Far-right infiltration of Canada's military poses a serious threat, says Winnipeg reporter
‘It only takes one lone actor motivated by a hateful worldview to do significant violence’: Ryan Thorpe
It's a story fit for a spy movie.
For one long month in 2019, Winnipeg Free Press reporter Ryan Thorpe went undercover, posing as a white nationalist in an attempt to earn the trust and acceptance of the neo-Nazi group The Base. Through his investigation, he exposed Patrik Mathews, a Canadian soldier involved with the group.
"They're armed, they're organized, and they're filled with hate," he said in a video for the newspaper's website. "And they're here in Winnipeg looking to recruit young white men for a race war."
Thorpe's investigation started off from a tip the paper received about white nationalist recruitment posters popping up in Winnipeg.
After discussing with fellow team members, Thorpe decided that the only way to get a sense of what this group was up to was to reach out as someone while posing as a white nationalist.
Thorpe's investigation sparked a discussion surrounding right-wing infiltration of Canadian military; a discussion that's still happening today. Earlier this week, Lt.-Gen. Wayne Eyre of the Canadian army told CBC News that he plans to issue a special order that will give Canadian army units direction on how to deal with soldiers suspected of hateful conduct and extremism.
Thorpe spoke to Day 6 host Brent Bambury about the threat far-right infiltration of Canadian military poses to society.
Here is part of their conversation.
This week, Canada's top army official openly acknowledged the infiltration of Canadian troops by the far right. Based on what you've learned through your reporting, how serious is that threat?
I think what we're seeing is the Canadian Armed Forces conceding that it has a bit of a problem on its hands.
The best research we have on this was actually an internal military report that went public. It was produced in November 2018, and it looked at foreign extremist activity in the military over the course of a five-year period from 2013 to 2018.
They identified more than 50 people who are either full-fledged members of hate groups or had expressed extremist sympathies or hateful worldviews.
That is a considerable problem because we've consistently seen it only takes one lone actor motivated by a hateful worldview to do significant violence.
You met and exposed Patrik Mathews, a Canadian soldier who was part of a far-right group called The Base. Before we talk about him, tell me about that group.
The Base is a neo-Nazi accelerationist group that was founded in the United States in 2018.
Experts who track far-right extremism will say that organizations like The Base really represent the most violent, radical fringes of the far-right hate movement today, and they are very explicitly geared towards partaking in terroristic activity.
How did Patrik Mathews — an engineer with a leadership role in the Canadian Army — become part of this extremist organization?
Throughout his time in the military, he underwent a process of radicalization and began identifying with increasingly fringe and hateful views until the point where he became a full-fledged neo-Nazi.
At that point in time he reached out to this organization and joined up.
He was participating in paramilitary training in the United States. He was engaging in a recruitment drive here in Winnipeg, attempting to get paramilitary training off the ground here. And that's how he came to be involved with The Base.
You met with Patrik Mathews when you were reporting on the story. He did not know you were a reporter. Did he seem like somebody who could move through society undetected?
One of the things that was interesting from that experience was that if I had crossed this guy on the sidewalk or met him under any other circumstances, I certainly wouldn't have known that he held this abhorrent worldview. I would have just assumed that he was just another person.
It appears that he was flying under the radar to some extent in the Canadian Armed Forces. One of the ways I was able to expose him was to develop a source in the Canadian Armed Forces who had participated in training exercises with him.
[The source] made [it] very clear to me: "We had no idea that this guy had this worldview. I don't want you to think this was an open secret. If I had known, we would have taken steps to address it, but we didn't."
[But] a recent CBC News investigation revealed that an army reservist who openly supported a far-right group called the Three Percenters was allowed to continue to serve even after he was identified as a potential counterintelligence threat. What do you make of that?
That's something we've seen play out a couple of times. It's not an isolated case. The Canadian military is either incapable or unwilling, in some cases, to remove members from the Canadian Armed Forces who have been identified as holding sympathies with extremist beliefs and ideologies.
This is something that's drawn a lot of criticism from activists and academics who track this stuff. I know the Canadian Anti-Hate Network has been very vocal on this issue and has pointed out, from their perspective, that there's a failure when you identify someone as holding these worldviews and yet they're not being removed from the force.
Do you think there's a difficulty for the military in trying to determine if someone is on the edge of the political spectrum as opposed to a white supremacist and a potential terrorist? Is that one of the issues for the military?
I think the military, in some of these cases, has its hands tied. Where does something cross the line from being constitutionally protected to where someone does cross that line and now they are getting involved in extremist activity? Where do we collectively as a society draw that line? Where does the military draw that line, and when do they then have the rights to boot someone without violating their rights?
I think that's the balancing act that the military is having to engage in here. And according to some folks like the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, sometimes they're not drawing that line in the right place.
Written by Mouhamad Rachini. Produced by Annie Bender. Q&A edited for length and clarity.