‘A bastion of liberal values’? The rise of the radical right in Canada

In 2015, the Liberal Party of Canada won a resounding victory at the federal elections, claiming almost 40 per cent of the vote share. Its leader, now Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau stood on a platform of liberal principles. He publicly championed the plight of refugees and immigrants, supported a woman’s right to wear a niqab at citizenship ceremonies, and argued that convicted terrorists had the right to retain their Canadian citizenship. Trudeau convinced Canadians that Canada should be an ‘open, generous and welcoming’ country.

One of Trudeau’s first actions as PM was the commitment to bring tens of thousands of Syrian refugees to Canada. As a result, over 40,000 Syrians have since settled in the country. In 2017, Trudeau defended his government’s decision to issue an official apology to Omar Khadr, a Canadian al-Qaeda activist and former Guantanamo Bay inmate, and grant him a compensation payment of $10.5 million. The aforementioned examples have led many commentators to describe Canada as ‘a bastion of liberal values’.

However, since Trudeau’s landslide win, Canada has seen a dramatic rise in the radical right. Reported hate crimes are at the highest since records began, rising every year since 2015, and mostly targeting Canada’s Muslim, Jewish, and black populations. The most horrific incident was that of 29 January 2017 when Alexandre Bissonnette, a white nationalist, entered a mosque in Quebec City shortly before evening prayers and shot at ‘everything’ that moved until he emptied his weapon. Six people were killed in the attack and five were seriously injured.

Alexandre Bissonnette (Source: Tumblr)

In April 2019, six Canadian individuals and groups of the radical right involved in ‘organized hate’ were deplatformed from Facebook and Instagram. Days before the ban, Canada’s foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, told the United Nations Security Council that violent white supremacists and other radical right groups threaten the stability of Canada (and beyond). She claimed that white supremacy is one of the most serious threats of our time. Freeland stated that as foreign minister she felt a ‘specific and personal responsibility’ to condemn it. In October 2018, Assistant Commissioner James Malizia of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police declared that the far right in Canada has become more emboldened in recent years.

Trudeau and his government’s pro-multicultural, pro-immigration and pro-Muslim stance have played a leading role in the rise of the radical right in Canada. The head of the radical right People’s Party of Canada, Maxime Bernier denounced ‘Trudeau’s extreme multiculturalism and cult of diversity’. Perhaps the best example of this is the so-called Canadian ‘yellow vest’ movement which has been appropriated by far-right extremists. On marches, protests, and its Facebook page, Trudeau is singled out for attack. The ‘yellow vests’ heckled Trudeau during a number of engagements across Canada. In Toronto, protestors drowned out Trudeau’s podium speech by shouting claims that he panders to minorities. They also voiced their opposition to the United Nations Global Compact on Migration of which Trudeau is a strong supporter. The ‘yellow vests’ (and members of the xenophobic far-right group La Meute, or The Pack) in Quebec shouted down the Canadian PM during a town hall Q&A. One member of the group had to be removed by security for approaching Trudeau and shouting abuse at him.

Hatred towards Trudeau is even more apparent online. The Yellow Vests Canada Facebook page is a hub for anti-Trudeau abuse including death threats. Comments like ‘Wish a sharpshooter would put a bullet in his head’, ‘Trudeau needs to be shot’ and ‘He needs to eat led [sic]’ are common on the page.

However, the rise of Donald Trump in the US has perhaps been even more significant to understanding the increase in radical right activity in Canada. By the time Trudeau had taken office, Trump was already on the campaign trail to become president. His xenophobia and anti-Muslim rhetoric has emboldened likeminded individuals and groups in Canada (and across the West) to ‘defend the country against its internal enemies’.

Pro-Trump rallies have been held in Canada but perhaps the most obvious sign of Trump’s influence on the Canadian radical right is the adoption of Trump symbols by many of the country’s extremists, most notably, his political slogan ‘Make America Great Again’. For example, the head of the World Coalition Against Islam, a Canadian extremist group that openly refers to Muslims as ‘sewage,’ routinely wears a MAGA hat at rallies. The mosque attacker Bissonette also wore the red cap with the MAGA slogan.  MAGA hats and posters also appear at demonstrations and rallies organised by the radical right across Canada. Evan Balgord, executive director of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network which monitors extremism, claims that the MAGA slogan is widely seen as a hate symbol in Canada. As Director of the Centre of Hate, Bias and Extremism and expert on the far right Barbara Perry argues, the MAGA motto has become ‘shorthand for this white nationalist movement’.

Canada under Trudeau is a bastion of liberal values. Yet the growing trend of radical right activity is challenging this. The radical right has yet to impact on Canadian mainstream politics and society to the same extent as it has on many Western countries. That said, if effective counter-narratives are not put in place Canada runs the risk of succumbing to the growing and emboldened forces of the racial right.

Mr Rob May is a Doctoral Fellow at CARR and a Doctoral Researcher at Sheffield Hallam University. See his profile here:

© Rob May. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors’ and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).