OPINION | It's time to take action against growing extremism in Alberta
Research indicates right wing militants are on the rise
This column is an opinion from Calgary-based writer Claire Porter Robbins.
On Jan. 6, Canadians watched in horror as an angry mob stormed and terrorized the U.S. Capitol building.
If you were on social media in the days following, you might have seen some variation of the familiar "thank goodness we live in Canada" type posts and sentiment that we've been laughing a lot at these past four years.
It's a convenient punchline to shrug off the dramatic, sometimes violent politics that seems to be surging south of the border.
But here's the thing: we're not immune. Moreover, we're overdue to take action on growing right-wing extremism in this province.
Just because we don't have protestors storming the Legislature in Edmonton doesn't mean we shouldn't be addressing this threat with pre-emptive urgency.
In Alberta, one only needs to look to the events that occurred this past year to know that we need to take action.
Over the years, we've become familiar with the yellow vesters and Wexit fringe. But they've seemingly rebranded, mingling with QAnon flag flyers and holding up ominously scrawled "Save The Children!" signs on Alberta streets last summer and "marching for freedom" against masks in the fall.
Even spiritual leaders in Alberta have noted the proliferation of QAnon and similar conspiracies among their congregations.
Peaceful gatherings of conspiracy theorists are one thing, but they've bubbled over into related, shockingly violent incidents.
In the fall, we watched a video of the assault of an anti-racism activist in Red Deer and the attempted hit and run on protestors during an racial justice march in Ponoka. And there was also a parking lot altercation between right wing and anti-racism groups that took place in Edmonton.
WATCH | What happened when a Red Deer anti-racism demonstration turned violent:
I spoke to Taylor McNallie, an anti-racism activist who runs Inclusive Canada (formerly known as Rural Albertans Against Racism) and whose demonstrations were targeted by right wing groups last summer.
She told me her group had been holding family friendly anti-racism discussion events and picnics in public parks across Alberta for years.
But after a right wing "patriot" group member punched her partner in the side of the head in Red Deer during an event in late September, her group was forced to move the majority of their discussions online.
Even then, she says, "You can't even have an online event without them recording the conversations, and trying to locate the people who took part."
Women in particular, McNallie claims, bear the brunt of threats for taking part in anti-racism events.
One woman who attended some events as an observer received text messages warning her to "Stay the F--k out of Red Deer," while another female activist was forced to take leave from her job and leave the province for some months.
And it's not just a couple of worrisome events here and there; research indicates right wing extremism is on the rise in Alberta.
And far right groups are gaining steam.
John McCoy, founder of the Edmonton-based Organization for the Prevention of Violence, noted that Alberta law enforcement is dealing with increasingly larger gatherings of right wing extremist groups in the province.
"Where these guys would organize an event and two or three people might show up years ago, now they've got 15 to 20 showing up," McCoy says.
An undercurrent of anti-authoritarianism lies behind these trends that some might argue has always existed in Alberta, but it is now interlaced with the lure of conspiracies like QAnon.
Alberta fertile ground for extremism
But why now, and why Alberta?
The obvious factor here is economic insecurity.
About 11 per cent of Albertans are unemployed, and they're anxious. Premier Jason Kenney said he'd bring good oil jobs back to the province, but six years after Canadian oil prices started to tank, very little has changed.
Moreover, people are growing more and more frustrated — and their fears have been compounded by the pandemic.
Economically, things have gone from bad to worse. But more importantly, social isolation has forced those already vulnerable to the easy answers that extremist rhetoric provides farther into the margins.
Some of us spent quarantine time searching the internet for foolproof sourdough recipes; others channeled their loneliness, frustrations and prejudices into conspiracies and far-right online communities.
These far-right online communities are also all too eager to provide a space to validate these angry feelings and give a sense of purpose and meaning to others.
Policy action needed
But the less obvious, more nebulous factor at play here is that we haven't adequately prepared and protected our society from racist and extremist overtures.
We can start with our schools.
We're at a juncture where the need for a provincial media literacy curriculum has never been more urgent. If adults can't differentiate between real events and inane conspiracies, how can we expect their children, who are growing up immersed in digital and social media, to do any better?
WATCH | Premier Jason Kenney calls racists and white supremacists un-Albertan:
As political partisanship increases, educating the next generation on how to identify extremist rhetoric will have a longer term impact than debates about social media censorship.
Similarly, police services must continue to have conversations about how to identify bias and extremism, both in the public and within the ranks. The fact that the U.S. Capitol rioters included members of the military and police demonstrates the sad fact that law enforcement agencies are not immune to radicalization within their ranks.
Beyond direct involvement, this year has taught us an abundance of anti-bias and anti-extremism training can only benefit the relationship between police and the public. Like the Red Deer police officer who blamed "both sides" for this fall's violence, those tasked with protecting us must have a better understanding of how to address and police extremist gatherings.
A choice to make
Further, law enforcement will need to work in conjunction with social and health services to identify individuals at risk of radicalization or likely to undertake violence on behalf of ideological biases.
On a preliminary basis, further investment in mental health services for isolated individuals at risk of radicalization can combat the hateful, prejudiced worldview many far-right online communities espouse. And for those already engrossed in conspiracies and extremism, investments in rehabilitation, within both our prisons and the community at large, can pay dividends for long-term public safety.
As it stands, we're still in the thick of this pandemic, and Alberta's economic future has few bright spots. Extremism and conspiracy theories have fertile soil to grow here in this province — in fact, they've already taken root.
So we're faced with a choice: continue to deny and contrast our situation with our neighbours to the south, or act now to limit the progression of hatred and violence in our province.
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