Extremism on the rise in Alberta, first-of-its-kind report says
Hate crimes appear to be on the rise in Alberta with the province becoming home to a number of extremist movements, according to a draft report obtained by CTV News.
The upcoming federally-funded report from the Organization for the Prevention of Violence, expected to be publicly released next month, examines six types of extremist groups currently active in Alberta, ranging from white nationalists to left-wing extremists.
Right-wing militia groups spiked to as many as 500 members in 2018, believed to be a result of the elections of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and outgoing Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, combined with the economic downturn in the province.
Researchers behind the study say that the emergence of the yellow vest movement “may have a significant impact on the future trajectory of the patriot and militia movement in Alberta.”
The yellow vest movement in Canada was inspired by protests in France that began in opposition to planned gas tax hikes. While the movement has staged pro-energy rallies in Alberta and elsewhere, factions of the group have been accused of spreading anti-immigrant and hateful views, especially online.
The new report examined a number of active extremist groups in Alberta and associated ideologies, including white supremacy, supporters of al Qaeda and its splinter groups, “alt-right” groups and ethno-nationalists.
The report also found that up to 40 people from Alberta have joined armed forces overseas such as ISIS and al Qaeda, since 2012, a disproportionate per-capita number considering the province’s population of 4.3 million. The report found attackers included “established” ties to al Qaeda-related groups and more “highly isolated cases” connected to AQAS networks.
Alberta has been somewhat of a hotbed for hate crimes in Canada in recent years. Such instances increased 40 per cent from 2014 to 2015 and increased another 38 per cent from 2016 to 2017.
There appears to be no end in sight either. Of the nearly 350 police officers, community leaders, social workers and former extremists who were interviewed for the report, nearly all of them said things are getting worse “due in part to this global political climate, where expression of discrimination, hate and broader ‘us-vs-them’ narratives are taking hold.’”
Co-author of the study and senior researcher at the Organization for the Prevention of Violence David Jones told CTV News Channel that Alberta being home to a disproportionate number of extremists is in part due to its economic downturn.
“Looking elsewhere, when you go through periods of economic dislocation or economic decline, you tend to see a reemergence of extremist groups,” said Jones. “Given what the province has been through with the decline in energy prices we weren’t really surprised to see this re-empowerment of these groups.”
However, the study reports that extremism does not occur in a vacuum and Jones said social media has been a “game changer” for extremist movements in Alberta.
The report details how social media can offer a broader base for extremist movements to further spread misinformation and communicate in a way that makes it more difficult for intelligence agencies to detect.
While groups and movements can be influenced by individuals, the study has found that social media has been able to better connect people with extremist views to radicalize into larger movements.
The report adds that the people organizing mostly online without any physical contact with other members of their group are at most risk of actually committing acts of violence.
ALL EXTREMIST GROUPS SHARED COMMON THEMES
While all examined types of extremist groups vary on the political, social and cultural spectrum, the report indicates a number of common themes:
- An “us-vs-them” mentality;
- a sense of crisis around an certain enemy;
- a desire for societal change; and
- the potential for violent threats to public safety.
According to the study, these common themes seen in one province can have sweeping impacts on Canada as a whole. The report found that the hate expressed by extremist groups “can undermine feelings of mutual belonging and trust in Canadian society,” specifically for immigrants.
The report classified six specific groups in Alberta:
- Al Qaeda, its affiliates and splinter groups (AQAS), such as “The 8th and 8th group,” which included 10 suspects with connections to the now-closed Calgary mosque,
- anti-authority groups such as Freemen on the Land,
- far-left such as anti-fascists,
- patriot groups such as Three Percenters, Soldiers of Odin and Canadian Infidels,
- single issue such as involuntary celibates,
- white supremacy
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Since 2012, the report found that up to 40 people from Alberta have travelled overseas to join ISIS or al Qaeda-related groups – the majority of which were killed. This included four former Edmonton residents who travelled to Syria in 2013 before being reportedly killed at the end of 2014.
The primary concern now for this type of extremism is people being inspired to commit “homegrown attacks.” But the report stated the movement’s growth in Alberta is “static.”
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The report estimates that there are up to 250 people in anti-authority groups such as Freemen of the Land, who see the government as illegitimate. Authors stated these specific groups haven’t been associated with violence but that they found 10 to 15 members who have committed or who are prone to violence.
The report states that overall there’s been a rise in Albertans in general with anti-government extremism views even if they’re not affiliated with specific groups.
Authors stated there was potential for attacks from anti-authority sympathetic “lone actors.”
Lone actors who the authors included as examples were James Roszko, who killed four RCMP officers in 2005 before taking his own life, and Norman Raddatz who died after killing a police officer in 2015, expressing Freemen of the Land sentiments and allegedly harassing a Jewish family.
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Authors didn’t see the contemporary left-wing extremism movement in Alberta as a “significant threat to public safety.” However, “reactive violence can and does occur” on rare occasions, typically in response to right-wing extremist groups, the report said.
Although there were only 20 to 30 people involved in these groups, there were sub-groups within them who openly support violence. The report found this movement was growing.
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PATRIOT AND MILITIA GROUPS
The report found their membership peaked at around 700 in 2017 and that they generally lacked leadership and defined mandates. But they largely shared xenophobic and racist views, with many holding anti-Islamic sentiments and target visibly Muslim or refugee communities.
Authors stated there is no evidence that some groups, such as the Three Percenters, Soldiers of Odin and Canadian Infidels, are involved in violence or “represent a significant threat to public safety.” The authors state that the Yellow Vest movement has reinvigorated activism sympathetic to these patriot groups and inspired others to “gravitate toward more organized patriot or militia groups.”
The report says that the media’s coverage of these groups has played a role in member recruitment. Authors describe that before some news articles were published, there was drop in interest and membership from late 2017 to summer 2018.
But “subsequent to these articles being published, there was a noteworthy spike in potential new members, at least in some urban and rural areas of the province.”
The authors say reporters should be cautious when explaining these groups to the general public to not provide a platform or overstate the threat posed by militia and patriot groups .
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The report states that while white supremacy groups have never organized terrorist attacks in Alberta, they still pose a threat to minority groups. Authors stressed these groups have attempted using more sanitized versions of their rhetoric to attract new members.
There are several active white supremacist groups in Alberta such as Blood and Honour, Combat-18, the Christian Identity Movement and a variety of “identitarian” groups. But the report explained traditional white power groups are in decline.
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PREVENTIVE STEPS, REHABILITATION ARE KEY
Researchers say the report is the first step in building a broader prevention effort in Alberta against extremist groups.
Marginalized individuals interviewed for this report felt hate crimes weren’t always taken seriously enough by law enforcement, that their response time can be slow and that offenders are rarely charged.
The report explains how, to marginalized communities, even non-violent actions such as hateful graffiti can be as meaningful as physical violence. The report adds that hate crimes are being taken more seriously than before, but that there is lack of funding for police units who work with vulnerable communities. But targeted communities may be less willing to report these crimes due to the perceived inadequate actions by authorities, the report said.
The Organization for the Prevention of Violence has also launched an intervention program to help those currently becoming involved in extremist groups -- or who are looking to exit said groups -- disengage in Alberta.
The study also provides a series of recommendations on how to curb incidents involving extremist groups, including promoting civil initiatives, publicly sharing the location of any incidents and allowing a more proactive response form police officers.
Authors stressed the need for additional training for officers, including the ability to detect more subtle extremist paraphernalia and symbols. These can include seemingly innocuous phrases or memes such as Pepe the frog, which has been linked to white supremacy.
Last year, the Organization for the Prevention of Violence received a $1.29 million grant from the federal government for the three-year study as part of its national plan to counter hate and violent extremism in Alberta.