Panelists in a webinar discussing the rising far-right in Canada Wednesday said some of the groups involved with the “freedom” convoy-turned-occupation of Ottawa are likely to continue organizing, with some speakers highlighting police complicity in far-right movements.
The webinar was hosted by the Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women (CRIAW-ICREF), a feminist non-profit organization. The panel discussion was described as an attempt to offer critical analysis on the rise of far-right politics in Canada.
Barbara Perry, who researches right-wing extremism at Ontario Tech University, said it is increasingly difficult to untangle fringe far-right messaging from mainstream groups.
“We're really seeing a blurring of those lines from the right,” said Perry. “So many of even the mainstream political narratives that we're hearing resonate to some extent with the narratives of the far right.”
Core extreme right-wing messages, Perry explained, focus on calls to reverse any rights gained by marginalized communities, including women, LGBTQ people and racialized groups.
However, Perry said, “there's not just one version of the far right globally or in Canada. There is this diffusion, almost, of the movement.”
These diffuse components of the far right include overtly neo-Nazi skinhead groups that were more active in the 1990s and 2000s, but also accelerationist groups, those primarily focused on Islamophobia, militia movements and networks steeped in conspiracy theories, such as the QAnon movement.
Perry noted that there has been a recent increase in the number of far-right groups, a trend that is making such groups more disparate and atomized.
This trend, she noted, was seen during the far-right led convoy-turned-occupation of Ottawa that called for the overthrow of Canada’s elected government and the removal of pandemic-related public health protections.
“During the convoy, more and more individuals [were] being drawn into the far right, perhaps through those gateway conspiracy theories, without necessarily affiliating with a particular group,” Perry explained.
Justin Ling, an independent journalist who was in Ottawa during parts of the month-long occupation, also spoke to the webinar about some of the convoy’s roots.
“It has been a byproduct of at least a decade of conspiracy thinking and emerging extremism, but also just two years throughout the pandemic, an emerging distrust in government, in public health authorities, in politicians and government, in systems kind of writ large, the media as well,” he said.
“It began with this idea that governments are just lying to you, but it has morphed into this idea that it is an international effort to eviscerate our rights, to install a one-world totalitarian government, to microchip the population, to sterilize the population,” he added.
Those trends, said Ling, have in some cases attached themselves to longstanding far-right conspiracy theories and extremist movements, including proponents of the so-called “Great Replacement” theory, which claims politicians are secretly trying to depopulate white people.
Pat King, one of the leading convoy organizers, warned in a 2019 video of a supposed “Anglo-Saxon replacement” that plans to “flood [Canada] with refugees."
Other convoy leaders were involved in right-wing protests such as the “United We Roll” movement against the federal government’s climate and immigration policies in 2019, as well as Western separatist groups and adjacent online spaces steeped in Islamophobic messaging.
The occupation of Ottawa, Ling said, brought far-right organizers, anti-vaccine groups and COVID-19 conspiracy theorists together in a common cause. Some of the more extreme groups that latched on to the movement included armed militias like the neo-fascist “Diagolon” movement.
Diagolon was linked to the group that was arrested at the Coutts border blockade in Alberta for conspiracy to commit murder after being caught with a cache of weapons, ammunition and body armour. RCMP officers were photographed hugging other members of the blockade the next day.
“I don’t think this will be the end of it,” said Ling, referring to the Ottawa occupation’s successful coordination of previously disparate groups. “We need to be deeply concerned about where this goes next.”
Ling has previously stated that he is “not a police apologist,” but back in February praised the police handling of the occupation.
Specifically, he said the police’s clearing out of the occupation was “one of the most cautious, slow, methodical crowd operations I've ever seen.” Ling did acknowledge the stark differences in how police treated the mostly-white occupiers compared to Indigenous-led protests.
As reported by Jeremy Appel for The Maple in February, many observers noted the ways police directly enabled the occupation, with some active officers even donating to the cause. Counter protesters, meanwhile, were treated with much more heavy-handed tactics by police.
Conservative politicians, including leadership candidate Pierre Poilievre, also lent enthusiastic support to the occupation.
Still, Ling suggested, “part of the solution is going to have to be an intelligence and policing solution. But frankly, it will not catch everything, and it can't solve everything."
“I think even criminalizing speech, criminalizing entire movements is just prone to backfire,” he added. “Giving police kind of unfettered power to target groups or to target ideologies only kind of expands that sort of victim complex.”
El Jones, a journalist and academic who is also a prison abolition activist, told the webinar that some police and military officers are formally involved with right-wing groups.
Notably, some of the Ottawa occupation’s leadership were former law enforcement professionals, playing key roles in the protest’s logistics and security operations.
The alignment of police with far right-led organizing efforts should come as no surprise, Jones said. “Police exist to uphold the racial order, so when people are like ‘why don't the police do their jobs?,’ they are doing their job. This is conservative white men, largely.”
She noted that police in Calgary are currently fighting to be able to adorn their uniforms with the so-called “Thin Blue Line” patch, a right-wing symbol conceived as a reaction to racial justice movements.
“That has nothing to do with keeping communities safe or stopping crime,” said Jones. “It has to do with a particular ideology around the power of policing.”
She continued: “Policing has always been based on settler colonialism, white supremacy, patriarchy, property capitalism and upholding those values.”
“That's not to say every individual officer is an active white supremacist; it is to say the institution of policing is tied to the social order, is tied to power.”
Jones noted a double-standard whereby racialized people advocating for justice are frequently met with suppression and hostility, whereas largely-white far-right movements have been met with calls for compassion and understanding by pundits in mainstream newspapers.
As well, she added, when racialized groups expressed concerns during the pandemic, they were met with a hostile response.
“When we talked about the incarceration and policing of Black people during COVID, we got attacked, and then two years later, those very same people [who attacked us] are flying the Canadian flag and talking about mandates,” said Jones.
“When we talk about policing, we are ‘woke lunatics’; when the convoy talks about policing, they ‘actually have a point,’” she added.
To counter these problems, Jones said groups advocating for justice should continue to expand their movements.
“We have to be connecting to the labor movement; we have to be connecting to feminist movements; we have to be connecting globally,” she explained.