Canada has been applauded for labelling the right-wing group the Proud Boys as a terrorist organization. A bold move, and arguably an important one, but hardly sufficient. The issue of extremist right-wing and white supremacist groups in Canada is not new nor is the Proud Boys an isolated anomaly. Its shameful existence is the result of a much deeper, and too often ignored problem in Canada – the nation’s violent and racist colonial history and its contemporary legacy. Canada’s refusal to fully acknowledge these issues has allowed groups like the Proud Boys to not only exist but to thrive.
Who Are the Proud Boys?
The Proud Boys was created in 2016 by the Canadian-born far-right political commentator and former founder of Vice News, Gavin McInnes, who has in the past confidently described himself as a xenophobe. Members of the group have described themselves as “Western chauvinists who refuse to apologise for creating the modern world” and likened being proud of ‘the West’ today to “being a crippled, black, lesbian communist in 1953.” In order to become a member of the Proud Boys or begin your own chapter, you must complete a shortlist of somewhat bizarre yet very fitting tasks. You have to be beaten up by a minimum of five other men while simultaneously naming five cereal brands because “the bonding and camaraderie this violence produces is inspiring.” You must also get a tattoo related to the group, essentially branding yourself. Lastly, you are required to engage in violence on behalf of the group, such as “you kick the crap out of an Antifa,” according to McInnes.
Other organizations, such as the civil rights group Southern Poverty Law Center have stated that the foundational beliefs of the group are that “Western culture is superior to all others, racism is a myth created by guilty white liberals, Islam is a culture of violence, and feminism is about de-masculating men.”
Why Canada Designated Them As Terrorists
On February 3rd, 2021, the Government of Canada added 13 new groups to the Criminal Code list of terrorist entities. The Proud Boys, along with three others, were highlighted as being “ideologically motivated violent extremist groups.” Section 83.01 of the Canadian Criminal Code defines terrorism as an act committed “in whole or in part for a political, religious or ideological purpose, objective or cause” and “in whole or in part with the intention of intimidating the public, or a segment of the public, with regard to its security…”
The announcement was made by Public Safety Minister Bill Blair and came less than a month after some members of the Proud Boys took part in the violent mob that stormed the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. The attack followed a rally where disgraced former US President Donald Trump further encouraged his followers to prove his conspiracy of a rigged election. However, according to a security official, the Capitol insurrection was not the “driving factor” behind Canada’s decision to designate the Proud Boys as a terrorist group. The official stated that they were a “group we’ve been looking at as a community for a while.” Blair further stated that the group was absolutely a security threat to Canada and that “Their violent actions and rhetoric are fuelled by white supremacy, anti-Semitism, racism, homophobia, Islamophobia and misogyny, and unfortunately, often in combination of all of the above.” Nevertheless, the events on January 6 caused the conversation surrounding right-wing extremism to be thrust into the limelight again. So perhaps it was not the deciding factor, but there is reason to believe that it forced this decision to come a lot faster.
What Does This Mean?
The categorisation of the Proud Boys as a terrorist organization does not necessarily mean that every member is going to be rounded up and arrested. However, as counter-terrorism researcher Sarah Teich explained, this new classification “makes it much, much harder for these groups to operate in any meaningful way in Canada” as even paying membership dues could result in a decade in prison. The designation is a step in the right direction, but it cannot end there. The Proud Boys is still – at least to an extent – free to spew its harmful rhetoric. This designation doesn’t block members from joining other groups with similar values who have not been designated as such by the government. Lecturer Candyce Kelshall explained members can “effectively [sidestep] their terrorist designation” by joining other similarly-minded groups. She stated that “The criminal justice system will be unable to weather this storm unless it adjusts its approach to understanding the true nature of social movements [because] soft violence … takes the form of culturally nuanced, inexplicit cues that reinforce perceived power disparities.” For these reasons, it is important to examine the society that allowed them to actively promote such views in the first place.
An Underreported Issue
The ideology shared by the Proud Boys and similar groups is not new. These Western chauvanist, misogynistic, and far-right ideas have been around in both Canada and the US since the beginning of colonisation. According to Dr. Barbara Perry, an expert on hate crime, there are at least 130 active far-right extremist groups across Canada today. Most of them are against racial and religious inclusivity, with Islamophobic and anti-Semitic sentiments being the most common along with hatred for Indigenous people, and discrimination against women and minority groups following closely behind. Hate crimes reported to police rose by 60% between 2014 and 2017, however, this number does not tell the full story. Underreporting of hate crimes is significant, especially within marginalized communities that have a stressed relationship with law enforcement informed by police brutality and systemic discrimination. According to Dr. Perry, up to 85% of hate crimes go unreported. Another issue has been Canadian legislation. The Harper government repealed Section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act in 2013 which limited online hate speech, making enforcement and protection mechanisms weaker according to Perry.
Canada in Denial
Often, the discourse on racism, white supremacy, and misogyny (among others) is not properly addressed in the Canadian context – so let’s address it. Canada has tried to differentiate itself from the United States States in many ways. It has promoted its reputation on the global stage as progressive and welcoming, often presented in stark contrast to the US. However, Canada, just like the US, remains a settler-colonial state. European colonialism was motivated by the prospect of economic gain and what was perceived as untapped resources of ‘the New World.’ This goal was going to be met, no matter the consequences. The settlers brought with them violence and deadly diseases, which killed the majority of the Indigenous population and thus their capacity for resistance. As such, the oppressive Canadian colonial regime was able to flourish, primarily benefiting the settlers to this day. Canadian Marxist and historian John Riddell wrote, “So when we speak of colonialism in Canada, this refers not just to the treatment of Indigenous peoples but to the pervasive racist colonialism of the state as a whole.”
On Canada Day in 2017, many gathered along with Chief Grizzly Mamma at the statue of Halifax founder Edward Cornwallis to mourn the genocide against Indigenous people on that land. As those at the ceremony gathered in prayer, five men identified as members of Proud Boys, further identified later as off-duty members of the Canadian Armed Forces, disrupted it. The Proud Boys are Western Chauvinists “who will no longer apologize for creating the modern world.” That includes that they are not apologizing for the violent history of this country because they see it as a victory over the Indigenous people, fueling their idea of “West is Best.” Without much in the dominant sphere of information, such as education curriculums and so forth, to counter them, this line of thinking continues to grow more dangerous – and unless something changes, this won’t end. Their disruption of the ceremony in 2017 is symbolic of not only their lack of regard for the suffering, both past and present, of Indigenous peoples in Canada but is also an ongoing and active form of colonial violence that is grounded in their understanding of history. For Proud Boys to admit they are on unceded Indigenous territory would be to acknowledge the true history of this country and thus completely disrupt their understanding of history. Their victorious mindset is what continues to fuel their sense of superiority over others, it is the exact mindset that the first settlers had when they arrived and allowed them to carry out the acts that they did.
The Canadian government’s reluctance to acknowledge the racist and colonial origins of the nation has allowed groups like the Proud Boys to form and remain active. This country is in denial about its history and this narrative is only perpetuated by school curriculums, general conversation, and our leadership. Stephen Harper, former Canadian Prime Minister, said, “We also have no history of colonialism.” In light of the resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests in America and around the world following the murder of George Floyd, some Canadian politicians reinforced the narrative that Canada is somehow immune to racism. Ontario Premier Doug Ford claimed that Canada does not have the same “systemic, deep roots” of racism that the United States does.
The Parliamentary Black Caucus released a statement regarding the “systemic and insidious nature of racism in our country” and called on Canada to act. The Canadian Human Rights Commission stated, “the roots of anti-Black racism and systemic discrimination in Canada run deep… [and are] built into our institutions, and perpetuate the social and economic disparities that exist in everything from education to health care to housing to employment.” This is evidence of what the lack of a diverse political body has done to Canada’s governance. Without representation and, more importantly, respect and implementation of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour) voices and views, the very real threat of white supremacy and far-right extremism has gone unacknowledged for a long time.
The First Step
The designation of the Proud Boys as a terrorist entity is a step in the right direction, but it is not enough. Public education and awareness of not only the existence of these groups but also of the environment that allowed them to prosper can no longer be denied by those in power without the potential for deadly consequences. Refusing to acknowledge the realities of racism in Canada, and performativity passing designation legislation, will allow far-right groups like the Proud Boys to continue to prosper.
We are seeing the long term effects of this in part in the election of far-right leaders around the globe, including Trump. He is the embodiment of what the Proud Boys are unabashed to be; and if we aren’t careful, who knows what kind of person is going to lead the country next.
Resources to learn more:
- The Fourth World: An Indian Reality by George Manuel and Michael Posluns
- Peace and Good Order by Harold R. Johnson
- The Reconciliation Manifesto by Arthur Manuel, Ronald M. Derrickson and Noami Klein
- Until We Are Free: Reflection on Black Lives Matter in Canada by Rodney Diverlus, Sandy Hudson and Syrus Marcus Ware
- The Dark Side of the Nation by Himani Bannerji
- Watch: Canada’s White Supremacy Problem by Elizabeth Moore https://www.ted.com/talks/elizabeth_moore_canada_s_white_supremacy_problem
- “We, as Canadians, Are Afraid to Deal With Racism” https://thetyee.ca/News/2017/09/29/Canadians-Are-Afraid-to-Deal-with-Racism/