Yasir Naqvi is the chief executive officer of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship, a national non-profit working to build a more inclusive country and inspire active citizenship among Canadians. He was the MPP for Ottawa Centre from 2007 to 2018, and served as Ontario’s attorney-general.
“Raise your hand if you were surprised about the insurrection and violence on Wednesday in Washington,” I said during a Zoom meeting with my team of Gen Z and millennial staff late last week. Not one person put up their hand. When I asked why, they used words such as “failed state,” “white supremacist,” and “autocratic” to describe the United States.
Intrigued, later that day I put the same question to a group of friends having a virtual get-together, “was anyone surprised?” This time, everyone said yes. They knew America was divided but never believed it would escalate to this level.
For years, we have been watching the cracks open in U.S. democratic institutions. The difference seems to be that young people believe what they are seeing, and the rest of us - whose formative years were spent during a period of relative stability in U.S. politics - are hanging on to an ideal that may no longer exist.
But if the past four years haven’t been enough, Wednesday should be a wake-up call: even the strongest democracies are fragile.
There’s a saying, “when someone shows you who they are, believe them.” Well, the younger generations are already there. It’s time for those of us currently in the seats of power to get on board. We cannot take our democracy or its institutions for granted.
Canadians are often smug when it comes to American politics. We like to believe that we are more progressive than our southern neighbours, that we could never elect our own Trump, that we are somehow better, less corrupt, nicer.
That thinking is more than ignorant; it’s dangerous.
The Proud Boys, a group associated with Wednesday’s attempted coup and recognized around the world as a symbol of alt-right extremism, are not an American creation. The hate group was founded in 2016 by Gavin McInnes, a Canadian. Research on far-right activity led by Barbara Perry at Ontario Tech University revealed at least 130 such groups are currently active in the country. Another study by Britain’s Institute for Strategic Dialogue found more than 6,600 white supremacist online channels in which Canadians not only contribute, but its internet users-per-capita produce more online hate content than any other country.
It was only three months ago that Mi’kmaq First Nations fishermen were terrorized by non-Indigenous fishermen in Nova Scotia while the RCMP sat idly by. The doubting of science and fact exists in Canada, too. In July of 2020, Leslie Hegedus assaulted a store employee in Minden, Ont., fired a gun at officers and was eventually shot and killed, all because he was asked to wear a mask while buying groceries.
The violence that unfolded on Capitol Hill on Wednesday was upsetting, but predictable. If we don’t take seriously and address the cracks forming at home - whether it’s the rise in alt-right “media,” the undermining of science and fact, or the violence against Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC) communities - they will continue to grow, chipping away, slowly eroding the protections of our public institutions. And one day the dam will break. Far-right extremism is a part of Canada’s past and present. Unless we actively fight against it, it will be our future.
Jan. 6, 2021, will be remembered forever in U.S. history, but we need not wait for the history books to learn the lessons. We cannot stick our heads in the sand and say “that will never happen here.” Let’s learn and act.
Now is the time to protect our democratic institutions. Now is the time to engage in the political process by voting, organizing, or even running for office. Now is the time to hold elected officials accountable. And above all, now is the time to defend truth and call out misinformation - before it’s too late.
Our democracy is our greatest strength. But unless we are all engaged, it is not indestructible.
Every day when I talk to my colleagues, I am optimistic about our future. The younger generations understand what’s at stake. But the question remains: are the rest of us going to take this lesson seriously?
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