Addressing Rising Ideologically Motivated Violent Extremism in Canada
Moderator: Barbara Perry, Director, Centre on Hate, Bias, and Extremism
- Barbara Molas, PhD, York University, The Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security, and Society (TSAS)
- Jessica Davis, President, Canadian Association of Security and Intelligence Studies, Former Senior Strategic Analyst, CSIS
- Dur-e-Aden, Ph.D Candidate at U of T and Junior affiliate with The Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security, and Society (TSAS)
The CDA Institute brought together four experts to discuss the rise of ideologically motivated violent extremism (IMVE) in Canada. The following is a summary of the discussion as well key observations put forward.
Panelists were given the task of analyzing the key trends driving the rise of IMVE in Canada, the challenges rising IMVE and right-wing extremism pose for law enforcement, the role social media, misinformation, and crowdfunding platforms have had in regard to accelerating and bolstering right-wing extremism, key lessons from the ‘Freedom Convoy’ protests, and what Canada is and should be doing to counter the rise of IMVE.
IMVE is increasing globally, and Canada is no exception to this trend. Push factors for radicalization, such as socioeconomic instability, polarization, and political distrust all increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. Notably, anti-Trudeau sentiment is among several drivers behind the rise of right-wing IMVE.
Events such as the recent ‘Freedom Convoy’ exemplified the capacity of the far-right to mobilize and exploit populist sentiment in a way law enforcement was ill-prepared to address. Analysts argue that the Emergencies Act did little to help in the long-term as it played into anti-government narratives, amplifying that particular social grievance. Further contributing to the rise in IMVE is growing distrust in media and institutions, which has led individuals to seek answers through non-credible sources.
There is no definitional consensus on what constitutes IMVE, making it difficult to share best practices or establish common ground for coordination. Nonetheless, multisectoral partnerships, as well as a greater focus on societal issues, in addition to one-on-one interventions, can aid efforts to counter growing radicalization and IMVE in Canada.
IMVE, particularly far-right violent extremism, has increased globally over the past few years. Canada is no exception to this trend, and therefore, not immune to the challenges posed by this complex threat – as demonstrated by the recent ‘Freedom Convoy’ trucker protests which resulted in the invocation of the Emergencies Act by the federal government.
The Covid-19 pandemic has been a key factor contributing to the recent rise in right-wing extremism in Canada as it created new concerns over security (e.g., freedom of movement), but this is not the only factor. Various aggravated ‘push factors’ contribute to radicalization, such as socioeconomic instability, polarizing narratives, and political distrust. Although offline activity decreased as a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic, new opportunities have been created for transnational connections online. Although it is essential to note that radicalization does not equate to mobilization, meaning that the increase in radicalization we are seeing has not directly translated into an increase in numbers at this time, there have been recommendations for Canada to push for greater transnational cooperation in countering the threat of IMVE moving forward.
It is important to consider the role of gender in the rise of far-right extremism in Canada, as trends suggest that more women are gravitating towards far-right movements, across multiple strands within that ideological sphere. Although women share the same values and ideas as men throughout these strands, they may take on different roles. The notion that women are not involved in these organizations because they are inherently misogynistic represents a significant challenge to the detection of future violence – failing to recognize women as potential perpetrators of IMVE is to the detriment of law enforcement.
IMVE narratives within Canada have a very specific anti-Trudeau sentiment that has been singular in nature. Much of this has to do with timing, since Trudeau and Trump were elected around the same time. Trudeau has become the antithesis of Trump, who is perceived by the far-right as someone who stands up for their country, whereas Trudeau’s policies are interpreted as being contrary to the interest of Canadians; signing away sovereignty (e.g., through the Paris Climate Accords) and easy on immigration. This issue of immigration ties into both socioeconomic and cultural factors driving the rise of right-wing IMVE and was noted to have produced a particularly strong vitriol within anti-Trudeau narratives.
A key lesson to be learned from the recent ‘Freedom Convoy’ demonstrations across the country was the capacity of the far-right to mobilize and exploit populist sentiment in a manner that law enforcement was unprepared and ill-equipped to respond to. The far-right is not organized into a direct hierarchy, making it difficult for law enforcement to target potential perpetrators of violence. The ‘Freedom Convoy’ was an example of a social movement with individuals from multiple backgrounds and levels of grievances, stressing the need for the government to listen to grievances at these varying levels. The decision to invoke the Emergencies Act was partly caused by the lack of action by provincial authorities to bring some sort of conclusion to these protests, forcing the hand of the federal government. Although the panelists did not believe the ‘Freedom Convoy’ protest was an extremist event, far-right extremists have taken advantage of it to further their narratives. By reacting through the unprecedented use of the Emergencies Act, whether justified or not, the federal government did little to help the situation in the long-term. Rather, it is arguable that it directly played into various anti-government narratives and, as a result, potentially amplified this particular societal grievance.
The panelists discussed the role of social media, both fringe and mainstream, in facilitating the rise of the far-right in terms of mobilization, as demonstrated by the Christchurch and Buffalo shooters, both of which had claimed to have been radicalized by online narratives. However, it was noted that when we talk about shooters that leave manifestos, there is a risk that more information will prompt an overly narrow outlook that this is the radicalization trajectory when, in reality, social media is only one piece of the puzzle and often these people will have connections to offline people as well. There is never one website that factors into radicalization – the whole information landscape is an ecosystem. Radicalization is never exclusively online and never occurs in isolation; external factors always play a role.
Increasing distrust in traditional institutions, such as traditional mainstream media, has led individuals to look for simple answers through alternative sources of information and narratives that can feed into conspiracy theories produced by far-right online circles that seek to destabilize established institutions. The challenge in countering this sort of mobilization is that it is grounded in emotion, rather than logic or reason, as individuals will tend to look for sources that reinforce pre-established beliefs. This is a complex issue to which there are no easy answers, but steps are being taken to undermine the effects of harmful online discourse. For instance, one panelist cited the Redirect Method—the production of active counter-narratives through targeted advertising in social media platforms. Those searching online for harmful content can, instead, be redirected and connected to constructive alternative messages.
Although there is no question that the threat of right-wing IMVE represents a transnational issue, and therefore requires greater transnational coordination, the challenge posed by the lack of universally accepted terminology on this matter became an area of debate amongst the panelists. Without a definitional consensus on IMVE, it becomes difficult to share best practices and find common ground for coordination. However, it was also noted that we do not have a universally agreed upon definition for ‘terrorism’, but that has not stopped coordinated action on counter-terrorism efforts, even at the United Nations. Despite an inability to agree on terminology, there is a common trend of anti-government sentiment which creates a paradox for how much the government can do. There are multiple factors involved in radicalization and numerous underlying societal problems feeding into it, therefore it is important to involve multiple departments and programs that may not necessarily be counter-terrorism in scope, but can support broader objectives. Multisectoral partnerships and support, as well as greater focus on the societal issues that surround people’s experiences and perception of reality and of themselves, in addition to one-on-one intervention practices, are strategies that can serve to counter radicalization and IMVE in Canada.