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Extremism does not stop at the border

Amid violent far-right rallies in the United States, warning signs of similar sentiment can be seen among factions across Canada

A supporter of a far-right group, the Aryan Guard, salutes at a rally in Calgary on March 21, 2009.

It's a sunny day in Calgary, and Joey Deluca, the founder of a group called Worldwide Coalition Against Islam, seems pleased with the turnout at a rally he has helped organize outside city hall. Mr. Deluca, who is built like a bouncer and is in aviators, a red WCAI tee and a matching red Make America Great Again hat from the Trump '16 campaign, pulls out his cell phone and speaks into a microphone.

"Justin Trudeau has been purposely flooding our beautiful country with sewage, sometimes that illegally cross the border at night or come here as refugees, …" he says haltingly, reading a prepared speech from his screen.

Many others in red WCAI shirts surround him. A phalanx of stony-faced white men in black t-shirts, dark pants, sunglasses and baseball caps also stands nearby, serving as a private security detail, even though police are present. They are members of the Three per centers, a branch of a U.S. group that claims to be part of the "patriot movement." Members of Soldiers of Odin, an offshoot of a Finnish group with ties to neo-nazism, are there too, and some who belong to the Canadian Combat Coalition, another "patriot movement."

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At this June 3 rally, as with others that followed in Calgary and Edmonton this summer, participants were shouted down by a group of counterprotesters toting signs that said things like: "GRANDPA FOUGHT NAZIS. 70 YEARS LATER WE ARE STILL FIGHTING NAZIS."

A similarly spirited turnout of opponents is expected at a rally organized by Mr. Deluca's group today in Vancouver, a week after the violent clashes between extreme right-wing groups and protesters in Charlottesville, Va.

Anti-Islamists shout at counterprotesters from behind a police line during an anti-Islam rally in Calgary, Alta., Sunday, June 25, 2017.

Far-right rallies in Canada look a little different from what was seen in Charlottesville: no men in fatigues armed to the teeth in paramilitary gear, no largely displayed swastikas or Confederate flags. Their numbers, boldness and visibility have always been much larger in the United States. But to dismiss Canada's far right as harmless or unsophisticated would be foolish, say experts who track their activity. Exact membership figures are unknown, as new groups have cropped up and then splintered or dissolved in recent years. But most are unified by a xenophobic ethos, and their strength both online and offline has helped inspire the views of so-called lone wolves who have been responsible for many violent attacks across the country.

An analysis by academics Barbara Perry and Ryan Scrivens published by Public Safety Canada estimated that Canada had about 100 far-right groups in 2015. The largest concentration was in Quebec, Ontario and Alberta, where there were 12 to 25. But membership figures vary widely: some groups had only three members, while others had up to 100. The number of groups has increased in the past 10 months by about 20 to 30 per cent, Dr. Perry estimates, but each might claim only a dozen or so members.

While news reports on individual actors may not tie them to a particular organization, most violent extremist incidents in Canada since 2001 can be traced to white supremacist groups, according to the Canadian Incident Database, a publicly funded initiative associated with five Canadian universities that helps researchers identify patterns and trends in extremist incidents. From 2001 to 2015, according to the research, 64 per cent of violent extremist incidents, defined as crimes motivated by extremism that fall short of being designated terrorism, have involved "supremacist motivated attacks."

"Looking purely at the data, there's zero reason to discount the threat from right-wing extremism," said James Ellis, a research affiliate with the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society, which put together the Canadian Incident Database. "For some reason, right-wing extremism is almost always seen as an atomized, individualistic threat that is difficult to monitor and is somehow different [from Islamic extremism]."

A group that calls themselves the Soldiers of Odin demonstrate in Joensuu, Eastern Finland on Jan. 8, 2016. Soldiers of Odin is one of the extremist groups that causes the most concern in Alberta, according to the Alberta Hate Crimes Committee.

What unites Canada's far right

While Canada's far-right is very fragmented, groups generally share four criteria, according to Yannick Veilleux-Lepage, who studies extremism at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland: nationalism, xenophobia, a commitment to maintaining law and order, and welfare chauvinism – the idea that the state should provide social welfare to its own citizens rather than foreigners.

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But branding is important, and after the events in Charlottesville, some Canadian groups, including the Three per centers and Proud Boys, put out messages saying they were not white supremacists or neo-Nazis, but rather proud Canadians just trying to protect their national heritage. La Meute in Quebec recently suspended a member who attended the Virginia rallies.

In the 1990s, former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke led a major rebranding of his organization, urging members to ditch the white robes and don business suits. That is being echoed now with great swaths of the U.S. far right, who have adopted a preppy look. The idea of putting forth a more approachable public image has spread to Canada, Dr. Perry says.

Compared to the far right of the 1990s in Canada, today's members are older (25 to 40, versus 16 to 24 in the 1990s), better educated, from middle-class backgrounds and more articulate, she said.

"They package their message in ways that are more palatable. … It's had an influence on mainstreaming those messages of hate."

The communities that right-wing extremists target vary across the country, according to data collected by Dr. Perry for her Public Safety Canada report. While those in the Maritimes and Manitoba have made Indigenous and black people their targets, those in Alberta have aimed at individuals who are Indigenous, black, Jewish, Muslim, Asian and LGBTQ, as well as immigrants as a whole. In Quebec, they have targeted Indigenous, Jewish, Muslim and LGBTQ residents and immigrants.

Police hold back far-right protesters during a demonstration in Montreal, Saturday, March 4, 2017.

Regional hot spots

For several years, Quebec has had the greatest number of extreme-right groups and the most visible ones. Residents of the province have spent more than a decade debating the place of religion – particularly Islam – in society.

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So far this year, Quebec's Centre for the Prevention of Radicalization Leading to Violence has received about 160 reports of extreme-right activity and passed along 30 files to police, according to director Herman Deparice-Okomba, far outpacing the few dozen calls it has received about suspected Islamist radicals. (The numbers are preliminary and based on a rough count.)

"Extreme-right activity is on the rise, but the biggest factor is it's become more visible. These extremists once hid in their basements but are now less shy about displaying their colours," Mr. Déparice-Okomba said. "Also, ordinary people are far less tolerant of their discourse and are reaching out."

Quebec groups range from La Meute, which has a large social media following, to more explicitly white-supremacist groups like Atalante Québec, whose members keep to the shadows while conducting publicity stunts like putting up anti-immigration banners on freeways.

Emboldened white-supremacist groups have carried out highly visible pamphlet and poster campaigns in Quebec in recent days, although in the past they have been unable to draw more than a few dozen people to rallies and events.

Irfan Chaudhry of the Alberta Hate Crimes Committee says the Muslim community in Alberta has been a popular target of right-wing extremists – in much of their rhetoric at rallies and also in the way some have conducted surveillance on mosques while doing "neighbourhood patrols."

Mr. Chaudhry said the groups of most concern in his province are Blood and Honour, the Three per centers and the Soldiers of Odin. Some of these groups' short histories have been marked with in-fighting – earlier this year, Soldiers of Odin splintered into several new groups.

Concerns about the Aryan Guard, another organization that has been active in Calgary, rose this week when a South Asian woman running in a Calgary board of education election said she received a message on Facebook from a man claiming to be a member of the white-power group.

" … what right do you have to run for office in CANADA? we will find out where you live, the aryan guard will find you. beware," said the message, which was reported to police. "you will be lying dead on the street like heather heyer" – a reference to the woman who was run over and killed by a speeding vehicle during the Charlottesville clashes last weekend.

Hungarian activists of the neo-Nazi group, Blood and Honour, march in a rally in Budapest in February, 2013. Alberta has a group of the same name, which has caused concern with some communities.

Assessing the threat level

Mr. Ellis said that Canada's spy agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, and the RCMP have in public statements played down the threat from extremist groups. On its website in 2014, CSIS said: "Right-wing extremism has not been as significant a problem in Canada in recent years. Those who hold such extremist views have tended to be isolated and ineffective figures."

Right-wing extremists have carried out an average of 3.5 violent acts each year since 2001, according to Mr. Ellis's research, but in nearly all cases, they are individually categorized as instances of "a lone individual with mental health issues … an ugly bigot, but not part of a bigger problem," Mr. Ellis said – that's not the case for those carrying out violence in the name of Islamic State.

"It's a very strange juxtaposition. You're dealing with two qualitatively similar phenomena that are treated completely differently."

But change is afoot. In June, Ottawa launched a new centre of excellence devoted to understanding and preventing radicalized violence, including a fund for research and intervention programs.

When asked about extremist groups this week, CSIS said, "Any group or individual who sees violence as a legitimate form of political expression, including those who support right-wing extremism, is of concern to us."

The RCMP published a Terrorism and Violent Extremism Awareness Guide in 2016. The document describes the extreme right as a collection of heterogeneous movements with various grievances against mainstream society. The document states that "these groups have few members and that the members often change groups or belong to several groups at the same time." It names groups such as Blood and Honour, Combat 18, and the Aryan Guard among the leading national and international extremist groups.

Even members of groups that are more careful about their public messaging speak cryptically online about "eliminating threats" or share music videos that are explicitly violent – but police cannot do much when such activity is flagged. This week, the RCMP said it does not investigate groups or ideologies, but will investigate criminal activity.

Even with increased visibility on social media and at public rallies, researchers and law enforcement could never precisely quantify how many active members any of these groups have, or how many individuals without any formal affiliations to them share their views and would have a tendency to violence.

A week after a deadly attack in January on a Quebec City mosque in which six Muslim men were killed, the RCMP described alleged gunman Alexandre Bissonnette as "a criminal extremist" and suggested he may have been radicalized online.

What is clear is accessing the ideologies of these groups is much easier now than it was in the early 1990s, during the last major resurgence of the far right. Hateful rhetoric is widely circulated on social media, extremist websites and the dark web, Dr. Perry says. Even Canadians who harbour these views but are not with any local organizations can be connected to and radicalized by the extreme right through the many European and U.S. organizations with web presences.

It is not even important if these individuals preach violence, it is more about legitimizing views and building a sense of community among those who feel their beliefs have been pushed to the fringes, Mr. Veilleux-Lepage said.

"The reality is that nobody is radicalized in isolation. You are radicalized through your interactions with other individuals."

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