Book Review: Barbara Perry and Ryan Scrivens, Right wing Extremism in Canada (London: Palgrave, 2019, pp. 277)

Canada has often been an under-studied case when it comes to right-wing extremism. Previous analyses have highlighted the rise of the extreme right in Canada since the Second World War (Barrett, 1989); the challenges these hate groups have presented (Kinsella 2001; Perry and Scrivens 2016); and the activity and ideology of the  Canadian Alliance and Reform Party (Clarke et al, 2000; Laycock, 2001). Overshadowed by the cohesiveness and plethora of similar movements south of the border, what has been notable about the Canadian extreme right-wing scene is how loose and diverse the movement is compared to other national contexts – with recent estimates suggesting that there are around 130 groups active within this extremist milieu. More recently, however, Canada has become the focus of international attention. This renewed attention is mainly in part due to a strident street-based scene but also a growing criminal and terroristic element – with one in June 2014 targeting three police officers and another attack on the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City in January 2017. More recently, the Canadian national government has made steps to combat this renewed threat – proscribing Neo-Nazi radical right extremist groups Blood and Honour and Combat 18 in June 2019.

Coming during this inauspicious time, Perry and Scrivens recent book aims to be the first to paint a panoptic picture of radical right-wing extremism in Canada by analysing the membership, distribution and activities of right-wing extremist (RWE) groups. More specifically, they wanted to identify four topical themes: which groups are likely to be violent; the nature of violence – be it recurrent, overt, or covert – and severity; which endogenous (i.e. inward-facing) variables are associated with group development; group sustainability and violence; and, lastly, which exogenous (i.e. outward-facing) variables are associated with development, sustainability and violence.

The study achieves this through a mixed methodological approach. Firstly, it uses a website analysis of Canadian hate groups and those with Canadian content but with non-Canadian domains. This analysis focused on grievances, where these groups place blame, what solutions they offer to the problems they identify, and whether there have any links with other right-wing extremist groups. It also uses the media to identify reports on reactions to offences, details of events, background details and legal proceedings. Finally, it includes interviews with law enforcement, intelligence communities, community activists, and former and current members of hate groups.

The authors use a theoretical framework of ‘permission to hate’. They argue that current approaches to hate crime do not help us to understand how or why patterns emerge as they do. Additionally, they argue that other hate crime studies are too a-theoretical and positivist in their approach, based on regressions of official statistics without a theoretical framework to guide variable selection. The authors do not make any reference to the studies that they are basing their insights upon. Despite this, we know that USA-focused work by Ryan and Leeson, Adamczyk et al., and Mulholland are regression-based studies, but they do use theories (such as defended neighbourhoods) to guide their selection of demographic and socioeconomic variables.

The approach of ‘permission to hate’ looks at the enabling environmental factors, such as action or lack of action by state and political actors, that let hate movements thrive. Examples of this include: prominence of anti-immigrant rhetoric signals that xenophobia is acceptable; lack of police responses to groups gives them a sense of impunity; and regions with histories of being unwelcoming to minorities will continue to be so. These blur the line between the extreme and the mainstream right.

As we know from other studies, the hate and hostility of right-wing extremist groups is based on power, identity and belonging that result in a social hierarchy where societal power is placed with white, Christian and heterosexual males. And, it is through their actions that they deprive victims of security, freedom of movement and engagement. It can be argued that histories of hate are therefore the foundations of RWE. In Canada, according to the book, these groups are based in areas where their presence is indicative of normality of racism and exclusion (Quebec, Western Ontario, Alberta and lower mainland of British Columbia). Therefore, there is something about these areas that provides a fertile ground for these groups. For example, in areas where there has been a history of hate towards aboriginal people as a history of oppression leads to modern privilege of white, straight Christian males. Therefore, in these areas RWE has been part of the normalisation of hate as they are dependent on their message being salient and so in areas experiencing dramatic demographic change. RWE groups need their messages to resonate with members and potential recruits by speaking to their concerns and therefore establish their local legitimacy, and so – according to Perry and Scrivens – they frame newcomers as threats to their historic hegemony and present them as scapegoats in order to appeal to the young and unemployed.

It can therefore be argued that state practices, polices and policy frameworks  – both at the individual and institutional level – marginalise and oppress minority groups. They can legitimise RWE or give permission to hate through rhetoric, legislation and through gendered and racialised rhetoric of politicians, judges, and newspapers towards immigrants. Politicians demonise minorities through policies and practices such as the post 9/11 legislation where Muslims are presented as problematic. This allows people to feel comfortable with their prejudice towards them, and empowers RWE to exclude and target them. Here, RWE benefits from what the authors call a ‘culture of possibilities’, and contesting elections (whilst not being electorally successful in Canada) gives RWE legitimacy to their intolerance and their ideals.

Findings

Perry and Scrivens’ study highlights the need to take both a local and national approach to looking at extremism as many participants had a limited idea of activity within their community or region. Moreover, few experts could be more qualified in commenting on the national or provincial distribution of groups. One additional criticism of the book is that it is only when the authors looked at the cumulative data could the diffuse and numerous presence of the extreme right be seen. They identified three types of RWE in Canada: white supremist/neo-nazi/racist skinhead; anti-authority communities; ideologues, gurus and lone actors and found approximately 100 groups, however this figure does not include lone actors or those who are below radar. They found violence was sporadic, unplanned and opportunistic, and largely committed by small groups or individuals. The activities were categorised as either non-violent crime (e.g. drug dealing); non-ideologically motivated criminal violence (such as fighting); and extremist violence which minority or anti-racist groups or law enforcement is targeted.

The endogenous factors that shape the development of RWE were groups being connected – both domestically and globally – through online spaces and interactions. However, and as we know from other studies, these groups have weak organisation and experience rapid phases of morphing and collapse. Groups also tend to hate each other, or there can be hate within the groups themselves causing splits. This is further exacerbated by weak leadership which destabilises the group. The exogenous enabling factors can be described as how the groups achieve legitimacy or the mainstreaming their ideas. This can be done through toning down their rhetoric, avoiding uniforms such as white robes or black/brown shirts, and forging links with the state (for example, by running for office). Even though there was little electoral success for these groups, they introduced intolerant rhetoric. Their contesting of elections established their candidates (Jeff Goodall of Edmund Burke Society, former Nazi leader John Beattie, leader of the Nationalist Party of Canada Don Andrews, and former nazi skinhead Christopher Brosky) as legitimate actors, and gave the RWE a visible and audible presence.

Perry and Scrivens also found that members encourage friends and associates to join the same group as them. This creates a level of trust between members and might explain some of the regional clustering of RWE groups in Canada, around Quebec, Western Ontario, Alberta and lower mainland of British Columbia. The personal interactions of the members gives them the sense of belonging, to connect with each other over their shared grievances and use the group ideology to understand and explain these grievances. This helps them to craft a larger identity, feel connected to part of something bigger. The inclusion of military personnel increases the capacity of the group for lethal violence. Additionally, many members will have had criminal histories before and during their membership of RWE, and so some are attracted by the inherent violence of RWE. In keeping with studies looking at the USA, they found that not all Canadian RWE have strong commitments to the ideology, which is also why many try a number of different groups. For many, it is the prospect of solidarity that appeals to members. It is the internal community – grounded in hate – that links the group rather than the hatred itself.

All is not lost, however. Perry and Scrivens’ study also identified exogenous factors that inhibit opportunity structures for such violent subcultures to flourish. These include strong and visible law enforcement responses through investigating RWE, community engagement and outreach and to neutralising the group leaderships themselves. Not responding to these groups can enable them, whereas over-responding to them can result in further radicalisation. Many of those interviewed also felt that police are not trained or motivated to confront RWE. The authors also identified the need of an active and present set of anti-racist movements which are useful in filling the gaps left by the police and legislation. Most importantly, they found that a lot of preventative work against RWE requires the fostering of resilience community resilience. For example, there was a collective effort, and effective local policies in Lethbridge, Alberta to resist RWE. The city established a successful Action Plan in 2011 to address some of the challenges a community experiencing demographic changes would face.  Attempts by the extreme right-wing to rally support in Lethbridge were met with strong resistance from all aspects of the community. The resistance by law enforcement, educational systems, equity-seeking groups and the citizens prevented these groups from gaining a foothold in that community. Therefore, the authors recommend a multidimensional approach to resisting and countering RWE that involves collaboration law enforcement and anti-racist movements and a sense of collective responsibility by all elements of the local community.

Conclusion

This book examines RWE in Canada through the theoretical lens of ‘permission to hate’ by analysing news coverage of these groups, their websites, and interviews with law enforcement, intelligence communities, community activists, and former and current members of hate groups. It highlights that RWE in Canada needs to be looked at nationally, as it is only when the authors looked at cumulative data were they able to identify the diffuse and numerous presence of RWE groups. They found that generally the violence committed by RWE was sporadic, unplanned and opportunistic in nature. In order to succeed, these groups need to achieve legitimacy either through toning down their rhetoric or through engagement in electoral politics, however these groups are subject to weak organisational structure which leaves them at risk of rapid phases of morphing and collapse. The authors find that in order to successfully limit the success of the extreme right-wing there needs to be a multi-agency approach. This includes a visible and trained law enforcement, the presence of anti-racist movements, and importantly a community resilience that prevents them from establishing a foothold in the community. Importantly, this book sets a basis for further mixed method investigations into RWE in other countries, as well as developing the theory ‘permission to hate’ in a way that can be replicated in other contexts .

Ms Sadie Chana is a Doctoral Fellow at CARR and a doctoral candidate at Rutherford College, University of Kent. Her profile can be found here:

© Sadie Chana. 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).