News / Canada

White extremism looks different in Canada, but it exists

Yes, far-right extremism exists north of the U.S. border, but Canada's laws make it difficult for groups to unite.

Shortly after Donald Trump's election win, flyers popped up in an east-end Toronto neighbourhood to try and recruit for the "alt-right."


Shortly after Donald Trump's election win, flyers popped up in an east-end Toronto neighbourhood to try and recruit for the "alt-right."

The morning after Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election, many Canadians took to social media to express dismay, mixed with and a hefty dose of smugness. “Thankful to live in Canada” people wrote. “Good luck, ‘Merica.”

Almost as quickly, hate crimes began to be noticed on this side of the border.

In Ottawa, swastikas were spray painted on synagogues. In Toronto, a man was filmed shouting racist obscenities at a streetcar passenger. In Vancouver, someone has been distributing anti-Chinese pamphlets.

To suggest these were the work of trolls ignores the reality that right-wing extremism already existed here.


The reality is that roots of right-wing extremism in Canada can be traced back more than a century. Trump’s win has simply given legitimacy to those who already held racist, homophobic and sexist beliefs. People are calling it “the Trump effect” — the idea that his rhetoric is emboldening racists in the U.S., and here at home.

“We were in denial that hate crime was a problem and there was a presence of right-wing extremism in this country,” says Barbara Perry, a professor in the faculty of Social Science and Humanities at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, who specializes in hate crime.

“The Trump election has brought these seedy characters out of the shadows.”

Canada vs. the U.S.

The far right in the United States and in Canada share many of the same core values: They tend to believe the “white” way is under attack, are usually anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim, and hold homophobic and misogynistic beliefs.

Those who subscribe to the American far right in particular also tend to be highly nationalistic, suspicious of government, and passionate about individual liberties such as the right to own guns.

And they’ve found their leader and voice in the white nationalist Richard Spencer, who coined the term "alt-right," and who has had a unifying affect on adherents to the right-wing extremism ideology.

The Canadian context is a little different, says Ryan Scrivens, a PhD student at Simon Fraser University who studies criminology and right-wing extremism.

For one, there is less emphasis here on gun rights and survivalism. And the far-right network on this side of the border is less organized, lacks the same political support that exists in the States, and suffers from discord and infighting.

“They do not have (same) the manpower and support,” Scrivens says. “In the U.S. they have more funding to back them, and they have Donald trump as sort of their poster boy. In Canada the groups are a bit more fragmented."

“There’s a lot of cross-pollination between the Canadian and American alt-right,” says Barbara Perry. “I think the one important difference is that, so far, no members of the alt-right that we are aware of have made their ways to the halls of power (here). Not to say that there aren’t people who share their values.”

Perry added that while some Canadians may not identify with the so-called alt-right per se, they could be classified as sympathizers nonetheless. These are people visiting the websites, reading the material and agreeing with the arguments.

“We know from opinion polls that we are not 100 per cent accepting of differences in our communities,” she said. “There are people who are drawn to the sorts of answers (right-wing extremism) provides.”

What keeps the far-right from organizing in Canada:

Our country’s history is different from that of the United States, and the path we carved out for ourselves has led to a relatively tolerant society that tends to celebrate its diversity. This set of values makes it hard for extremism to take root here in any truly influential way, so say our experts.

When talking about “the seething racial tensions and xenophobia, I’d have to say we are far off that boiling point,” says Arne Kislenko, Associate Professor of History at Ryerson University, and an instructor in the International Relations Program at Trinity College/the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.

“Canada is no paradise, and we have many problems of our own, including those related to discrimination and racism. But we have, I think, built a comparably more harmonious, open, and liberal society that stands fundamentally opposed to the kind of divisions we have seen exposed in the U.S.”

“Many would credit our multiculturalism for making us different, although … the U.S. is in many respects equally as diverse. It might be that Canada has succeeded better in integrating peoples over time, and actively promoting the values of multiculturalism not just in general but in law, politics, etc.”

“It might also have to do with our education system, the fact that Canada has cultivated decisively different approaches to foreign affairs over time, or the many historical realities that have shaped a different evolution as a nation here than our neighbours south.”

“We are in a different country, with a different national discourse and legal structures,” says Ayesha S. Chaudhry, Associate Professor of Islamic Studies and Gender Studies at the University of British Columbia.

“We have a sense of civic responsibility … to protect each other and the most marginalized communities.”

Chaudhry points out we also have politicians who lean to the right, and who take stances on immigration that many Canadians find unpalatable — like Conservative MP Kellie Leitch’s proposal to create a “barbaric practices tip line” (she also celebrated Trump’s win).

But those positions are arguably moderate in comparison to what we’re seeing south of the border. And they are often condemned quickly.

Even if our next government is the Tories, Chaudhry says, “(our) Conservative party is not Trump.”

People march in protest to the appointment of white nationalist alt-right media mogul, former Breitbart News head Steve Bannon, to be chief strategist of the White House by President-elect Donald Trump on November 16 near City Hall in Los Angeles.

Getty Images

People march in protest to the appointment of white nationalist alt-right media mogul, former Breitbart News head Steve Bannon, to be chief strategist of the White House by President-elect Donald Trump on November 16 near City Hall in Los Angeles.

We have different laws around free speech

If racist sentiment flourishes in an environment where it’s not challenged, then perhaps our hate laws — and the United States’ lack thereof — play a key role in that.

“One thing I love about this country is our hate crime legislation, which keeps some of this nonsense in check,” says Michael Bach, the founder and CEO of the Canadian Center for Diversity and Inclusion.

“White supremacists exist in Canada, but it’s illegal to draw swastikas on the side of synagogues,” adds Chaudhry. “It’s one of the things I am so proud of in Canada.”

“In America they don’t have hate speech laws so … different kinds of extremist discourse can exist for a long time. On American campuses you can have extremist organizations that engage in hate speech, but in Canada you wouldn’t have that.”

In the same vein, our politicians tend to openly condemn racism

“Hate doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it comes to light in an enabling climate,” points out Barbara Perry, a professor in the faculty of Social Science and Humanities at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, and studies hate crime and white extremism.

“Even during (former prime minister Stephen) Harper’s administration there was lightly veiled Islamaphobia. But we’ve shown we don’t have the same stomach for that. The (Trudeau) election was a repudiation of the politics of hate, and our leaders in the shadows of (hate-motivated) events have been quick to stand up and challenge them, and call people out, and that’s an important difference, because obviously Trump is not doing that.”

Perry says politicians in cities that have seen an uptick in hate crime have been vocal in condemning it, and that’s an important strategy in combatting racism.

Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie recently went to town on Kevin Johnston, who spewed anti-Muslim rhetoric after the city approved plans for a new mosque. In public, she called Johnston’s message “heinous” and “reprehensible.”

“As mayor, you have to demonstrate leadership,” she said in a later interview. “It’s my responsibility that this doesn’t go unaddressed. So I have to step up.”

Whereas Trump’s rallies tended to unite and rile up masses of far-right ideologists into one place where their beliefs were validated, Canadians have — for the most part — been quick not to allow that kind of hysteria to find a voice.

“We see that behaviour and we come down on it hard,” says Michael Bach of the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion. “I’m thinking of Kellie Leitch and her tipline on barbaric cultural practices. The vast majority of Canadians said, ‘Hold on a second,’ and we came down on her.”

“Swastikas on rabbis door is viewed as deplorable and un-Canadian,” he added. “I don’t have to do a lot to condemn these things, I can let (Canadian) society do this for me. I’m not the lone voice defending this fight.”

Politicians openly condemned anti-Semitic behaviour after an Ottawa synagogue was the target of hateful graffiti.

Ryan Tumilty / Metro

Politicians openly condemned anti-Semitic behaviour after an Ottawa synagogue was the target of hateful graffiti.

Before we get too smug, let’s remember we’re not perfect

“This is a wake up call for all of us not to tolerate injustice in our communities,” says Ayesha S. Chaudhry. “We really need think about the way that we systematically (condone) inequality in our justice system. The fact that we have a higher incarceration rate (for certain groups) means we are structurally discriminating against them, so it’s important for Canadians to come together and look at this seriously, have honest conversations, and look at each other…self-critically.”

Chaudhry adds that these groups thrive in an environment that doesn’t acknowledge or stand up against them, and the media has an important responsibility in keeping this conversation alive, and interrogating people who espouse views that reflect intolerance.

What can we do looking forward?

As horrifying it is to know that racists in our communities have been emboldened by Trump’s election, there’s a measure of comfort in knowing that — in many of the cases — members of the public have stood up to condemn these acts.

When a ragey dude in a construction hat was filmed spewing threatening racism at a transit passenger in Toronto (the guy actually yelled “Go Trump!), fellow streetcar riders stood up to him, called police, and demanded the driver kick him off.

Barbara Perry says it’s important we all continue in this vein, standing up for neighbours who are targets of prejudice, and not allowing ourselves to step over the same lines that have been crossed in the United States.

“Canada is … a beacon for what pluralism can look like,” adds Chaudhry. “And I think (we) can be a leader in that, but it will require hard work, and we have to stay abreast of the game.”

Bach echoes this sentiment, urging Canadians to call strangers and friends alike out on racism, homophobia or sexism.

“It’s not going to change (extremists’) opinions or value systems,” he says. “The fundamentalists … are not going to be like, ‘Okay I’m sorry. Michael said I should be a racist.’ But they’re going to shut up and they’re going to go back to the depths that they came from. And they’ll be reminded that hate is not a Canadian value.”

Perhaps Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said it best at the end of that 2015 speech, the one that reminded me that diversity and mutual respect is one of this country’s strengths.

“Canada faces a constant debate between those who would have us restrict, close ranks, and build walls—and those who remind us that we are who we are precisely because we are open, diverse and inclusive,” he said.

“Whenever, or wherever, a few seek to threaten those who look, or dress, or pray differently, many others stand up and say: ‘No. Not here. Not in our community, not to our neighbours.’

“Those of us who benefit from … Canada’s diversity need to be strong and confident custodians of its character. We are, after all, Canadian. Let’s show the world the very best of what that means.”

America's free speech vs. Canada's hate laws

In the United States:

The right to speak without censorship or restraint by the government – also known as freedom of speech – is protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution in the United States. With the following exceptions:

• Restrictions on slander and obscenity (such as sexual obscenity or child pornography), and speech that incites imminent lawlessness or violence (like riots or death threats).

• There is no exception for “hate speech” in the First Amendment, which means even offensive and hateful rhetoric is permissible.

In Canada:

Freedom of speech in Canada is not an absolute right. Section 1 of our Charter or Rights and Freedoms allows the government to reasonably limit free expression. One way it does that is through hate laws. “Hate propaganda” is forbidden under three sections of the Criminal Code:

Section 318: any writing, sign or visible representation that advocates or promotes genocide, which it defines as “the destruction of an identifiable group.”

Section 319: anyone who publicly incites hatred, violence, discrimination or hostility against an identifiable group. This can be through a written, verbal or physical means, or damage to property. There are some defenses, including whether or not the accused can prove his or her statements were true and good faith opinions based on a belief in a religious text.

Section 320: allows a judge to confiscate publications that appear to be hate propaganda.

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