'We have to be careful': Experts concerned about U.S. extremism migrating north
OTTAWA -- While the politically motivated rioting in the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 by Donald Trump’s supporters can largely be attributed to the outgoing president, national security and diplomatic insiders are cautioning Canada to keep an eye on similar extremist sentiment in Canadian discourse.
While former Trump national security adviser John Bolton said what happened in Washington, D.C. can “largely” be attributed to incitement by the outgoing president, it can migrate to other political climates.
“I do recall very vividly, and I think it's important for all of us to remember Ronald Reagan saying you can lose freedom in every generation, your institutions can be strong, but it only takes one generation to throw it all away,” Bolton said in an interview on CTV’s Power Play.
The pro-Trump extremists, who were gathered to protest the certification of President-Elect Joe Biden’s electoral victory, rushed security and breached the U.S. Capitol building. Four people died amid the chaos, which Bolton called a “catastrophic” security breach.
The extremism displayed “needs to be investigated,” Bolton said, to figure out both how the breach of security happened and more broadly, to prevent others from being encouraged to make similar attempts in the future.
Trudeau called the events an “attack on democracy” following a series of evolving statements he and other federal officials released throughout the day on Wednesday.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole called it an “astonishing assault on freedom,” and other opposition leaders decried the politically motivated violence, which Canada has not been immune to over the years.
There have been political attacks on and around Parliament Hill in recent years, as well as a growing number of Canadians subscribing to U.S.-based conspiracy theories and perpetuating Trump-like rhetoric against political figures and members of the media.
“It's not just in America. What we find is that throughout democracies, we are seeing a polarization and you know, all of the conspiracy theories and everything else. I think our democracy is being stressed everywhere that it exists,” said former Canadian Ambassador to the U.S. David MacNaughton.
“We need to make sure that this doesn't happen in our country, because you know we can look down our noses at the U.S. … But we have to be careful because there's becoming increasing intolerance of other people's views, and this kind of misinformation being spread through social media in our country too.”
EXAMPLES OF VIOLENCE IN CANADA
Just seven months ago, in July 2020, Manitoban and Canadian Armed Forces reservist Corey Hurren was charged with multiple criminal offences including threatening Trudeau after he allegedly breached the front pedestrian gates of Rideau Hall, which is home to Governor General Rideau Hall as well as Trudeau and his family.
Hurren is alleged to have rammed the front gates with his truck before attempting to enter further onto the grounds on foot, while heavily armed. In the aftermath of the incident it was revealed that Hurren had been posting on social media about far right and COVID-19-related conspiracy theories, some of which had been protested on Parliament Hill just days prior. The charges against Hurren have not been proven in court.
In 2014, Parliament Hill went into lockdown with federal lawmakers, staff and journalists barricaded in offices and meeting rooms after Islamic State group sympathizer Michael Zehaf-Bibeau stormed Centre Block. He breached the front gates and made his way inside after fatally shooting Cpl. Nathan Cirillo in front of the National War Memorial down the street.
Zehaf-Bibeau was killed in a gunfight with Hill security and RCMP officers in the Hall of Honour, where bullet holes remain in the walls. Security on Parliament Hill was overhauled following this attack.
Speaking to whether there may be a need to enhance security in legislative buildings in response to the U.S. rioting, Kevin Vickers— who was the sergeant-at-arms during the 2014 attack—said that it’s about finding an often “very difficult” balance between the democratic right to protest and access halls of democracy, while keeping those inside them safe.
“People should always have access to the home of their democracy, but coming with that comes a tremendous responsibility certainly in airing grievances and protests, which is a cornerstone of our democracy, to act in a reasonable and peaceful manner, and what we saw yesterday was nowhere near that,” Vickers said on CTV’s Power Play.
According to Vickers, over his tenure as sergeant-at-arms there were several instances where security had to close the House of Commons due to smaller-scale security concerns.
Looking further back in Canadian political history, in 1984, gunman Cpl. Denis Lortie entered the National Assembly, armed with the intention of killing then-premier Rene Levesque and other Parti Quebecois members, who were not present. He ended up killing three people and wounding another 13 victims.
As well, some federal politicians have expressed increased security concerns in recent years, particularly female elected officials. For example, cabinet minister Catherine McKenna has had her security detail enhanced following instances of threats of violence and harassment. Just days after the last general election, McKenna's campaign headquarters was vandalized. A vulgar, misogynistic slur was spray-painted over a picture of her face.
WARNINGS OF GROWING EXTREMISM
There was also the 2019 testimony from then-Privy Council Clerk Michael Wernick in which he warned of a growing risk of political extremism and violent attacks amid testimony during the SNC-Lavalin scandal.
“I'm deeply concerned about my country right now, its politics and where it's headed,” he said during his testimony.
“I worry about the rising tide of incitements to violence when people use terms like ‘treason’ and ‘traitor’ in open discourse. Those are the words that lead to assassination. I'm worried that somebody is going to be shot in this country.”
Wernick raised eyebrows among some at the time of these remarks, which went on to chide the rhetoric and discourse some members of Parliament were participating in.
“I worry about the reputations of honourable people who have served their country being besmirched and dragged through the market square. I worry about the trolling from the vomitorium of social media entering the open media arena. Most of all, I worry about people losing faith in the institutions of governance of this country,” Wernick said at the time.
Then, a study released this summer identified more than 6,600 online channels, pages, groups and accounts across Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and social media platforms where Canadians were involved in spreading white supremacist, misogynistic or other extremist views.
The study, led by the U.K.-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), reported that these channels, pages, groups and accounts collectively have reached more than 11 million users across their platforms.
Most recently, a new Department of National Defence report indicates that COVID-19 is contributing to the growing right-wing extremist sentiment in Canada, according to The Canadian Press. The Defence Research and Development Canada report states that these threats will continue to grow the longer the pandemic continues.
Public trust in governments and democracies will also likely suffer the longer the COVID-19 crisis wages on, the report states.
“We've got to look at: How do we preserve our democracy and enhance it at home?” said MacNaughton.