Quebec's growing far right fringe faces scrutiny after the mosque attack
As anti-Muslim tensions run high in the U.S., the killing of six Muslim men while at evening prayers in a Quebec City mosque on Sunday has sparked questions about extreme right views here in Canada.
In the days following the mosque attack, Quebec police reported a spike in Islamophobic hate crimes in the province. According to Statistics Canada, hate crimes against Muslims are on the rise nation-wide, with roughly one-third of the incidents occurring in Quebec.
Alexandre Bissonnette, the accused in the mosque shootings, is not believed to have been affiliated with any political group. But he was reportedly an admirer of Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen, the leader of France's right-wing populist party, the National Front.
"They are trying to change not just the government but, really, the mindset of society in Quebec."- Jonathan Montpetit, CBC Montréal
Classmates say he held anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant views — ideas that seem to align with the ideology of Quebec's far right fringe.
A number of outspoken far-right groups have emerged in Quebec in recent years, from the openly fascist Adelante Quebec to more moderate groups that oppose immigration and seek to protect what they refer to as Quebecois values.
Last fall, CBC News reporter Jonathan Montpetit spent several weeks shadowing and interviewing members of Quebec's more moderate far right groups as part of a special CBC News series.
"They don't conceive of themselves as incipient political parties," he tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury.
"They are trying to change not just the government but, really, the mindset of society in Quebec."
Inside Quebec's far right
One of the most high-profile anti-immigration groups is La Meute, also known as The Wolf Pack, which lists 43,000 members on a secret Facebook page.
La Meute was founded in 2015, around the time when Justin Trudeau made the promise to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada, Montpetit says. Not long after that, a chapter of the controversial "community watch" group Soldiers of Odin was formed.
The Soldiers of Odin organization, which has chapters across Canada, conducts regular patrols of city streets and originated as an anti-refugee and anti-immigrant group in Finland.
According to Montpetit, both groups are comprised of "everyday" men and women looking to take a stand — including real estate agents, government workers, and former police officers.
"Members of these groups really aren't socially isolated individuals by any means," Montpetit says. "They're average Quebecers who feel a sense that the society that they know, or have known in the past, is under threat and changing."
Anti-Muslim views were prevalent among the people Montpetit spoke with.
"It's inescapable," he says.
Among the more moderate far-right groups like La Meute and Soldiers of Odin, anti-Muslim views tended to be expressed as an opposition to "radical Islam" and Sharia law, Montpetit says.
"[But] as you push them in their beliefs, you do get a sense that it runs a little bit deeper, and you know, based on perceptions that may not align with the reality of Canadian Muslims."
A growing presence
It's difficult to get a precise figure for the number of people who are involved with Quebec's far right groups, Montpetit says, but their profile seems to be growing.
It is a shift towards the far right: deep unease with multiculturalism, deep unease with immigration levels, and deep unease with Islam.- Jonathan Montpetit, CBC Montréal
Researchers believe the groups are now more organized and visible than they were a generation ago, Montpetit says, and they are recruiting new members more aggressively than in the past.
He estimates that of the 43,000 members on La Meute's Facebook page, roughly 5,000 are active at any given time. The Soldiers of Odin page has roughly 400 members.
The debate over the Charter of Values in 2013 also seems to have played a role in energizing the far right movement.
"This is not the extreme right radicalization; this is not people advocating violence or anything like that," Montpetit says. "But it is a shift towards the far right: deep unease with multiculturalism, deep unease with immigration levels, and deep unease with Islam."
"Notably, they also felt that it creates a climate of unease, a climate of suspiciousness, vis-a-vis Muslims."
Many of the far right groups are based in and around Quebec City, which has been a fertile ground for mainstream conservative politics in recent years.
Quebec City is relatively ethnically homogeneous in comparison to other cities, including Montreal, Montpetit says.
It also boasts a constellation of private radio stations that are locally known as "radio-poubelle" or trash-talk radio, such as Radio X, which often present anti-immigration and anti-Muslim sentiments.
Those radio stations are facing heated criticism this week in response to the mosque attack.
"It's very hard to escape their role in public debate in Quebec City," Montpetit says.
Responding to the mosque attack
In the wake of this week's mosque attack, the far right groups that Montpetit spoke with all firmly denounced the violence.
"There was, across the board, expressions of sympathy for the victims," he says.
Groups like La Meute are working to gain greater legitimacy in the broader Quebec society, according to Montpetit. They are aware of the scrutiny they are currently under, both from the public and by the police.
"They are aware that the political climate — this week, at the very least — is not favourable to their interest," Montpetit says.
Speaking to the media in the days after the attack, Parti-Quebecois leader Jean-François Lisée was among those calling on politicians in Quebec to shift the tone of the debate around immigration and values.
Lisée expressed regret for comments made during his own leadership campaign, when he advocated for a ban on the burka because, he said, the garment could be used to conceal an AK-47.
"He called on other politicians in Quebec to … make a little 'mea culpa' of their role in fostering a debate that's been acrimonious, that's been divisive," Montpetit says.
While he's hesitant to predict that this week's violence will have a lasting impact on discourse in Quebec, Montpetit believes it could shift the conversation.
"It's been ten or fifteen years now that identity has really dominated the political debate in this province," he says. "If this event on Sunday illustrates to people a line … in that discourse, then possibly things will shift."