The vehicle attack in Toronto that killed ten and injured sixteen represents a threat often overlooked in Canada: far right extremism. While security agencies and police focus on Islamic terrorism, the far-right is responsible for the deadliest terrorist attacks in Canada.
Suspect Alek Minassian’s act of brutality is a direct product of far-right misogyny. Prior to the attack, Minassian praised Elliot Rodger – who in 2014 out of anger of being “denied sex” from women went on a rampage that killed seven – and stated that the “incel rebellion has already begun.”
Incel stands for “involuntary celibate” and is an online community of men who blame women for not having sex with them. Their often violent, anti-feminist rhetoric led to a ban from social media website Reddit last November and their inclusion as a “male supremacist” group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit that tracks hate groups.
The motive of Minassian’s attack is not unique, and represents a pattern of far-right terrorism in Canada. Monday’s attack occurred over a year after the killing of six worshippers at a mosque in Quebec City by Alexandre Bissonnette. Bissonnette was motivated out of malevolence for Islam and refugees and, like Minassian, had a deep hatred of feminism.
Before the massacre, Bissonnette spent hours watching videos about mass shootings, including the 2014 Moncton Shooting and the 1989 École Polytechnique Massacre. In Moncton, the motive behind Justin Bourque’s killing of three RCMP officers was far-right survivalist politics. The École Polytechnique Massacre, in which 14 women were killed and remains Canada’s worst mass shooting, was done out of perpetrator Marc Lépine’s hatred of women and feminism.
Canada has of course also been the victim of terrorism carried out in the name of other ideologies. However, other than the Sikh separatist 1985 Air India Bombing, no other motive for terrorism has been nearly as deadly as those carried out by the far right. The far right is responsible for the four deadliest attacks in the last three decades. Together, the terrorist acts of Minassian, Bissonette, Bourque and Lépine have killed 33, while in comparison Islamic attacks have killed only three in Canada. In addition to these acts, research shows that since 1980 the far-right has been responsible for roughly 120 acts of violence. In comparison there has only been seven acts of violence motivated by Islam.
Lack of response
This disparity is all the more shocking given how little focus Canadian security agencies and police have put towards far-right terrorism. CSIS has not only failed to take action against the far-right, but has actively downplayed the threat. On their website it states that “[r]ight-wing extremism has not been as significant a problem in Canada in recent years.” Although recognizing the far-right as a potential threat to Canada, the bulk of the RCMP’s 2017 Terrorism and Violent Extremism Guide focused on Islamic extremism.
Canada’s leading academic on far-right extremism, Dr. Barbara Perry, notes that until recently violent far-right groups were not a concern of law enforcement. In many communities, the threat of far-right terrorism is unknown simply because no one is monitoring them. One officer even said that “until something happens, we’re not looking at them”.
The lack of resources put towards stopping far-right terrorism allows those preparing to commit violence to go unnoticed. “With this inconsistent view of what terrorism is, we end up with all these gaps,” states Daniel Gallant, former neo-Nazi and now social worker. In their working paper, criminologist Dr. Rick Parent and terrorism expert James O. Ellis write that “Canadian right-wing terrorists may be emboldened by the lack of a visible police presence.”
In the case of the Quebec City shooting, Bissonnette was unknown to police prior to the attack, despite frequently making extreme comments on social media against refugees and feminists. Bourque was also heavily active on social media, posting violent anti-government content, such as one status that read “U.S. army improvised munitions handbook should be a New York Times bestseller!” He too never received attention from police. Likewise, Minassian was also not known to police, although it remains to be seen whether his sexist social media posting was limited to the one put out before his attack.
Response must be proportionate
Foremost, what is needed is for Canadian security agencies and police to take the threat of far-right extremism seriously. This should not come at the detriment of other threats, but should rather reflect the reality that the far-right forms the bulk of terrorism in Canada.
Likewise, responses from security agencies and police should be proportionate to the threat. Over-securitization and excessive use of force can encourage rather than prevent far-right terrorism. White supremacist Timothy McVeigh’s 1995 Oklahoma City bombing – which killed 168 and was America’s most deadly act of terrorism before 9/11 – is a noteworthy example. McVeigh was largely motivated to carry out his attack as a response to the excessive force the FBI used against white supremacist Randy Weaver during the Ruby Ridge siege and against the compound of the Branch Davidians cult in the Waco siege.
Likewise, one of the few attempts in Canada to stop the far-right backfired when CSIS tried infiltrating the neo-Nazi Heritage Front in the 1990s. Rather than preventing the group’s acts of violence and harassment against minorities and anti-racist activists, CSIS agent Grant Bristow often contributed and encouraged such behaviour. Bristow’s involvement led to no arrests.
Security agencies and police are also not the only actors that can help prevent the violence of far-right extremism. Mental health services should be made more accessible. A cultural shift is also needed that allows men to express their emotions without becoming violent. Nevertheless, over-focusing on Islamic terrorism and downplaying the threat of the far-right will continue to give space for far-right extremists to plan and carry out their violence. Devoting resources to combatting far-right extremism can help to stop much of the terrorism that plagues Canada.