Keeping with the theme of the OPV/TSAS conference on PVE (preventing violent extremism) in Edmonton last week I’d like to pick up on a theme that is getting a lot of attention in Canada, that of right-wing extremism (RWE for short). There was a panel on this menace that I had to unfortunately skip as I was speaking on a simultaneous panel (I really wanted to go but I figured that skipping my own session to attend another would have been bad form). I thus have no idea what exactly was said but I can take an educated guess.
There have been a lot of stories lately about RWE in Canada and some have suggested that the threat posed by these actors is much greater than that posed by Islamist extremists (for the record I disagree). Hence our security apparatus (CSIS, the RCMP and law enforcement) should retool to focus on the former rather than the latter. I think this is unnecessary, as I hope to demonstrate.
First, though, what do we know about RWE in our country? Well, thanks to scholars such as Barbara Perry, Ryan Scrivens and others, quite a bit. We also have stories like this in last week’s Edmonton Journal which cites a Statistics Canada (SC) report that alarmingly trumpeted that hate crimes in Canada rose by 47% in 2017. Now, hate crimes and RWE are not synonymous but I imagine it is fair to equate the two in a very general way. It is also interesting to note that Finland is seeing an analogous, albeit much smaller, rise in hate as well (an 8% increase). With these stats in hand it is a fair question: what are we doing about it and are we doing enough?
Except that there are two problems with this analysis. The first is that hate is not a synonym for terrorism. Allow me to try to break this down. I see all terrorism as a form of hate but the reverse is not true (i.e. not all hate is terrorism). Take any terrorist group, no matter what the ideological, political or religious stripe (these three motivations are used to define terrorism under the Canadian Criminal Code): Islamist, RWE, neo-Nazi, Hindu, etc. In each case you will encounter a lot of hateful attitudes towards the Other. This hate translates into acts of violence: the underlying ideology calls for violence against whomever is the target.
Pure hate is a little different. It does not necessarily require an underlying ideology and therefore does not qualify as terrorism under Canadian law. I know that many are not happy with this but we have the laws we do and need to work within that legal framework. Yes, we can – and do – change laws but until that time we have to abide by them. If there are no grounds to lay terrorism charges based on current legislation, we are left with more ‘mundane’ crimes – murder, attempted murder, assault, etc. That is why, for example, Alexandre Bissonnette’s killing spree in Quebec City last year was murder,maybe hate, and not terrorism (from a narrow legal perspective: it sure looked like terrorism the eyes of many).
Furthermore, hate is treated in a special way in our courts. If a crime (murder for example) is shown to have been perpetrated for reasons of hate the judge can issue a longer jail sentence than for garden-variety murder. Interestingly, this option does not exist for terrorism charges.
The second thing that worries me is that when we read that hate crimes are up by 47% we leap to the conclusion that RWE is up by 47%. If that is indeed true then a whole bunch of people at CSIS and the RCMP have missed a very big boat and we could legitimately ask them what the hell they are doing all day. Except that I want to give you an extract from the aforementioned SC report that is really illustrative. Here it is (emphasis added): “After steady but relatively small increases since 2014, police-reported hate crime in Canada rose sharply in 2017, up 47% over the previous year, and largely the result of an increase in hate-related property crimes, such as graffiti and vandalism. In other words, a significant portion of that 47% is best described as ‘graffiti and vandalism’ (there is another point that we should take into consideration but which I will leave aside – “an increase in numbers may be related to more reporting by the public ” ).
Now I don’t know about you but as upsetting as graffiti and vandalism may be they sure as hell do not constitute terrorism in any definition of which I am aware. Terrorism is the incidence of serious violence for ideological, political or religious reasons and neither of those two ‘crimes’ fits that category. Painting a swastika on a Jewish grave or putting a pig’s head outside a mosque is not an act of serious violence. So,no, we have not seen a 47% increase in RWE, at least with respect to actual terrorism.
Look, I am not dismissing the very real and very worrying existence of RWE in our country. I also think it MAY get worse and that we MAY want to think about dedicating more intelligence and law enforcement resources to it (although that would entail robbing Peter to pay Paul). But we have to get away from exaggerating the RW threat just as we do with the Islamist extremist threat. Embellishment and scaremongering serve no one. You would think we would have learned that by now.