Following the recent violent London, Ontario truck attack that left a Pakistani-Canadian family dead and a nine-year-old boy hospitalized with serious injuries, MPs unanimously passed a motion to organize an emergency conference on Islamophobia.

Shortly after the attack, Bill Blair, the Minister of Public Safety, also announced that two more Canadian far-right extremist groups – the Three Percenters and Aryan Strikeforce – would be added to the list of terrorist entities as part of the Government’s efforts to counter the rise of terrorism inspired by white nationalist ideology. Shortly after the January 2021 storming of Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., the Proud Boys were added to the list.

In the wake of the London Ontario attack, Minister Dominic LeBlanc said that the Government would reveal, in the following weeks, specific measures to tackle online extremism. While the measures were revealed at the Islamophobia summit in July, it remains to be seen how effective they will be, given that the summit glossed over the important role of the private sector in tackling the threat.

Considering the current context of the Canadian far-right, which predominantly operates online, a part of the broader strategy to counter the spread of radicalization should include collaboration with the private sector, think tanks, and NGOs.

The threat of these (often loosely-defined) “splinter groups” online is alarming as their numbers have significantly increased over the years, and they have become more brutal in their attacks.

In 2015, there were an estimated 100 far-right groups active in Canada, but that number has doubled since the U.S. presidential election in 2016. In parallel, between 2012 and 2015, hate crimes against Muslims in Canada increased by 253 per cent.

The most recent and severe Islamophobic attacks include the 2017 Quebec shooting, in which six men were killed after attending evening prayers in a mosque in Quebec, a stabbing in Toronto in 2020 which led to the death of a volunteer at a local mosque, and the recent attack in London, Ontario.

Several recent studies demonstrate the need for increased collaboration between the Government and the private sector, especially in the online world.

According to a study conducted by the U.K.-based think tank Institute for Strategic Dialogue, Canadians are among the most active in spreading white supremacist, misogynistic, or other radical views online. 

The research identified 6,660 right-wing extremist channels, pages, groups, and accounts across seven different social media platforms.

A recently published report by Moonshot entitled “Redirect Method Canada” shows the organization’s “efforts to understand how Canadians engage with violent far-right and ISIS- and Al-Qaeda-inspired content online.” Piloted by Jigsaw and Moonshot, the Redirect Method was launched in February 2019, with funding from the Community Resilience Fund, in collaboration with the Canada Centre for Community Engagement and Violence Prevention at Public Safety Canada.

The initiative uses “targeted advertising” to connect online users searching for violent extremist content with alternative and positive messages. The research looked into searches of far-right adherents such as music, literature, and influential personalities. The report found that the most searched artists – for people seeking what they deem far-right-inspired music – include Burzum, Mr. Bond, Nazi anthems, Rock Against Communism, and “hate-core” songs, among others.

Notable also is the data on “influential personalities.” Hitler and Mussolini predictably top the list but are accompanied by terrorists like Brenton Tarrant and Anders Breivik, both of whom were inspired by a diverse range of right-wing extremist ideologies stretching from the Balkans to North America.

Searches such as ‘Hitler was right,’ ‘Saint Tarrant,’ ‘George Zimmerman hero,’ and ‘Francesca Rizzi Miss Hitler’ account for the most popular impressions.

The Redirect Method study also points to the “diversity” of the Canadian far-right, demonstrating its transnational connectedness, which seems to be overlooked and has undoubtedly been strengthened even more during the COVID-19 pandemic, thanks to an uptick in online activity. For instance, in the top ten list was Željko Grmuša, a Serbian ultra-nationalist who sings the infamous song “Karadžić, Lead Your Serbs,” an anti-Bosniak propaganda track that was played by the Christchurch terrorist on his way to commit the heinous terrorist attack. Given that the song is in Serbo-Croatian language, it calls on a more general discussion about the transnational influence of far-right ideologies in Canada, but also for tailored campaigns such as counter-narratives that will speak to this sub-category of the larger far-right population in Canada. In this context, Hedayah’s thorough report on the Canadian far-right groups and their narratives, and counter narratives needed to combat the threat, explains in more detail the anti-Muslim populism as a major driving force for far-right adherents; other popular narratives highlighted in this publication include anti-Semitic, ethno-nationalist, traditionalist, and anti-government propaganda and conspiracy theories.

The far-right movement in Canada is much more complex than it may appear, including adherents to many loosely-defined far-right extremist ideologies that cannot be categorized as one or another ideological stream. Barbara Perry, director of Canada’s Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism, has already pointed to this.

Whilst the Islamophobia summit in July vowed to “take a whole-of-government approach,” among other promises, more work needs to be done with organizations such as the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism, where Canada is already sitting on the Independent Advisory Committee to fight online extremism.

The pledge that the implemented programs “will continue to dismantle white supremacist groups monitor hate groups and take action to combat hate everywhere, including online,” albeit important, overlooks the importance of the ‘online’ aspect and the crucial role of the high tech companies in content moderation and removal.

The startling growth and activity of online far-right communities in Canada are a wake-up call for a greater focus on online content moderation and removal—an issue that should be at the forefront of the fight against online extremism in Canada.

Denis Suljić is a research associate at Hedayah – the International Center of Excellence for Counter-Violent Extremism. In 2016, he completed a B.A. Honours degree in Political Science and Sociology at the University of Ottawa. In 2019, Denis received his M.A. from the Norman Patterson School of International Affairs (NPSIA), Carleton University. His studies focused on the radicalization processes of Canadian ISIS-inspired terrorist fighters and the phenomenon of violent extremism. Denis’ academic interests range across various fields including international security, cybersecurity, intelligence studies, conflict analysis and resolution, and philosophy.

Photo Credit: Soumil Kumar

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