“Don’t read the comments . . . Don’t feed the trolls.” There’s a certain caricature of people who write nasty, hateful comments online. This election campaign, it seemed as if the people who express hate in comments sections and on social media decided to show up in real life, armed with nasty signs and throwing rocks at the incumbent prime minister. Many of these protesters were supporters of the People’s Party of Canada (PPC).

Hate crimes are on the rise in Canada, including an increase in anti-Muslim hate arising from the policies and rhetoric of the post-9/11 world. We know hate crimes are the highest they’ve been since Statistics Canada started tracking them in 2009, that they are under-reported, and that only one per cent of reported hate crimes are investigated by police.

Some of this can be linked to the COVID-19 pandemic — for instance, a dramatic rise in anti-Asian hate crimes motivated by the virus’s origins in China. Researchers have also documented connections between the anti-vaxx movement and far-right groups. “The racist right that we monitor and the COVID conspiracy movement are inseparable from each other at this point,” Evan Balgord, the executive director of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, told the Canadian Press.

We know there is a problem. I want to talk about what we can do about it. Here are policy solutions that we should take seriously in this new climate of hate and far-right extremist activity.

 

Scrutinize and go after far-right and white supremacist movements with the same vigour as other terrorist groups

When I was an undergraduate student in the 2010s, it was normal for officers from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) to infiltrate Muslim Student Associations as part of anti-terrorism efforts by the Canadian government. Some students even had CSIS officers come knocking on their doors. These activities were done in the name of “community outreach,” presumably to groups thought to be potential breeding grounds for terrorism.

Over the past two decades, Canada has spent hundreds of billions of dollars on anti-terrorism efforts through activities such as counter-terrorism capacity building, research funding and augmenting agencies such as CSIS and the Canada Border Services Agency, Stephanie Carvin, associate professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University, said in an interview.

I want to see the same level of funding, urgency and legislation devoted to combatting white supremacist and far-right movements as we did other efforts to counter violent extremism.

So now that we know the demographics, whereabouts and identities of violent far-right extremists, where is the same level of policy action and government spending?

We need to dedicate adequate funding and personnel to root out violent extremism in far-right and white supremacist extremist groups. The federal government has acknowledged the threat of white supremacy and radicalization in Canada, and has funded research into far-right extremism and listed far-right and white supremacist groups as terrorist entities. But I want to see the same level of funding, urgency and legislation devoted to combatting white supremacist and far-right movements as we did other efforts to counter violent extremism. We urgently need governments to take action against hate — both harmful online activities and the violent hate crimes that have seen an uptick in recent years. The National Council of Canadian Muslims published a robust list of recommended legislation this summer, which provides clear direction for federal, provincial and municipal governments to better legislate against hate.

 

As part of pandemic recovery, find ways for people to connect with each other again

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Unfortunately, it’s hard to build political will to implement preventative policy solutions because the fruits of those investments often come many years later — when the government of the day is no longer in office.

We are emerging out of (and, strangely, simultaneously re-entering) a prolonged period of isolation and frustration. There are decades of research that show these conditions breed radicalization and extremist views. “Isolation exacerbates already existing grievances, leaving individuals vulnerable to extremism,” argued a May 2021 piece in openDemocracy. The Canadian government’s own 2018 National Strategy on Countering Radicalization to Violence (which focuses on groups such as groups such as Daesh and al-Qaeda but also references far-right extremism) acknowledged that a “desire for empowerment, belonging, [and] purpose” can help radicalize individuals.

There are policy implications for the isolation, frustration and anger we have all experienced over the last year and a half, and we see it in the increased polarization in our society. I want to see government fund programs that have people meaningfully engage with those they don’t agree with — Stanford University’s America in One Room project is a great example — as well as grassroots organizations that provide opportunities for individuals to connect with community. While Heritage Canada has funded anti-hate and anti-racism programs, these programs should be expanded in scope and funding as we emerge from this pandemic, especially given the tripling of popular support for the PPC in just two years.

It has only been a few months since four members of the Afzaal family were fatally run down by a truck in broad daylight in London, Ont. I wonder about the journey taken by the man accused of their murder. What happened to him in the years and months before this violent, Islamophobic crime? How many others are going through the same journey he did, and are on the cusp of expressing their hatred through violent means?

If we don’t take action fast enough, we will find out the hard way.

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Seher Shafiq is Community & Partnerships Editor at First Policy Response and Active Citizenship Manager at North York Community House.