result in more conflict.
“An aggressive stance can sometimes further anger and alienate the targets as well,” she said.