When pictures started circulating of the white nationalist protest in Charlottesville, Va., last weekend, many people repeatedly asked how, in 2017, neo-Nazis could march in public with torches and swastika flags.

Conventional notions of social progress generally assume that it advances with time: that things get better, people become more accepting of one another and racial divisions start to dissipate. That assumption made last weekend's violence look like an anomaly, and many people had difficulty comprehending where these white nationalists came from.

The demonstrations in Charlottesville, however, were not indicative of a new "alt-right" trying to reclaim the United States for white people. They are part of a pattern of violent backlash that has often followed periods of greater social justice for black people, Indigenous peoples and those of other racial and religious minorities.


The demonstrations in Charlottesville were not indicative of a new "alt-right" trying to reclaim the United States for white people. (ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP/Getty Images)

After all, the Ku Klux Klan first originated after the American Civil War, when the U.S. army occupied former Confederate states and extended voting rights to African American men. It was also during the civil rights movement that the Confederate flag gained popularity as a rallying symbol for segregationists. South Carolina first flew the flag from its state capitol in 1962.

Canada has had similar moments of backlash in its history. The Ku Klux Klan rose to prominence in Saskatchewan in the 1920s in response to increases in immigration of people from central and eastern Europe. The group hated Catholics and wanted to maintain Anglo-Saxon purity.

More recently, protests from marginalized communities in Canada — particularly Indigenous peoples' disavowal of Canada 150 celebrations and demands to remove prominent historical figures from buildings and statues — has been met with a far-right resurgence of its own.

On Canada Day, for example, we saw a protest in Halifax by the "traditionalist" Proud Boys, who were reacting to an Indigenous demonstration near the statue of Edward Cornwallis, the founder of Halifax who encouraged killings of the Mi'kmaq people.

Proud Boys

The Proud Boys staged a counter-protest in Halifax on Canada Day.

Similar protests — some of which turned violent — occurred when Liberal MP Iqra Khalid brought forth motion M-103, which called on the government to take a stand against Islamophobia and systemic racism. In response, groups like PEGIDA Quebec and other far-right organizations took to the streets to protest immigration and a motion they argued would open the door to Shariah law in Canada.

Rather than seeing these events as something new or as offshoots of groups that existed in the past, it's imperative to recognize that these flare-ups are coming from groups that continuously exist.

Canada currently has about 100 active white supremacist groups, according to University of Ontario Institute of Technology professor Barbara Perry, one of the world's leading scholars on hate crime. It would be foolish to assume that they've disappeared just because we don't hear from them for a while. Indeed, when the situation gets bad for them — that is, significant gains are made in the realms of multiculturalism, tolerance and diversity — they'll make their presence known again.

We cannot tackle a scourge if we don't recognize it exists. Part of the approach must be tactical: making sure that law enforcement agencies are prepared in the event of another rally similar to the one held in Charlottesville, for example. The other part must be strategic: working within the education system to try to counter prejudices while kids are still young.

According to Statistics Canada, young people under the age of 18 are the largest proportion of people who commit hate crimes motivated by religion, race and sexual orientation. These figures directly contradict the assumption that many people have that certain types of hatred will die out with older generations. That simply isn't true.

Rather than be surprised at the next display of white supremacy and neo-Nazism, we should be prepared. Displays of hate ebb and flow, but they rarely disappear.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.