Prime Minister Trudeau participates in an anti-Black racism protest, June 2020. Image credit: Adam Scotti/PMO

Can a government that has spent millions fighting nine consecutive orders to end racist discrimination against 165,000 Indigenous children and which regularly ignores United Nations calls to respect Indigenous nations’ right to free, prior and informed consent be an ally in the fight to end white supremacist violence?

Can a nation state that continues to honour white supremacists with street names, statues, and school mascots be a reliable anti-racist partner?

Will colonial police and spy agencies whose foundations are rooted in racism, misogyny, and homophobia bring to justice their street-level mirror images, as represented by racist groups like the Proud Boys?

After two decades of post-9/11 human rights abuses committed under the rubric of Canada’s so-called anti-terrorism laws, how much has the conversation shifted from abolishing the mechanisms of the repressive surveillance state — endless harassment, threats and infiltration, racial profiling, no-fly lists, indefinite detention without charge, secret hearings, rendition to torture — to a seemingly resigned acceptance that perhaps some of these things can play a role in the fight against dangerous non-state groups?

Such questions deserve discussion following a remarkable month during which traditional opponents of draconian anti-terrorism instruments suddenly threw their support behind such measures when they were applied to the racist Proud Boys and three other white supremacist groups. From the NDP — which in 2018 spoke out against the terrorist entity listing process — to the Canadian Labour Congress, National Council of Canadian Muslims, and others representing communities that have themselves been the focus of intrusive, malevolent state attention, there was a sudden — albeit at times reluctant — embrace of measures enforced by institutions with deep-seated, ongoing histories of racial profiling, Islamophobia, misogyny, colonialism, and homophobia.

Muslims remain terrorism default

While Hassan Yussuff, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, conceded that “under anti-terror legislation, stereotypes and guilt by association have led to the over-surveillance of Muslim and Arab communities,” he applauded adding racist groups to the terrorist entity listing because “white supremacist groups have not faced the same scrutiny.” While both statements are true, there is a painfully unexamined assumption that state security agencies will employ this and other so-called anti-terrorism measures in a neutral, colour-blind fashion, despite a lengthy history to the contrary.

Indeed, little noted in the February 3 announcement of new terrorist entities was the fact that the federal government never takes a day off from its own Islamophobic policies and practices, central to which are agencies like the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) that view Muslims as the default when it comes to naming alleged security threats. Thus, the same day Team Trudeau was applauded for adding four white supremacist groups to the terrorist entity listing, nine additional groups, all of which could be perceived as “Islamist” organizations, were also added. 

In fact, out of 73 groups now on the list, only a handful appear to be non-racialized, and 56 are identified as “Islamist” or Muslim-linked. Among them are organizations that have risen in response to illegal occupations of their territories in Palestine and Kashmir, as are groups that have been recognized as legitimate negotiating partners in pursuing peace negotiations (the FARC in Colombia, the Taliban in Afghanistan). Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, is also on the list. Such listings make it extremely difficult to support civil society organizations that are tasked with providing education, health care, and other social supports.

One Canadian group that found itself on the terrorist entity list is the International Relief Fund for the Afflicted and Needy (IRFAN). Under a Harper government that politically targeted specific organizations, IRFAN lost its charitable status in 2011. Just before the organization’s appeal was heard in 2014, it was designated a terrorist entity for providing approximately $14 million in humanitarian aid to Gaza orphans as well as medical equipment and supplies. Its Canadian offices were raided by the RCMP, and the group’s assets and property were frozen. The group’s elderly executive director suffered as well, from losing the ability to open a Canadian bank account to being subjected to increased scrutiny and detention during travel.

Significantly, IRFAN was prevented by the Canadian government from soliciting funds to hire a lawyer to challenge the listing. According to a court filing in 2016:

“IRFAN-Canada aided thousands of orphans in Palestine. To ensure the orphans received the aid they needed in a manner that was both efficient and accountable, IRFAN-Canada sent money to them through the Ministry of Telecommunications and Information Technology (MTIT) because it was in charge of the post offices in the Palestinian National Authority-controlled areas. The allegations against IRFAN-Canada generalize that because some members of Hamas have been linked to the broader MTIT, IRFAN-Canada has somehow supported Hamas. This assertion is both wrong and unsubstantiated. It is akin to arguing that buying stamps at a local Canadian post office in 2014 amounts to knowingly aiding the Canadian government to fulfill its mandate.”

IRFAN-Canada was providing humanitarian aid to people in extreme poverty, and Canadian government documents related to the listing did not deny the fact that IRFAN funds met the needs of bona fide recipients, nor was any allegation made that any aid beneficiary was an illicit individual or entity. Notably, IRFAN’s provision of funds and medical aid was carried out without objection from the Israeli government, and its operations were only forced to close as a result of Canadian government action.

A draconian process

Groups listed as a terrorist entity receive no advance warning, and are added based on the low standard of “reasonable grounds to believe.” They can try to get off the list by applying to the public safety minister who put them there in the first place. Given their appeal is likely to be rejected — or they may not receive any decision in response — they can seek a judicial review at the Federal Court under the same draconian legislative scheme that governs secret hearing security certificates. The hearing is largely held in secret, without the group’s representatives and counsel present, and anything not normally admissible in a court of law is allowed as “evidence.” But even getting this far could prove impossible, since an organization’s assets would have been frozen, meaning they could have difficulty retaining legal counsel. Lawyers themselves might be viewed as “contributing” to a terrorist entity by even supplying a listed group with their services.

As state security academics Kent Roach and Craig Forcese point out, this is ultimately a political decision. “In the past, critics have accused governments of making listing decisions for political reasons,” they write.

“Listing decisions may implicate domestic politics, as Canadian politicians calculate the implications of listing among diaspora communities in Canada. Sometimes also at issue are foreign policy considerations, and especially Canada’s stature as a proverbial ‘honest broker’ in international peace negotiations. These considerations seem particularly acute where the entity has a political wing and exercises a governance role in a foreign jurisdiction.”

While few would mourn anything that makes life more difficult for street-level racists, there may be a false sense of security thinking that the Canadian government is now on our side, and that the problem of white supremacist violence is finally being attended to. CTV reported February 3 that:

“Anti-hate and civil rights groups are cautiously relieved the terrorist designation wasn’t expanded for the Proud Boys, which they say could have given law enforcement more leeway to surveil Black Lives Matter, Indigenous land defenders or others.”

But as history shows, BIPOC groups have always been the subject of state surveillance and harassment. Even a casual overview of the past 20 years of anti-terrorism legislation and state security agency behaviour reveals a standard pattern that invariably downplays or overlooks white supremacist violence while falsely naming as security threats individuals and groups based on religious and racial profiling. Indeed, CSIS, the RCMP, Global Affairs Canada, the Justice Department, and a variety of police forces have invested hundreds of millions of dollars building up unsubstantiated cases that have resulted in years behind bars in solitary confinement in security certificate cases, rendition to overseas torture of Muslim Canadians, a racially biased no-fly list that prevents babies from boarding airplanes with their families, targeting of mosques, pressure campaigns on university campuses interrogating Muslim students, and other repressive measures that have resulted in loss of jobs, financial security, reputation, and capacity to be accepted in their own communities without the taint of suspicion.

That Canada’s state security agencies would not focus on real threats and instead pin blame on individual targeted communities is a reflection of their white supremacist thinking. They have always demonized Indigenous people, immigrant communities, and anyone who threatens an unequal status quo. It’s in their DNA, reflected recently in a 2017 lawsuit by a group of CSIS employees who declared they had been “harassed and discriminated against by CSIS management and colleagues, on the basis of religion, race, ethnic and/or national origin, and/or sexual orientation.” That lawsuit was quietly settled with the usual promise to “do better.”

Downplaying white supremacy

The CSIS 2018 public report stated — without evidence — that “while racism, bigotry, and misogyny may undermine the fabric of Canadian society, ultimately they do not usually result in criminal behaviour or threats to national security.” It’s a remarkable statement — not only because racism, bigotry, and misogyny actually make up the fabric of Canadian society — but also because it flies in the face of readily available public data. Indeed, as the Toronto Star reports:

“Between 2015 and 2018, researcher Barbara Perry said she’s observed a 20 to 25 per cent jump in the number of right-wing extremist groups active in Canada. Based on Perry’s previous estimates, that would mean anywhere between 100 to 125 active right-wing extremist groups operating from coast to coast. Between 1980 and 2014, there have been more than 120 incidents involving right-wing extremist groups in Canada, according to Perry and co-author Ryan Scrivens’s 2015 research. The ‘incidents’ range from drug offences to attempted assassinations, firebombings and attacks.”

The researchers noted, by comparison, only seven incidents during the same time period that could possibly be described under the government’s definition of “Islamist” ideology.

According to documents obtained by Global News, CSIS originally proposed that their 2017 report would include the claim that “[w]ithin the broader context of extremism in Canada, the number of right-wing extremists who promote or are willing to engage in politically-motivated violence is extremely small.” (This claim would be consistent with CSIS behaviour: the spy agency’s review committee found that CSIS dropped an investigation into Canada’s far right in 2016 because Canada’s spies felt these groups did not represent a national security threat.) Global News continues that while Public Safety Canada initially included the CSIS statement on the far right, it was later changed from “extremely small” to “quite small,” and then cut altogether. CSIS also disputed that right-wing extremism was “a growing concern in Canada,” saying that was a “subjective statement” and demanding, “What is your facting for this?”

CSIS could have easily found that “facting” via a search on Google. They would have discovered a rigorous academic study by the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security & Society (whose partners include CSIS and Public Safety Canada) that concluded the right-wing extremist movement in Canada “is more extensive and more active than public rhetoric would suggest.” They noted there were over 100 groups, some of which “were actively engaged in brutal acts of violence directed at an array of targets” including Muslims, Jews, Indigenous people, LGBTQ communities, and “people of colour, such as Afro-Canadians, Asians, and South Asians.”

Significantly, their research confirmed that:

“a key factor enabling the emergence and sustainability of right-wing groups was a weak law enforcement response. Typically, activities of the far right have not been monitored or taken seriously…there was a tendency for officials to deny or trivialize the presence and threat.”

Still, Canadian officials tried to soft pedal right-wing extremism, questioning why it was listed as a principal threat to Canada. “Is far-right a ‘principal threat’ to Canada?” asked an official in the released documents obtained by Global News. “Good that it is outlined in this document, but may want to revisit how this is framed.”

That Islamophobic framing appeared again in the CSIS 2019 Public Report’s section on “terrorism and violent extremism” explaining that “while no single group has a monopoly on” threats, they proceeded to only use examples associated with so-called Islamist groups.

In addition to CSIS and the RCMP, Canada’s War Department — another institution built on a white supremacist foundation — has long been identified as a welcome host for individual white supremacists and members of organizations that have now been banned by Ottawa. But when groups including the Proud Boys were listed as terrorist entities, there was reluctance on the part of Public Safety Canada to actually mention incidents of Canadian involvement.

Canadian military’s white supremacy problem

In their new listing, Public Safety Canada writes:

“The Proud Boys is a neo-fascist organization that engages in political violence and was formed in 2016. Members of the group espouse misogynistic, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, and/or white supremacist ideologies and associate with white supremacist groups.”

While going into significant detail about the group’s role in the January 6 siege of the U.S. Capitol building, it fails to mention any Canadian links. Why is a government that wants to be seen as cracking down on the Proud Boys refraining from sharing that the group’s founder is Canadian, or that five Canadian military personnel proudly embraced their Proud Boys membership when they interrupted a Mi’kmaq ceremony in front of a Halifax Cornwallis statue in 2017? (Notably, those five members were reported to have continued regular duties without charge or demotion later in the summer.)

The Proud Boys shared their gratitude at their consequence-free ride with the Canadian military when they posted: “We win, our brothers, the Halifax five are returning to active military duty with no charges, let the social justice warriors tears pour. Proud of our boys!”

This was no isolated incident. As Winnipeg Free Press reporter Ryan Thorpe told CBC, after he went undercover to infiltrate a Manitoba chapter of The Base, another recently listed terrorist entity and white supremacist group with members in the Canadian military, “[t]he Canadian military is either incapable or unwilling, in some cases, to remove members from the Canadian Armed Forces who have been identified as holding sympathies with extremist beliefs and ideologies.”  A 2018 military intelligence report found that 16 Canadian Forces members or reservists belonged to hate groups Proud Boys, Atomwaffen Division, La Meute, Hammerskins Nation, III% and Soldiers of Odin, while another 37 had allegedly engaged in hate-motivated or racist activity. The report (whose numbers are no doubt a very conservative estimate), concluded that the numbers of Canadian military personnel involved in such activity “do not pose any significant threat to the” forces or the War Department, and, in fact, Global News reported that “[o]f those affiliated with hate groups, six regular members and three reservists remained in the military, it said. Twenty-one of the members alleged to have ‘made statements or taken actions’ motivated by hate were still active members.”

In June, 2020, the Canadian Forces responded to a racist meme circulated through the ranks with a commitment to root out racism, and even conceded “the social structures that formed our nation disproportionately privileged white people.”

But that commitment seemed to fade away when it was revealed a month later that a Canadian sailor had been readmitted to the navy despite ties to neo-Nazi groups and a history of attempting to sell Canadian military weapons to white supremacist groups. 

Last December, CBC reported that another reservist — whose ties to white supremacist groups were actually brought to the military’s attention by fellow members of the Five Eyes spying group of nations — was still a member of the Canadian Rangers.

While the Canadian military last summer put forth what it described as a plan to root out racism, lawyer Michel Drapeau pointed out: “As written, the policy provides the military chain of command the ability to shield offenders from criminal liability. CAF members proffering hateful comments should not escape from criminal accountability.” Indeed, CBC reports that the Canadian “military is dealing with most cases of Canadian Forces members accused of extremism and hateful conduct behind closed doors, without any disciplinary action.”

Indeed, in 2018, a white Canadian Forces reservist who targeted Black soldiers with racist abuse was allowed to stay in the ranks because, it was concluded, the young man had been feeling “stressed out” from his military training.

Canada was founded by Proud Boys

While it is critical to have a frank discussion about the terrorist entity listing, a larger and equally compelling question is how we root out the white supremacy in our own communities, of which the Proud Boys and related groups are merely the sharp end of a very long stick that is embedded in this nation’s history. In fact, Canada’s first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, could well be viewed as a founding Proud Boy, given his racist anti-immigrant sentiments and genocidal policies enacted against Indigenous nations. Longtime prime minister William Mackenzie King’s clearly-stated desire “that Canada should remain a white man’s country” would make him an honourary Proud Boy as well, along with his “none is too many” restrictions against Jewish refuges fleeing the Nazi Holocaust.

The Proud Boys, among others, are “tired” of hearing those who remind us that Canada is a colonial nation built on racism and genocide. When they declared themselves “a fraternal organization of Western Chauvinists who will no longer apologize for creating the modern world,” it was not in any way an isolated sentiment.

In fact, one could be forgiven for believing that the following statement was also attributable to the Proud Boys:

“Those who see Canada’s history as little more than a shameful series of mistakes and failures have grown increasingly vocal in calling for the shunning of figures like our first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald. Macdonald, however, is owed not our contempt and derision, but our thoughtful measured thanks.”

Sir John, the statement reminds us, “[a]cquired territory that made Canada the second-largest country in the world.” While land theft would be a far more appropriate term, reducing genocide to a series of “mistakes” makes it sound like a few well-intentioned errors were committed when in fact, genocide was the well-defined policy from the start, calculated to destroy whole Indigenous nations.

But the letter was not written by yellow-vest-wearing racists parading mask-less in front of a municipal hall. It was signed by hundreds of far more “respectable” supporters of the systems of white supremacy, including business leaders, academics, politicians across party lines (including the NDP), and the former liberal publisher of the Toronto Star.

The key to celebrating a man dedicated to the destruction of Indigenous people and driven by his hatred of immigrants, these sages explain, is understanding that he “launched policies that failed, as happens to all national leaders. This is certainly the case with the establishment of a national policy on Indian Residential Schools. Even though widely supported at the time, the schools had a dark legacy that hangs over the country to this day.” Such sanitized language completely erases the suffering of what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission named an act of genocide.

Canada’s founding Proud Boy also:

“made many other mistakes respecting Indigenous peoples and policies Canadians today strongly disapprove; we understand the frustrations of the descendants of those affected by these mistakes. Macdonald’s failures must, however, be weighed against an impressive record of constitution and nation building, his reconciliation of contending cultures, languages and religions, his progressivism and his documented concern for and friendship with the Indigenous peoples of Canada.”

That such an astounding statement could be agreed upon and shared publicly as an “important” intellectual document is symbolic of the deeply rooted colonial mindset that continues to dominate Canadian elite circles. Indeed, the Proud Boys are now banned as a result of their “misogynistic, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, and/or white supremacist ideologies,” yet here is a group of “respected” Canadians celebrating historical figures whose careers and policies were built on such a reprehensible foundation, contributing to the very stew of white anger from which the Proud Boys and their ilk take sustenance.

The idea that Macdonald as architect and executor of genocidal policies should be viewed as a victim of “historical revisionism” who deserves our thanks — no different than how Trump and his supporters see themselves as victims — is a profoundly disturbing expression of the same white supremacism touted by the Proud Boys. A similar pattern has long been a foundation principle stateside, where such sentiments are not isolated to the stereotype of country hicks. As a report from the Chicago Project on Security and Threats illustrates, of the 193 people charged with invading the U.S. Capitol in January 6:

“a large majority of suspects in the Capitol riot have no connection to existing far-right militias, white-nationalist gangs, or other established violent organizations…. The average age of the arrestees we studied is 40. Two-thirds are 35 or older, and 40 percent are business owners or hold white-collar jobs. Unlike the stereotypical extremist, many of the alleged participants in the Capitol riot have a lot to lose. They work as CEOs, shop owners, doctors, lawyers, IT specialists, and accountants. Strikingly, court documents indicate that only 9 per cent are unemployed.”

In other words, they are the beneficiaries of and conscious contributors to everyday white supremacy, the accepted norm.

Fighting back

We have much work to confront, disarm and defund the daily norm of state-sanctioned white supremacist violence. Look no further than the shockingly disproportionate incarceration of Indigenous and Black people in this country, the carding of well over 1 million racialized people by the Toronto police, an immigration system that remains riddled by racist bias, and the unleashing of the Canadian military, paramilitary RCMP and spy agencies like CSIS against Indigenous land and water defenders. But what alternatives exist for those threatened by street-level white supremacist violence, without resorting to repressive mechanisms like the terrorist entity listing process?

As always, it is the communities that are the target of such violence that are organizing to resist it, as seen, for example, in responses to anti-Asian racism during the pandemic, Black Lives Matter, anti-Indigenous racism, and repression against those without status. We can also look to history. There is rich documentation, and there are many remaining living witnesses, from the Black liberation struggles waged stateside, where similar questions arose in the context of whether state power could be used as a constraining force to limit or even neutralize groups like the KKK.

In a context where targeted, racialized communities that traditionally bear the brunt of state terror at home suddenly see the government’s attention shift to the reprehensible violence of racist street thugs, it makes sense that there might be a sigh of relief that translates into “perhaps this will take some of the heat off of us.” But as Malcolm X famously declared:

“If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there’s no progress. If you pull it all the way out that’s not progress. Progress is healing the wound that the blow made. And they haven’t even pulled the knife out much less heal the wound. They won’t even admit the knife is there.”

The knife of Canada’s anti-terrorism regime remains firmly stuck in the belly of many targeted communities. Part of removing that knife is abolishing the regime that put it there in the first place. For those of us with relative privilege, that remains a critical challenge: what are we willing to do to shield and support targets of white supremacist violence, whether that emerges from the gun-wielding police officers, the offices of Canada’s federal agencies, the gun barrels of RCMP sharpshooters exercising “lethal overwatch” at Wet’suwet’en, or the kid on the street putting on his first yellow vest and waving a very dangerous flag?

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who co-ordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. He has worked closely with the targets of Canadian and U.S. “national security” profiling for many years.

Image credit: Adam Scotti/PMO


Matthew Behrens

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who coordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. His column “Taking Liberties” examines connections...