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The Growing Threat of Far-Right Terrorism in Canada

Editor’s Note: Out of respect for the victims and their families, the names of the accused and convicted perpetrators of the attacks described in this article have been redacted.

This past February, a 17-year-old male, who claimed to be inspired by the ‘Incel’ movement, was charged with terrorism after killing a woman in a Toronto massage parlour. Terrorism has defined our lives for the past two decades. And while Islamist terrorism has long been the focus of governments, the media, and the public, another threat to Western democracies and societies is growing: Far-right terrorism.

In Short: Far-right terrorism has a growing presence in Canada and raises critical questions about how we conceptualize and deal with terrorism in our democracies.

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What Is Far-Right Terrorism? Under Canadian law, terrorism is defined as an act of violence that is motivated “in whole or in part” by political or religious ideology and is intended to intimidate the public and/or a specific community. Far-right terrorism specifically encompasses many different political ideologies, from white supremacism to Neo-Nazism to eco-fascism.

What far-right ideologies have in common is their embrace of anti-government sentiments, racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, ethnic chauvinism, and extreme and violent misogyny. While some movements adhere to various combinations of these ideas, they are all broadly motivated by these common traits.

The rise of these movements in the West has been linked to the growth of far-right extremist movements that are transnational and organize online.

A Growing Threat: The growing online presence of far-right extremists has been accompanied by a 320% global increase in far-right terrorist attacks since 2015, while the number of far-right groups in Canada has tripled in that time. Canadians also produce a disproportionate amount of far-right extremist content online.

Far-right terrorism is also increasing in other countries in North America and Europe.

  • In 2019 alone, far-right terrorism accounted for 2/3 of attacks in the US, a proportion that has been increasing throughout 2020. In total, 73% of terrorist attacks in the US since 9/11 have involved far-right terrorists.
  • Far-right terrorism has become the UK’s fastest-growing terrorist threat since 2016. 1/3 of all terrorist plots since then have involved far-right terrorists, while almost 25% of all individuals participating in that country’s anti-radicalization program were referred over concerns of far-right radicalization.
  • Far-right terrorist attacks in the West led to the deaths of 77 people in 2019, compared to 11 deaths in 2017.

This shows that far-right terrorism is continuing to grow in many democracies. And the timeline below shows that Canada is not isolated from this.

Timeline of Key Attacks in Canada:

Why This Matters: The COVID-19 pandemic and the growing Black Lives Matter movement have proved to be catalysts for far-right extremists online, and have been linked to plots by far-right terrorists. These dual catalysts are already feeding into the steady growth in far-right terrorism throughout the West and in Canada, and have raised new questions about how we think about and deal with terrorism.

Some progress has been made in countering this growing threat. The United States recently designated a Russian white supremacist group as a terrorist organization, while Canada has banned two neo-Nazi organizations. The Canadian government is also reviewing how it defines and deals with far-right terrorism.

A watershed moment also came when the accused perpetrator of the February 24th, 2020 attack in Toronto was charged with committing acts of terrorism. This came after calls for a more even application of Canada’s terrorism laws. Yet this raises questions about why the perpetrators of the other attacks detailed in this article did not face similar charges, and if seemingly symbolic measures will have practical impacts on far-right terrorism.

The Bottom Line: Far-right terrorism represents a growing threat to safety and security in Canada. A growing number of attacks are being linked to far-right ideologies, and while some progress has been made in countering far-right terrorism, this growing threat raises serious questions about how Canada can deal with such a destabilizing and rapidly-evolving phenomenon.