This expert says far-right groups are on the rise, and N.L. isn't immune to their spread
Global growth of far-right ideologies has reached Atlantic Canada
In the wake of unprecedented upheaval in the United States, a university professor who tracks extremist groups says there's been exponential growth of the far-right movement in Canada since 2016 — and its tendrils reach across the Atlantic Ocean and into Newfoundland and Labrador.
While there's been much talk of the growth of the far-right in recent years, the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol in Washington, D.C., by pro-Donald Trump extremists made it one of the first major stories of 2021. Some fear more violence could erupt Wednesday for the inauguration of U.S. president-elect Joe Biden.
Its impact could be felt here, says David Hofmann, an associate professor of sociology at the University of New Brunswick.
"America is the largest exporter of far-right and far-right extremist ideology," said Hofmann.
Hofmann calls Trump's election as U.S. president in 2016 a watershed moment in global far-right extremism.
Trump normalized and encouraged far-right actors, according to Hofmann.
But he also points to the rise of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, along with members of neo-Nazi groups gaining seats in parliament in Europe, which happened around the same time.
Hate in Atlantic Canada
In Atlantic Canada there were six to eight active far-right groups in 2015 with about five members per group, according to Hofmann's research.
Since then those numbers have grown to about 30 groups with a total membership of roughly 150 people, Hofmann says, with 26 of those groups were established after 2016.
Newfoundland and Labrador has not been immune to their growth, he said.
"We found about three or four active, hardcore groups, not keyboard warriors," he said. The most troubling of them, Hofmann adds, is the Three Percenters, an American-style paramilitary movement.
He said the group is worrisome because they're the type to gather weapons for what they believe will be some sort of inevitable apocalyptic conflict. The group openly opposes immigration and Islam.
Hofmann says of the 156 hate-compelled incidents from 2000 until 2019 in Atlantic Canada, only five per cent came from Newfoundland and Labrador. None of them were violent.
That said, Hofmann pointed out that of the eight total incidents, six came after 2016 — enough for the researcher to warn against complacence.
When those groups rally or intimidate, it's vital that "the society and the community close ranks, and make it unequivocally clear to the individuals that their ideas are not welcome," said Hofmann.
For a confrontation to be effective, it must be non-violent, as violence can feed into persecution narratives used by those groups.
Hasan Hai agrees, but says even peaceful responses can fuel the fire.
Hai, a St. John's resident and outspoken critic of hate groups, says there's a risk the general population will dismiss them as fringe movements. He warns that's not the case.
"'These people are nuts' is the common thought," Hai said. "But … these are neighbours, these are coworkers, these are people in our community."
Two years ago, Hai encouraged counter-protests against the formation of a local chapter of the yellow vest movement, which in North America has been associated with far-right groups.
He says his non-violent protests made him a target.
"It started off as my name being shared within their Facebook groups both locally and nationally. I would get threats from strangers across the country calling me a terrorist," he said.
Hai says he would see people in the community who he recognized from the online forums that talked about him.
The whole experience, he said, was exhausting. He eventually had to take a step back from it, but still rallies for solidarity.
"We need to be actively countering it, all the time and relentlessly. Unless we are doing that, the messages will keep spreading," he said.
But with an ongoing pandemic forcing people inside, isolated and online, the magnitude of the far-right's growth may not even be known yet, according to Olivia Boonstra, who recently completed a master's degree in criminology at Ryerson University and has extensively studied right-wing extremism.
"It's really easy to get sucked into something much deeper and darker," she said.
"I don't think we know quite yet what the extent of the damage is going to be. But I think once we get out of lockdown … we're really going to see just the extent to which this has really radicalized people."