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Right-wing extremism on the rise in Canada after 'Freedom Convoy' protests, anti-hate experts say

Protesters show their support for the "Freedom Convoy" of truck drivers who were making their way to Ottawa to protest COVID-19 vaccine mandates by the Canadian government Jan. 27, 2022.
Arthur Mola
Protesters show their support for the "Freedom Convoy" of truck drivers who were making their way to Ottawa to protest COVID-19 vaccine mandates by the Canadian government Jan. 27, 2022.

Anti-hate experts in Canada are calling for more government action to counter what they say has become increasing right-wing extremism in the country.

Several experts spoke at an international conference in Ottawa last week, called “Hate Among Us.” They say research suggests that millions of Canadians have been drawn closer to the far right during the COVID-19 pandemic, and much of the recent blame is being leveled at the so-called Freedom Convoy protests in February.

The executive director of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, Evan Balgord, said the Freedom Convoy organizers were able to use the protest to draw more vaccine-hesitant people to their movement — some through misinformation and lies.

Balgord said many legitimate protestors were rubbing shoulders with others who advocate using violence to overthrow the government.

“The worst part about it is that all those people who were there who think of themselves as not necessarily racist, not necessarily violent, they give cover to those elements that are in the movement,” Balgord said.

Balgord’s network has been monitoring right-wing groups and their activities.

Six years ago, there were perhaps 20,000 white supremacists in Canada. Balgord said that number has ballooned to 10-15% percent of the population that holds at least some far-right views.

Heidi Beirich is with the U.S.-based Global Project Against Hate and Extremism. She said white supremicsts, racists, and those with anti-government and anti-science views are often “all mixed” in with people who might not share those views.

“And that’s actually what was dangerous about these movements,” she said.

But it wasn’t just the convoy protest in Ottawa that drew concerns.

Police at the Coutts, Alberta border crossing with the U.S. seized weapons and tactical gear from a group that took part in the border blockade. Some had ties to a neo-fascist group.

And increasingly there have been verbal threats online against politicians and especially female journalists.

Fatima Syed is a climate reporter with the online publication The Narwhal. She said she’s been threatened with rape and told she should be put on her knees and shotgunned.

“They are the most disgusting things that I’ve seen written down by anyone,” she said.

And Rachel Pulfond, the executive director of Journalists for Human Rights, said these kinds of attacks against women journalists are not new.

“I think what is new is the rate at which we’re seeing it,” she said. “The fact that we’re finally tracking it and talking about it, and also some of the vituperative, vitriolic nature of the threats.”

Politicians have also been targets. Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, on a recent visit to Alberta, was verbally harassed. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police are investigating.

“It really is a dangerous — much more dangerous situation when people see politicians as legitimate targets for violence,” said Carleton University professor Stephanie Carvin.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has also spoken out, saying “cowardly bullying … hate-filled rants and violent words used against people … has no place in our democracy.”

The recent incidents suggest that those with extremist views have become more emboldened since the convoy protests in Ottawa. And anti-hate advocates say more needs to be done, such as cracking down on social media companies to force them to clamp down on disinformation shared on their platforms. Some say the growing threat from the far-right movement could also target climate change, racial injustice and immigration policies.

Beirich said it’s no longer a question of giving the far right and its views more oxygen. They’ve got the oxygen.