Far-right groups on the rise in N.B. and across Atlantic Canada, researcher says
'This is a global phenomenon, where world leaders have legitimized these types of views'
It was a shocking development, even for a world that has grown accustomed to shocking developments in Donald Trump's America — mobs storming the Capitol in Washington, D.C., to protest the results of the presidential election.
As Americans grapple with emboldened far-right groups and incidents like Wednesday's melée, new research suggests there has been a surge in extremism here in Atlantic Canada recently.
David Hofmann, an associate professor of sociology at the University of New Brunswick, says the growth of far-right groups here has been nothing short of "explosive."
In the past five years, Hofmann said, the number of active extremist groups in Atlantic Canada has surged from about eight groups with four or five very active members in 2015 to about 30 groups with about 150 active members in 2020.
That's a conservative estimate, he said.
"These are just the individuals we were able to find. There are probably many more who are not as vocal or as active online."
Who are these people? What's fuelling the trend? How concerned should we be?
In interviews Friday with Information Morning Fredericton and Information Morning Saint John, Hofmann shared some of his findings.
What does 'far-right' really mean?
What does the term "far-right" mean? Hofmann starts by explaining what it doesn't mean.
"Far-right does not mean people who have conservative values, who have completely law-abiding views — we're allowed and encouraged to have divergent political views in Canada," he said.
Instead, he said, it's "the fringe of the fringe of the fringe," people who take conservative ideologies to the extreme and gravitate toward acts of violence of the sort that unfolded in Washington this week.
"It's a distinction that's very, very important," Hofmann said.
Like any political or fringe movement, the objectives of far-right groups vary.
It can be, as was the case in the U.S. Capitol this week, trying to bring about political change — "in their case, stopping what they incorrectly see as a stolen election," Hofmann said.
In Atlantic Canada, the groups tend to be focused on preserving an idealized national identity.
"Here, it's about preserving what these groups feel is their racial heritage, what they define as being a true Canadian," he said.
Why the recent sudden growth in extremism?
According to Hofmann, 2016 was a watershed moment, "an absolutely pivotal moment for extremism across the globe."
That happens to be the year Trump was elected president of the United States. That was a key factor, Hofmann said, but not the only one.
"Trump's normalization and encouragement of far-right actors was part of it, but we also see in South America [President Jair] Bolsonaro in Brazil, members of far-right groups and neo-Nazi groups getting seats in Parliament in Europe and Greece," he said.
"This is a global phenomenon, where world leaders have legitimized these types of views. The climate for sharing these ideas has become more acceptable, which has caused these individuals to come out of the woodwork."
What attracts people to extremist groups?
What is it about extremist groups that attracts people to them?
That, Hofmann said, is the million-dollar question.
In essence, he said, it's a complex social process involving group activity, involving a desire to right what they see as wrongs, involving personal grievances.
For some, that could be the belief that an election was "stolen"; for others, it could be a misdirected anger over lost jobs or resentment of increased immigration.
"If I were to summarize it quickly, I'd say it gives people who are disenfranchised a sense of belonging. It gives certain people who are looking for meaning an ability to engage in something that is greater than themselves, while airing their grievances."
Where do these groups come from?
Most groups that have set up here are chapters of national or international groups.
A chapter of the international paramilitary group the Three Percenters, which is new to Canada, has established chapters in New Brunswick and in Nova Scotia.
The European-Finnish anti-immigration group Soldiers of Odin has set up a chapter here as well.
The Ku Klux Klan has also had a presence in New Brunswick since the 1920s and was actively attempting to recruit as recently as 2017, in Fredericton, Hofmann said.
Only two groups were "homegrown," formed in New Brunswick and run by New Brunswickers, Hofmann said.
They are the Northern Guard, with chapters in Saint John, Sussex and Moncton, and the all-female Northern Maidens in Saint John.
Who joins these groups?
There has been a marked shift in demographics of far-right groups in recent years.
In the past, the overwhelming trend has always been "angry young white men, as it was in the '80s and '90s with the Skinheads," Hofmann said.
But increasingly, women are getting involved, with the women-only group Northern Maidens active in New Brunswick.
Older people are also getting involved, "getting their hands dirty with conspiracy theories" and sharing their ideologies online on Facebook and other social media, Hofmann said.
How concerned should we be?
While violence is often a hallmark of far-right groups, the majority of active groups in New Brunswick and Atlantic Canada are non-violent, Hofmann said.
"The vast majority of the several hundreds incidents we tracked were property crimes, such as vandalism at places of work, places of worship, people's homes, harassment, protests."
Immigrants, Aboriginal people and people of colour have been the main targets of these groups, with vandalism at places of worship, work, people's homes, he said.
But the fact that the crimes were not violent doesn't mean they're any less troubling, he said.
"We should always be concerned when the potential for violence is on the table, and we should always stand up and confront hate," Hofmann said.
"Should we paralyzed with fear? Absolutely not. Are we on par with America? Absolutely not. Is there a problem and should we be addressing it? Absolutely."
Hofmann noted that leaders are making efforts to do that.
"The federal government has acknowledged that ... extremism is a growing problem and major security concern," he said. "That's reflected in funding and in governmental policy" and by the messaging of actions such as putting two virulent neo-Nazi groups – Combat 18 and Blood & Honour – on the terror watch list for the first time.
More can always be done, Hofmann said, "but it is on their radar."