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Opinion Canada has taken an important step in the fight against right-wing extremism

Wesley Wark teaches professional courses on intelligence and security issues at the Centre on Public Management and Policy at the University of Ottawa.

The Canadian government has altered its stand on right-wing extremism. Two linked far-right organizations, Blood and Honour and Combat 18, have now been added to Canada’s list of banned terrorist organizations. That list was created in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. While the banned entities list has mushroomed since 2001 and now numbers 60 groups, it has always been focused on Islamist terrorist organizations. Right-wing extremism has now been added to the spectrum of national security threats. Some will argue this is long overdue; others will see it as political pandering. Both views are wrong.

Most Canadians will never have heard of either Blood and Honour or Combat 18. They are neo-Nazi groups with a British and European base. Blood and Honour claims to have a Canadian chapter of “division.” Blood and Honour does the propaganda work, drawing on a neo-Nazi playbook; Combat 18, or C18, is the armed wing. C18 has never carried out a violent attack in Canada.

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There is always the danger that banning such groups calls unwanted attention to them and furthers their noxious cause. But being listed as a terrorist entity will serve as a public deterrent. The listing also carries some legal and surveillance teeth. Property belonging to listed groups can be seized, their financing disrupted, and members are in legal jeopardy should they be accused of facilitating the activities of the group. They will be on the radar screens of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), the RCMP and other law-enforcement agencies in Canada.

The public recognition of the threat posed by right-wing extremists follows on both domestic acts of extremist violence, including the Quebec City mosque attack in January, 2017, the April, 2018, van attack in Toronto, and major incidents abroad, culminating in the recent mass killing in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March, 2019. The Christchurch massacre was particularly galvanizing, forcing governments to pay heed. It proved that right-wing extremism could no longer be characterized as a protected form of free speech; its violence was on display and taking on global dimensions. Security agencies were beginning to see a worrying copy-cat pattern, whereby right-wing groups were being inspired by the violent example of terrorist attacks and were using similar low-tech tools (such as guns, knives and vehicles) that could easily be acquired by individuals.

There were also signs of a rising tide of right-wing violence in the United States, witnessed in the October, 2018, shootings at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. In an age of populist discontent, the fear arose that right-wing extremism would feast on a fractured politics. Potential cross-border inspiration and linkages raised new concerns in Canada.

Right-wing extremism embraces a jumble of disparate causes, including single-issue flashpoints such as abortion rights, white supremacy and anti-government nostrums. What it shares with terrorism is an ability to use the internet and social media to propagate its cause, a determined effort to be transnational and a free ride on some of globalization’s benefits, such as the ease of global travel and communication. All of these facets were demonstrated in the Christchurch attack.

Now that right-wing extremism has been publicly admitted to the Canadian lexicon of national-security threats, the hard work of combatting it begins, especially its manifestations on social media. Good intelligence on the threat, strong partnerships with law enforcement, arrests and prosecutions, close co-operation with allies and more public education will all be required.

David Vigneault, the director of CSIS, has admitted that his agency is increasingly preoccupied by what he calls “the violent threat posed by those looking to advocate/support/engage in racially motivated, ethno-nationalist, anti-government and misogynist violence."

Preoccupation with right-wing extremism is a new concern for CSIS, who will be on the front lines of this challenge, alongside law-enforcement partners. Right-wing extremism will never be Canada’s greatest peril, but the listing of Blood and Honour and Combat 18 is an important sign that Canada’s national security system can be adaptive, alert to new dangers and not bogged down in fighting old wars.

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