Anti-Muslim hatred stirring in Alberta is, sadly, nothing new

Living in one of the few remaining self-avowed multicultural countries in the world, Canadians can take pride in our peacefulness and diversity. But growing from that sense of self confidence, we have become nonchalant about the very real racism and hate that exist in our country – and in Alberta. After the tragic attack on the Centre culturel islamique de Québec, we can no longer afford this blind spot.

The response of Canadian politicians, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, has been emphatic: What happened in Quebec City, Mr. Trudeau says, was an act of terrorism. The attack is deeply unsettling – but it shouldn’t, sadly, be surprising. Right-wing extremism is a globalized and multifaceted movement that has a growing community of followers in Canada.

It can happen here – and anywhere.

Many of us are familiar with the steady drumbeat of the far right across the Atlantic: The growth of populist and xenophobic political parties has been matched by a surge in grassroots movements, many of which are steadfastly opposed to immigration, especially from Muslim-majority states. Empowered by the success of politicians such as Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Marine Le Pen in France, the resurgence of European populism has emboldened a dangerous fringe that has inspired many on this side of the Atlantic.

Political movements such as the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West have drawn thousands to marches in Germany, and have active chapters in Ontario, Quebec and Alberta. The vigilante group calling themselves the Soldiers of Odin first appeared in Finland, pledging to protect Finns from criminal immigrants; it has now appeared in Canada. Staunchly opposed to newcomers from Muslim states, the group counts white supremacists among its ranks and appeared in Edmonton this past summer, where it began carrying out uniformed patrols.

While it is difficult sometimes to tie these groups directly to violent incidents, Albertans are witnessing an increase in racism. By last fall – when the anti-Muslim rhetoric of then-U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump was gaining momentum – anti-Islamic posters and flyers began to appear in neighbourhoods around Edmonton and on university campuses in Edmonton and Calgary, mimicking similar campaigns in British Columbia and Ontario. In an especially jarring incident, a man swung a noose in front of two Muslim women at a train station in Edmonton. According to Inspector Dan Jones of the Edmonton Police Service, there were 128 hate-related occurrences in Edmonton in 2016.

We must recognize that right-wing extremism is nothing new in Canada – and in Alberta. The Ku Klux Klan has been present in Alberta since the 1920s. In the late 20th century, violent groups related to the Aryan Nations formed in this province. Led by figures such as Terry Long, neo-Nazis in Alberta carried out marches and rallies including an event in Provost, where they burned crosses.

Even before the events in Quebec City, there was acknowledgment in a 2015 National Security and Defence Committee report that right-wing extremism represents a threat to Canada. The few studies that do exist on the subject indicate a problem on a scale that would surprise many of us. A recent article in the journal Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, written by Barbara Perry and Ryan Scrivens, estimated that there are no fewer than 100 active groups in Canada whose membership may range from only a few individuals to hundreds. They identified concentrations of groups in Quebec, Western Ontario and Alberta.

Within this burgeoning reality, the greatest challenge that law enforcement faces is detecting and preventing incidents carried out by so-called “lone actors.” These individuals are energized by larger social movements, interactions on social media and web forums such as Stormfront and Blood and Honour that have attracted thousands of Canadian members. These spaces allow individuals to role play, explore ideas and develop relationships with a degree of privacy.

At the same time, many segments of these white-nationalist movements are no longer confined to dimly lit bars or web forums. They are increasingly open, spreading their hatred on Twitter and Facebook, while the movement’s ideologues hold news conferences. The pseudo-intellectualism of Richard Spencer and the white-nationalist movement has attracted a whole new segment of the population: Rather than the archetypal neo-Nazi, today’s extremists seem all too normal. They hide their hatred behind terms such as “race realist,” “alt-right” or “identitarian” in an attempt to make it more palatable.

Knowing whose racism and hatred will turn violent is incredibly difficult. But as these extremist groups grow louder and louder, and as they find support in the political mainstream, their bigotry, intolerance and violence become normalized.

When the most powerful among us call for war against the other, don’t be surprised when some troubled individuals respond with unrestrained violence.

John McCoy is an adjunct political science professor at the University of Alberta. David Jones is a security consultant based in Vancouver.