Scope of right-wing extremism vexed security officials, documents show
Secret briefing provided overview of right-wing extremism in Canada
Canadian security officials have been grappling not only with how to address the growing threat of right-wing extremism, but also the best means of defining the phenomenon and explaining it to the public, newly released documents show.
In a briefing for deputy ministers responsible for national security, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the RCMP openly asked whether, given the nature of the threat, the government of Canada was "able to effectively respond."
The secret briefing was aimed at providing the senior officials with an overview of right-wing extremism in Canada and fostering discussion of "broader considerations" on dealing with the issue, says a heavily censored version of the April 2019 document, released through the Access to Information Act.
Ralph Goodale, public safety minister at the time, also received a briefing on the issue, an accompanying memo indicates.
CSIS, which has spent much of the last two decades investigating jihadi-inspired terrorism, said last year it was increasingly preoccupied by those looking to support or engage in violence that is racially motivated, ethno-nationalist, anti-government or misogynist in nature.
Defining a dangerous phenomenon
After the devastating New Zealand mosque shooting, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said last March that Canada had taken important steps to combat discrimination and hate.
"We have stepped up investigations into groups that spread hate propaganda, including white-supremacist and neo-Nazi groups. We have implemented significant gun-control reforms. We have increased funding to protect places of worship. We have also invested in programs that promote inclusion, build bridges between people and celebrate our diversity," Trudeau told the House of Commons.
"Nevertheless, we know there is still a lot of work to do, but I want everyone to hear me when I say that we are going to do what needs to be done."
Less than a month later, the briefing from security agencies asked:
- Are terms like "right-wing extremism" or "far right" accurate?
- "Do we need a broader conversation on how we understand and describe all types of ideologically motivated violence?"
- How should agencies articulate the threat to government officials and the Canadian public?
- At what point are these activities considered terrorism?
- How do federal officials help Canadians report violent extremist behaviour?
The internal briefing document notes that the investigation of hate crimes — offences involving elements such as propaganda, promotion of genocide and targeted vandalism — falls largely to local police forces, which in some communities is the RCMP.
National-security criminal investigations can be triggered when there is sufficient evidence to demonstrate a clear ideological basis and motivation for the act, the briefing added. But it cautioned: "Obtaining sufficient evidence to warrant a terrorism charge can be challenging."
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Authorities might be concerned the same problems that occasionally emerge in terrorism cases around being able to prosecute on the basis of a demonstrated "political religious or ideological motivation" may also occur with right-wing extremism cases, said Wesley Wark, a University of Ottawa security and intelligence expert.
That concern is likely to fade, should right-wing extremism in Canada begin to reveal genuine connections with overseas movements and doctrines, he said.
Closing any gaps between local police, the RCMP and CSIS could be achieved by ensuring that existing Integrated National Security Enforcement Teams, which include players from various agencies, are "fully seized" with the far-right threat, Wark added.
The briefing mentions a proposal to include, for the first time, right-wing extremist groups on the national list of terrorist organizations.
Blood & Honour, an international neo-Nazi network, and its armed branch, Combat 18, were indeed added to the roster last June, opening the door to stiff criminal sanctions. A group on Canada's terrorist list may have their assets seized, and there are serious criminal penalties for helping listed organizations carry out extremist activities.
In the briefing, the RCMP also flagged efforts to create awareness of right-wing extremism through community outreach activities and developing partnerships.
The force noted its program on terrorism awareness for emergency personnel — often the first ones at a crime scene — now includes a segment on the far right.
Wark said this would be "a recent development and is a good sign."