Explaining where Dr. Barbara Perry’s 300 number comes from, and why we need to start focusing more on movements than groups.
“The kind of garbage has no place in Canada. No one should face this abuse.”
By Evan Balgord and Peter Smith
Canadian Anti-Hate Network
In recent days, politicians, pundits, and other experts have told us that there are 300 hate groups in Canada. They have been citing an estimate from Dr. Barbara Perry, who has been counting hate groups and Right-Wing Extremist (RWE) groups in Canada since 2000.
Right-Wing Extremism is an academic term that’s been used for decades. It’s basically a synonym for hate group, but also includes anti-government and anti-law groups like the Freeman on the Land and other extremist sovereign citizen type movements.
Some critics, who try to dismiss the threat of these groups, have expressed disbelief at the number. We don’t expect critics of anti-hate and anti-racist work to be swayed by examining the topic, and this article isn’t for them. It’s for our supporters, researchers, and policymakers who genuinely want to understand organized grassroots hate in Canada, its scope, and why we need to be focusing on movements more than groups.
First, this isn’t easy to count. While Dr. Perry does count groups, you have to keep in mind that hate groups have volatile leaders and members -- there’s a lot of infighting. Their groups start-up, fracture, and fold all the time. A count from a few months ago will already be out of date. That, the effort in producing and maintaining a list, and our very limited resources, is why the Canadian Anti-Hate Network doesn’t keep a comprehensive list. So we’re sharing our best estimates and the research of others.
Dr. Perry is counting not only groups (eg. the Proud Boys) but also their chapters (eg. the Manitoba Proud Boys). Not every hate group has chapters, but the larger ones have several. CAHN believes there are perhaps 70 to 100 hate groups in Canada, based on our own expertise and that of Drs. Perry, Scrivens, Hofmann, and others -- if we don’t count chapters. If you add chapters, that number grows to over 120.
“These include groups that are only made up of a small number of people versus others with more significant and organized membership,” says Dr. Perry.
Then there are the online groups. With the recent and extremely overdue crackdown by Facebook, there may be fewer of these groups than when Dr. Perry first gave her estimate of 300 groups. Still, there are quite a lot. They start and fold even faster than the other groups, so this will necessarily be an even rougher estimate.
So there’s the simple explanation: the 300 number includes chapters and online groups of some significance. Dr. Perry is going to release a new environmental scan this year that’ll better break down the 300 number.
There has been a sudden and swift uptick in hate groups. In 2015, Perry and Dr. Ryan Scrivens identified more than 100 active right-wing extremist groups operating in the country. By 2017, Perry said that they had seen “at least a 25 per cent growth in the number of active groups,” and now they estimate over 300.
Dr. David Hofmann is another researcher who has worked with Perry and Scrivens on the annual national environmental scans alongside his own body of research. His most recent publication focuses on hate groups in Atlantic Canada, and the rise in hate groups that he has tracked on the east coast and across the country.
“The rise on the east coast has been significant,” he said during a phone interview. “I’m involved with the national research program as well, and you know the rigours of academia mean that there is a strict definition to what qualifies as a hate group.”
“Now we’ve developed a list that approaches 300, but that number could easily be higher in many cases.”
The number of groups is a very imperfect measure of the scale of organized (or loosely organized) hate in Canada -- but it’s been the metric people refer to because it’s even harder to count the number of hate supporters and sympathizers within far-right movements.
Canadian Anti-Hate Network
In January 2017, six people were murdered and 19 were injured while praying in a Quebec City mosque. In 2018 a young man drove a truck onto the sidewalk through a business district in Toronto, killing 10 and injuring 16. In early 2020 Cpl. Patrik Mathews was arrested on weapons charges in the United States after abandoning his truck and illegally crossing the border to join his compatriots in the neo-Nazi terror group The Base.
All of these incidents were hate-motivated; however, only one is tied to an actual group. The others are fueled by loose online networks. To be part of modern-day hate you don’t need to be a card-carrying member of anything. In fact, many of these groups and movements specifically encourage their supporters not to organize into groups because they believe it frustrates surveillance and law enforcement efforts.
Once shocking to a country whose self-image is built on tolerance, the reality of the Canadian hate scene is that it is pervasive and growing, according to every expert, anti-hate practitioner, and the communities facing increased hate-based harassment and violence.
There are way, way more true believers, supporters, and sympathizers within hate movements than there are self-identifying members (or supporters) of individual hate groups.
Take, for example, Canada’s Yellow Vest movement. In France, where it originated, it was a popular, anti-government movement with many calls to action. Here in Canada, the leaders of Canada far-right and anti-Muslim movements stole the name and namesake vest, and built a 250,000+ strong Facebook page. Run of the mill conservatives and people who sympathized with the idea of a western separation from the rest of Canada got swept up into it, lured by a variety of issues. For some, it was about oil and gas and anti-Liberal sentiment.
But Yellow Vests Canada was also so full of blatant anti-Muslim racism and calls to assassinate politicians, those were the prevailing kinds of posts, and its audience stuck around. The few critics were shouted down by the group and removed. The rhetoric kept escalating. The number of willing bystanders was and is deeply disturbing. The anti-racist collective Yellow Vests Canada Exposed documented hundreds of examples. Sure, only a minority of the 250,000 went on to become active members of the hate scene, but even a small subset of 250,000 people is a lot of people.
The same exact thing is happening today with the covid conspiracy scene. These movements tolerate or promote hate, and in the case of QAnon, spread conspiracies built on classic antisemitic tropes that lay the groundwork for neo-Nazis and other hate preachers to try to recruit them.
Groups emerge out of movements, and individuals carry out hateful or dangerous behaviour because they’ve been radicalized by movements and ideology.
We need to target all three: movements, groups, and significant individuals.
Before social media and the internet became so pervasive, hate networks in Canada survived mostly on independent mailing and membership lists for publications. The advent of platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and now a slew of independent and decentralized social networks popping up to catch users caught up by big tech moderation has stratified groups, while still making points of entry fairly easy to reach.
How do we protect people and institutions from vile, racial, and bigoted hatred, while still maintaining a society that encourages dissent? It’s only made more difficult a question as so many conspiratorial ideas continue to permeate Canadian and global culture.
“In this era where it's not a clear line, it's a blurred line and it's a moving line,” Perry said, adding “We've just got so many conspiracy theories, for example, bleeding into mainstream politics.”
The devil is in the details, and Perry said it is once these ideologies cross the line into rigid belief that they meet the definition of right-wing extremism.
“Right-wing extremism or hate groups are people who hold reactionary worldviews and beliefs that are based in racial, ethnic, gender, or religious superiority, and which may lead or encourage behaviours that break the law,” Hofmann said.
“This doesn’t mean that every member of a hate group will go on to commit some form of violent action against individuals or the public, but they support and can motivate those actions.”
“If [beliefs] become dogmatic,” says Perry, “there's no room for argument, there's no room for alternate opinions. When we're talking about the right, it bleeds into hateful language or sentiment that vilifies or demonizes particular communities [and] undeservedly so.” Adding that, in her view, hallmarks of extremist thinking include a lack of room for debate and good faith discussion.
“If you were just saying, ‘my way or the highway,’ then yeah, you're probably edging your way into extremism and a very dogmatic position.”
While cautioning that there are fewer hate groups than in America, Perry says it does “rear its head here as well” and the very real danger should not be easily dismissed -- nor should many of the anxieties that make people targets for this ideology.
Right Wing Extremism is a multi-dimensional issue and “demand multi-sectoral responses as well,” Perry says. Particularly when talking about the financial grievances and the economic anxieties that underscore much of the tension during the pandemic.
“These are often the people who were drawn to Trump, for example. Or those who, maybe haven't lost their own jobs, but fear of job loss. We're seeing that in Western Canada, around the oil industry, that's what drew people to the Yellow Vesters that was subsequently sort of co-opted by the far-right.”
The distribution of hate groups, both as a whole and throughout Canada, is unique in its own right. Perry likened American and Canadian hate movements to a Venn diagram, where there exists significant crossover and shared beliefs, but still in largely separate spheres.
Like his colleague, Dr. Hofmann believes that the online component has enabled community building that wasn’t possible before. However, as groups grow in recognition, their reputation can hinder recruitment. Sometimes they try charity projects to rehabilitate their image.
“Street patrols” that have taken the form of thinly veiled intimidation attempts outside of mosques, food and clothing drives, and trash clean-up projects all try to garnish positive media and community relations, and whitewash their true beliefs and what’s said in their private groups.
"Many of these groups spend a lot of time working to just show they're just good old Canadian boys," Hofmann said. "Meanwhile, in their private chat groups, they're openly hateful, typically towards Muslims.”
The final question of how to deal with RWE groups is a complicated one. Legal consequences for the perpetrators of hate crimes are severely underutilized by law enforcement.
However, from Dr. Perry’s view, the battle must be fought on a variety of fronts.
“Government does have a role in ensuring folks that there is a plan, especially in the context of COVID,” she said. “There is a plan and economic help to draw them in.”
”That's stage one,” she says, meeting the structural needs.
When it comes to the next step, immediate anxieties and intentions, those family and friends who are able can rally around, but Perry warns “they're often in the same place, sharing those conspiracies.”
“It's a real challenge. That was a conversation I have with a lot of people about people who are firmly convinced of some of these conspiracy theories. The election, for example, for which there was absolutely no evidence whatsoever to remain committed to that position. How do you then dissuade them? It is just such a challenging thing to do because we've become so comfortable with this disinformation.
“It’s critical digital literacy, isn't it, our ability to reflect on what it is passing through our inboxes on a daily basis. So I think that's why it becomes so much more, so much more important that social media is responding, not just to hate speech, but absolutely to disinformation as well.”