Last week’s crisis in the US Capital has prompted a public debate in Canada about white extremism within its own borders.
Last weekend, Canada's Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said the government is considering designating the Proud Boys, a far-right extremist group involved in the US Capital riots, a terrorist group. The group was founded by a Canadian and supports US President Donald Trump.
David Hofmann, a professor of sociology at the University of New Brunswick, has studied the rise of white extremism in Canada. He spoke to The World’s host Marco Werman about the rise of right-wing extremism in Canada that is inspired by the US.
Marco Werman: Designating the Proud Boys a terrorist group — what would that change and how important you think this consideration is?
David Hofmann: It has symbolic value. But as an expert in this field, I am of the opinion that it doesn't have any real strategic value. What it means is essentially that they can be tried and be found criminally liable under the Canadian Criminal Code for group membership. So typically we do not outlaw group membership in Canada. You can — in the case of even organized crime — you could be a member of an organized crime group, you could be a card-carrying mafia member. But that is not technically illegal in Canada. It's the activities associated with being a member of that group. So when one of these groups is designated as a terrorist group in Canada, group membership is then illegal and they can be tried just for being a member. And here's the problem. If the Proud Boys does get designated a terrorist group in Canada, it'll cause them to dissolve, but the members still are present. It doesn't change the members' ideas. What's going to happen and what actually frequently happens in the Canadian context, and the American context as well within a far-right extremist movement, is they fracture and they reform and form frequently.
Beyond just the Proud Boys, you've also been tracking the rise of other white extremist groups in Canada. What is going on?
Probably the biggest development and the most concerning to Canadian scholars of far-right extremism is the presence of American-style paramilitaries in Canada. As of 2016, we have in every single province in Canada at least one American-style militia group of individuals carrying assault weapons, engaging in military-style exercises on the weekend. And probably more shockingly, their ideology surrounds this concept that there's some sort of inevitable conflict, usually racially based, sometimes based on religion, sometimes a mixture of both, where they're preparing themselves to survive some sort of cataclysmic apocalyptic event. And they'll emerge from this event to establish a white ethnonationalist state. It's again, this transplanting of the extreme far-right ideas from the United States into Canada.
I know you've also noticed some demographic shifts in who's joining these groups. What are you seeing?
Yeah, when we were thinking of far-right extremists in the '80s and '90s, typically it was an overall masculine demographic and a young masculine demographic within the last five to seven years or so in Canada. It's not just the young, angry white men anymore. We've seen an increase in older men. Women are also getting increasingly involved. And this is something that gets overlooked very often, not only in the Canadian literature but in the American scholarly literature on the far-right extremism.
You mentioned the Canadians who are emulating American-style militias. What is there to say about the networking between white extremists in Canada and the US? Have those cross-border connections been growing?
Yes, I would dare say that they're so intertwined to a point where the Canadian far-right landscape cannot exist without some sort of connection, at least ideologically and operationally, with the American context. And I'll give you an example, actually. In Canada, in the past year or so, we had a high-profile case of a Canadian soldier, a Canadian reservist by the name of Patrik Matthews, belonging to an American far-right movement called The Base.
The Base — that's also the translation of al-Qaida, interestingly.
Yes, it is. And it makes you think, right? When the news of this Patrik Matthews hit the media circuit, he fled to the United States. He was eventually arrested by American police. But here's a perfect example. These international ties and international cooperation between American groups and Canadian groups is extremely common. And a good chunk of our groups up here are chapters of American groups.
Has Canada been slow to recognize the threat of white extremism compared to other national security threats?
Five or 10 years ago, there was an idea of this type of far-right violence cannot happen here. It's just it's not part of what it means to be Canadian. For example, there isn't a Second Amendment or gun culture here. There's a very, very small virulent, but it's not widespread. Some of the concepts of personal liberty that have been taken to the extreme — don't tread on me, that type of mentality — is not ubiquitous in Canadian culture. These form some of the core components of the far-right in America. And it's not like they aren't here in Canada, but again, because they're not so widespread, the people who do adhere to them in Canada, those types of ideas in Canada, find it very hard to recruit Canadians. So what we found is when American ideas that are unpalatable to your average Canadian make their way up here, they go through a process of Canadianization where they will drop certain elements that don't resonate with Canadian culture in an attempt to make it appealing.
How was the attack on the US Capitol seen in Canada?
To see one of our closest neighbors go through an event like this is it cause a moment of reflection, a moment of introspection. It's caused us to wake up a little bit.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.