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EDITORIAL: Canada also grappling with extremism, hate

Members of the far-right group Northern Guard, primarily active in Atalntic Canada, take part in a rally on Parliament Hill on July 14, 2018. - Reuters/Chris Wattie
Members of the far-right group Northern Guard, primarily active in Atlantic Canada, take part in a rally on Parliament Hill on July 14, 2018. - Chris Wattie/Reuters files

Recent events south of the border underline Canada’s own growing problem with hate groups.

When far right-wing, pro-Trump extremists stormed the U.S. Capitol Jan. 6, Canadian flags were seen flying in the crowd.

No Canadians have yet been identified as taking part in the insurrection that left five dead, including a police officer. But we know some Canadians crossed the border to be in Washington, D.C. that day. That includes two nurses involved in anti-lockdown protests in Canada who spoke at a separate rally there.

We know the Proud Boys, a white supremacist, neo-fascist group that originated in Canada, was among organizers of the pro-Trump rally.

Meanwhile, coinciding with events in Washington, pro-Trump protests were held in a number of Canadian cities, including Vancouver — where a journalist was assaulted — Calgary and Toronto.

For those paying attention, none of this came as a shock.

Proud Boys chapters exist across Canada. Crowds at anti-mask, anti-lockdown protests have included an assortment of bizarre conspiracy theorists, including QAnon, white supremacists and anti-science zealots.

Even in Atlantic Canada, membership — although numbers appear small — in groups embracing far-right, extremist views has grown, according to a recent study by University of New Brunswick researcher David Hofman.

That’s especially true since Trump’s election in 2016, Hofman says. He estimates there are roughly 30 such groups in this region, with about 150 active members but more silent supporters.

Unsurprisingly — but welcome nonetheless — a vast majority of Canadians reacted with revulsion to what occurred in Washington.

Canadian Proud Boy chapters have reportedly been losing members ever since. The websites of several disappeared, at least temporarily.

In addition, Ottawa has been urged — and is considering — adding the Proud Boys to the country’s list of terrorist organizations. That list includes more than 50 groups, although only two neo-Nazi organizations added in 2019 are classified as far-right extremists.

What’s behind growth in extremism?

One reason is that populists like Donald Trump have taken advantage of frustrations and fears of people left behind economically. Growing income inequality has fueled dissatisfaction and resentment.

Such circumstances provide fertile ground for the allure of simple explanations, including identifiable groups to blame.

The pandemic — in which the resulting economic damage has only amplified uncertainty — has added fuel to that fire.

Meanwhile, disinformation efforts emanating from Russia and China have sought to destabilize democracies and polarize their citizenry.

What’s to be done?

Experts say prevention and intervention are easier than trying to de-radicalize extremists.

That includes increasing pressure to force social media platforms — which bear responsibility for allowing baseless conspiracy theories and racist material to circulate — to better police what’s online.

It also means more focus on teaching citizens, especially youth, critical thinking, including how to spot disinformation and question sources.

Last, experts say, in the absence of clearly racist messaging, more civility would help to reduce the polarization that can fertilize extremism.

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