Out from hiding: the Alt-Right's Presence on Canadian Campuses is supported online

Since the start of the pandemic, a online resurgence of alt-right behavior means more for students to be wary of

Out from hiding: the Alt-Right's Presence on Canadian Campuses is supported online

Since the start of the pandemic, a online resurgence of alt-right behavior means more for students to be wary of

Right-wing extremism (RWE) has been on the rise in Canada in the last five years, with far-right extremist groups growing "in number and in boldness," particularly following the 2016 election of Donald Trump in the U.S., according to a research report by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) released in June.

Barbara Perry, director of the Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism at Ontario Tech University, estimates that there are around 300 active far right groups in Canada—around triple the amount that she found in a 2016 study.

Campuses are not insulated from the issue. "In terms of college and university campuses, there has absolutely been a rise in hate activity," said Hazel Woodrow, an investigator from the Canadian Anti-Hate Network (CAHN). CAHN is an organization that monitors, researches and reports on hate-promoting individuals and groups, mostly through journalism, according to their website.

"As the academy becomes more racially and religiously diverse, and as it is called on to address its institutionalized racism and colonialism, right wing reactionary ideologies coalesce out of individual students and professors into organized and strategic groups," said Woodrow.

The ISD report defines RWE as a "loose movement, characterized by a racially, ethnically and sexually defined nationalism. This nationalism is often framed in terms of white power, and is grounded in xenophobic and exclusionary understandings of the perceived threats posed by such groups as non-Whites, Jews, immigrants, homosexuals and feminists."

Perry, who has been studying hate, bias and extremism since the 1990s, said she's witnessed the way overt and visible right-wing extremism has crossed the American border and infiltrated Canada both online and offline.

"It was pretty quiet in the Canadian context in the early 2000s," she said. That changed with the beginning of Donald Trump's presidential campaign in 2015. "His outrageous statements about immigration, Muslims and Latinos captured the imagination of those who had harboured racist and anti-immigrant views and gave them permission to speak out and act out."

In addition to instances of verbal abuse, Perry said hate crimes have also increased significantly since.

According to StatsCan, from 2016 to 2017 alone, hate crimes increased by 47 per cent in Canada, "which is unheard of," said Perry. While the number of hate crimes did decrease by 13 per cent from 2017 to 2018, the total still remained the highest it's been since 2009. "It would've been a crisis, but there was frankly silence in response to that data being released."

As a result, Canada has become a much more difficult place for communities targeted by hate groups to live. There's been "a real dramatic shift in people admitting to anti-immigrant sentiment, anti-Muslim sentiment and in some cases, anti-Semetic sentiment as well," Perry said.

The impact of these statistics are as troubling in Canada as they are in the U.S., in fact, they are present on Toronto post-secondary campuses, including Ryerson.

Toronto Campuses Not Immune

In June, third-year English student Maria Couto was sitting on her couch at home when a petition popped onto her Twitter feed. It was titled "Expel Tyler L. Russell Immediately," and was created by fifth-year language and intercultural relations student Nikita Sankreacha.

On Twitter, Russell identifies as a nationalist and a paleoconservative. According to an article in Vox, paleoconservatism is a political ideology that stresses Christian ethics, isolationism and traditional conservatism. In tweets and through his live show, "Canada First", he has expressed nationalist, misogynist, anti-immigrant and anti-Black rhetoric.

After reading the petition and learning about Russell's extreme views, Couto said she felt uncomfortable and disgusted, especially given her father is an immigrant to Canada. She immediately emailed David Cramb, the dean of Ryerson's Faculty of Science, demanding consequences for Russell.

"I think he is perpetuating violence as his voice is listened to the most," considering his 740 Twitter followers, said Couto. "The outcome will be his listeners justifying racist behaviour. Anyone who listens to him and wants to work in law or healthcare will perpetuate racism through the system. It makes me fear the harm he will cause to immigrant and minority communities."

Woodrow herself is familiar with Russell and said she believes that his talk show is a prime example of how the internet has only furthered the RWE movement.

She said she believes the rise of the internet hate personality has spawned the neo-Nazi Groyper movement as Groypers are a loose network of alt right personality who openly support white supremacy and the "America First" podcaster Nick Fuentes. Russell's show, "Canada First," is fashioned directly after this.

Three years ago, posters stating "It's Okay to Be White" were posted throughout Ryerson and the University of Toronto. The vandalism was incited by an anonymous 4chan user who shared the posters for printing, according to Global News.

In November 2017, a member from Ryerson's public affairs office stated that the signs were being removed "as they do not condone to Ryerson's signage policy," according to reports from RUtv News.

However, this act is not an isolated incident and according to Perry, there are many active hate groups, online and off.

"In 2016, we conducted a study that identified just over 100 active groups and we're estimating now, even by 2017, 2018, closer to 300 groups," Perry said. In the U.S., they've identified just over 900 groups. The ISD report attributes this increase in activity to the use of social media. In their research, the ISD identified 6,660 right-wing extremist channels, pages, groups and accounts across seven social media platforms—Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Iron March, Fascist Forge, 4chan and Gab.

The channels, pages and groups that ISD research had collectively reached over 11 million users across these platforms, the report states.

"[Social media] provides avenues for a broad spectrum of right-wing extremists to mobilise by recruiting new members, broadcasting disinformation and propaganda, harassing opponents, and co-ordinating activity including publicity stunts, protests and acts of violence," the report reads.

According to Woodrow, a large portion of university students are facing the threat of being recruited.

"Those at risk of being recruited into hate groups and ideologies can include young, straight, cis, white men, who already have a disdain for ‘political correctness," Woodrow said.

Woodrow also added that people who are socially isolated or engage in hate speech to elicit a reaction (trolling) are also more susceptible to being swayed by extreme content.

Ryerson's own Discrimination and Harassment Prevention Policy seeks to eliminate discimination on campus, stating that it is the university's responsibility, "to exercise its authority to prevent discrimination and harassment" as well as promptly responding to related incidents.

There's also Ryerson's Student Code of Non-Academic Conduct (Policy 61), which "reflects the expectation that students will conduct themselves in a manner consistent with generally accepted standards of behaviour." The policy states that students must comply with university regulations and policies, follow federal, provincial and municipal laws, as well as professional standards and codes of ethics, according to the university's website.

However, The Eyeopener previously reported that some racialized students felt they weren't being taken seriously when reporting instances of harassment and discrimination on campus. Sankreacha, in particular, never got a definitive conclusion from Ryerson's administration regarding how Russell was dealt with or if he faced any consequences at all.

Further, she expressed that she felt the onus was put on her to explain her situation over and over to different departments and make adjustments to her academic experience to solve the problem.

In an official statement to The Eye via email, the university said, "While we cannot comment on specific investigations or complaints, we can confirm that the university thoroughly examines all complaints regarding violations of university policies and the university adjudicates them whenever it is appropriate to do so."

Couto said she doesn't think Ryerson should accommodate Russell or his views as part of the community.

"To allow him to remain on campus sends the message to BIPOC students that their comfort and safety is not important to Ryerson," she wrote in a follow-up email. "While anti-racism and pro-LGBTQ+ organizations on campus are vital, their work is only mocked when post-secondary institutions do not hold bigots accountable for their actions and make them pay the consequences."

Pandemic Strengthens Hate

Search data from January to April across cross Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal saw an average 18.5 per cent increase in searches for "violent, far-right keywords" since the implementation of COVID-19 lockdowns, according to a report from Moonshot CVE, a tech startup from London that aims to understand and counter extreme violence.

Ottawa experienced the greatest increase in extremest-related search traffic—34.7 per cent—after Ontario declared a state of emergency in mid-March. In Toronto, search traffic increased but not to a statistical degree.

"Anti-authoritarian movements such as anti-mask and anti-vaxx groups have put a much greater emphasis on anti-state and that's due to COVID," Perry said. While a lot of this recorded hate is perpetuated online, it doesn't mean it's any less dangerous. "Those narratives actually lead marginalized people to question whether they belong in Canada. These groups themselves are polarizing or disruptive, but it does spill over into offline activity," said Perry.

On Sept. 12, Mohamed-Aslim Zafis, a Muslim man, was killed outside of the International Muslim Organization mosque in Toronto. According to a CAHN investigation, social media accounts linked to Guilherme (William) von Neutegem, who was charged with first degree murder in connection to Zafis' death, suggest that von Neutegum was a "neo-Nazi occultist."

"Searches of people databases show there is only one Toronto resident with that name, and the social media accounts associated with it are connected to a variety of known racist and Nazi-inspired occult movements," stated CAHN.

Woodrow said this isn't an isolated incident. "We can go through all of these lone actors and see that they have been influenced by the kinds of narrative they're hearing online."

Woodrow said she believes a key solution is making sure minority groups vulnerable to these attacks become vital in anti-hate conversations.

"Communities and individuals targeted by hate must be centred in discussions on what must be done about it," Woodrow stated.

"Institutionalized prejudice and bigotry represses the ability of members of marginalized communities to defend themselves from fascism," Woodrow said. "The anti-fascist project must be in tandem with other movements that seek to liberate marginalized groups from all forms of oppression."