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Right-wing extremist activity on the rise in Atlantic Canada: UNB researchers

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — Researchers at the University of New Brunswick found an alarming recent spike in right-wing extremism in Atlantic Canada, and the data indicates the activity is increasing.

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — Researchers at the University of New Brunswick found an alarming recent spike in right-wing extremism in Atlantic Canada, and the data indicates the activity is increasing.

Right-wing extremist activity surged in Atlantic Canada in 2016 and then climbed higher each consecutive year, according to UNB sociologist David Hofmann. His research team studied far-right activity in the region between 2000 and 2019 as part of a project led by Barbara Perry, director of the Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism at Ontario Tech University.

Researchers found 29 right-wing extremist groups active in the region, such as the Northern Guard, which Hofmann described as an American-style militia movement. The Canadian Anti-Hate Network calls Northern Guard "an anti-Muslim hate group."

"We came across at least half a dozen if not more," Hofmann said in a recent interview, regarding the prevalence of militia movements in the region. "These groups do blend certain types of Atlantic Canadian culture and Atlantic Canadian pride into their narrative, though it's not a distinguishing feature." 

Some extremist groups have launched campaigns to feed and house the homeless in an effort, he said, to seem community-minded. "Many of these groups try real hard to just show they're just good old Canadian boys," Hofmann said. "Meanwhile, in the private circles, they're virulent, hateful, and so on so forth."

Hofmann said while his team recognized that hate groups are highly active online, researchers wanted to analyze those who chose to "take it a step further." His team, therefore, catalogued incidents such as demonstrations, vandalism and violence. Hofmann's peer-reviewed paper on the subject has yet to be published.

Brynn Trofimuk, a graduate student who worked on the project, said the widely publicized 2017 disruption of a Mi'kmaq ceremony in downtown Halifax by the so-called "Proud Boys" is a good example of the kinds of incidents the team studied. 

"A lot of people that I talk to are surprised to hear about how much or what is going on," Trofimuk said in a recent interview. "But it is out there, it is prevalent, even in Atlantic Canada."

After scouring news stories, court and government documents and social media, the team logged 156 incidents across the nearly two decades they examined, and found 60 per cent occurred after 2016. Eighteen took place in 2017, 34 in 2018 and 40 extremist-linked incidents occurred in 2019.

The year 2016 was a turning point for right-wing extremism, Hofmann said, largely because it coincided with the election of Donald Trump to the United States presidency and with rising nationalist movements in Europe. 

Hofmann said that beginning in 2016, nationalism and public tolerance of far-right opinions began to grow across the world. "What we really saw was that Atlantic Canada was not immune to this effect.”

He said Nova Scotia led the four Atlantic provinces with 47.4 per cent of the incidents logged by his team. New Brunswick was second with 41 per cent, while Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador were home to 6.4 per cent and 5.1 per cent of the incidents, respectively. 

The most prevalent form extremist actions were property crimes, followed by protests and rallies. Violent crime accounted for 11 per cent of the incidents recorded, Hofmann said, adding that nearly 15 per cent of incidents the team catalogued were acts of harassment or hate speech.

Hofmann noted that the data doesn't include events that occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic. He said pandemic-induced restrictions on mobility, coupled with a rise in conspiracies surrounding the health crisis have "changed the game massively, and we still don't know what the repercussions are."

Halifax-based writer, journalist and educator El Jones said she wasn’t surprised to hear right-wing extremism is on the rise in Atlantic Canada. "It's not new," she said in a recent interview. “We have some of the oldest Black settlements in Canada, which means we have some of the longest issues of white supremacy and racism and terrorism in Canada." 

Pointing to the 1784 Shelburne race riots in Shelburne, N.S., she said, “That’s the first recorded race riot in North America, so as long as there’s been Black settlements in Nova Scotia, there’s been a corresponding history of racism.”

It's easy for communities to respond to overt racism and extremism, Jones said, adding that it's harder to identify more subtle forms of hate, which she said can be more dangerous because “people see those things as innocuous."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 16, 2020.

Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press