Federal leaders asked to reconsider fighting racism with expanded anti-terror network

More than 170 groups and individuals are raising concerns about the federal government casting a wider anti-terrorism net in the name of anti-racism.

“We applaud and support the intention to condemn White supremacism communicated by the recent addition of the Proud Boys, Atomwaffen, the Base, and the Russian Imperial Movement to the terrorist entities list,” they say in an open letter to the leaders of Canada’s five major political parties.  “However, the entrenchment and expansion of problematic anti-terrorism tools threatens to further intensify racism, rather than alleviate it.”

Coordinated by the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group (ICLMG), the letter is a response to the recent addition of 13 names to the country’s Criminal Code list of terrorist entities.

In a Feb. 3 news release, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair called the move an “important step in our effort to combat violent extremism in all forms.” 

But the signatories fear the government’s broader anti-terrorism agenda will perpetuate the “discriminatorily Muslim-centric focus” of Canadian security efforts and lead to more policing of Indigenous activists.

“Given repeated revelations about the use of anti-terrorism surveillance tools against Indigenous land and water protectors and rights advocates, we are profoundly concerned about the possibility of future listings being deployed to target Indigenous nations defending their sovereign, constitutional, and international rights,” the letter says.

Alex Khasnabish, an associate professor of anthropology at Halifax’s Mount Saint Vincent University, said he signed the ICLMG letter because the government’s approach will do more harm than good.

“As a researcher who looks at this stuff, but also as someone who’s been involved in community-based activism around anti-fascism, I’m firmly convinced this is not the way to respond to these kinds of threats,” he told the Sidebar. “We can’t just name groups, exile them and then pretend that we’ve dealt with the issue.”

Rather than putting them out of business, placing far-right groups on the terrorist list could actually bolster them, Khasnabish said.

“(They) are not terribly upset by being labelled domestic terrorists,” he said. “They’re not worried about this legislation. In fact, they rightly think that this will drive more people towards them (who) see the state and its agencies as totalitarian and anti-democratic to begin with.”

While politically popular, the government’s move is more “performative” than practical, he said.

“I don’t think that it actually has any specific strategic value in terms of countering the far-right on the ground, and fascists on the ground. And worse than that, I think it does play, both at the cultural level and at the legal level, to substantively eroding the sort of society that we are proclaiming we want to live in.”

Khasnabish recommends a two-pronged approach to dealing with racist, far-right groups and individuals.

“One prong is the use of traditional law enforcement,” he said.

While acknowledging some police officers may themselves be active in far-right circles, he is confident Canada’s existing terrorism, violence and hate speech laws are sufficient to address current security threats.

Enforcing existing laws is preferable to the “opportunistic use of crisis in order to justify the over-extension of state power into the lives of people,” Khasnabish said. 

The second prong in his strategy involves rebuilding civic institutions that have been eroded by the “neoliberal hollowing-out of the state.”

“Fascism and far-right, especially violent ideas, don’t come out of nowhere and don’t find purchase out of nowhere,” he said. “If you don’t give people something to hold onto, something to bind them together that they can invest in, then the fascists tell a very convincing story.”

The failure of community institutions, schools and mainstream media to promote shared values has left society fragmented, Khasnabish said. The year-long pandemic has only added to people’s sense of alienation. 

“We need to rebuild our basic civil democratic infrastructure,” he said.

While he called it “foolish” to romanticize previous generations because of their rampant inequality and violence, Khasnabish believes there are lessons we can draw from the past.

“There is something to be said for building those spaces, processes, venues, cultures in a society where people are encouraged to see each other as having a common cause and having a stake in wanting to build that society together, to negotiate, to disagree, to come to a resolution,” he said.

“I don’t think we have much of that anymore. It’s been replaced by algorithms and forms of engagement that actually encourage us to get off on the quick fix, the anger, the emotion.”