Jonathan Montpetit stands in the middle of a crowd of over 200 people. It’s hot—at least 30 degrees—and suffocating. The cigarette smoke in the air stands still, devoid of any wind. The people are restless, pacing on the concrete floor, with protest signs held at their sides. The most prominent feature is a black flag with a large white paw print—a wolf’s paw. Sweaty bodies move in and around Montpetit, most wearing black T-shirts with the same white paw print on the left breast and another large one on the back. With heavily lined faces in perpetually unhappy expressions, the crowd appears different from the younger generation waiting outside the parking garage.
Stuck in the dimly lit underground parking garage, the group found itself an area without too many parked cars. They are here to protest, but for now they’ve been denied the chance. They are here on a bright Sunday afternoon, on August 20, 2017, as a group of people united by the same beliefs. They think their country has been stolen from them, that they’re losing power. Their website reads:
We do not attack
We do not threaten
We protect and defend
As well as the
foundations of our Nation
So that the future
of our children
does not end up
in the hands
of radical Islam Sharia.
We are…La Meute
La Meute—French for “The Pack”—has organized this rally to protest what they say are the government’s lax immigration policies. The group is concerned the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms in Quebec favours minority groups, especially Muslim religious practices. On its public Facebook page, the group says each of its self-titled patriots “fights against any exclusion or preference based in particular on race, color, gender, sexual orientation, religion, political beliefs, language, ethnic or national origin, and social condition.” The page goes on to say the group wants to uphold the Canadian and Quebecois culture and way of life. “La Meute does not believe in Canadian multiculturalism as proposed by Justin Trudeau, since it believes that it is a deconstruction of the host society that inevitably leads to social chaos.”
Today, the police have instructed members not to leave the parking garage because of the large crowd of about 300 anti-racism protestors outside.
Montpetit is the only reporter to remain on site in the parking garage. As a journalist with CBC Montreal, he has been following this group closely for about a year—a challenge he took on after discovering La Meute and other groups were more prominent than he realized in Quebec and elsewhere.
La Meute was founded in October 2015 by ex-military Eric Venne and Patrick Beaudry. The group’s private Facebook page, which Montpetit has access to, has over 41,000 members.
This Sunday, Montpetit takes pictures and videos, and talks to members and leaders, who are hopeful they will get their chance to protest.
“Hi, my name is Jonathan Montpetit and I’m a journalist with CBC Montreal. Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?”
“We’ve been told not to talk to the media,” he recalls many of them responding.
Eventually, some talk. Montpetit has a long, off-the-record chat with Shawn Beauvais-MacDonald, a member who was suspended from the group after attending the Charlottesville rally that resulted in the murder of anti-racism protestor Heather Heyer. It’s unclear whether the leaders of La Meute are aware he is here. If they are, they don’t say anything.
They do, however, speak to Montpetit to reinforce their own narratives. “Look how violent the left is,” they say of the anti-protestors outside. “We’re the peaceful ones.”
Montpetit tweets a total of seven times while stuck in the parking garage. Each time, he has to run up two flights of stairs to get a cell signal. He also does a short live news update for CBC in a dark stairwell.
Once La Meute finally gets the okay, the group marches silently by the Quebec National Assembly. With a high number of arrests of Antifa protestors—short for anti-fascist—La Meute appears to be the more civilized of the two groups. Montpetit later writes that today has been a great public relations victory for the far-right.
According to “Uneasy Alliances: A Look at the Right Wing Extremist Movement in Canada,” such groups have operated since the early 1900s. That’s the conclusion reached by University of Ontario Institute of Technology professor Barbara Perry and her research partner Ryan Scrivens, a postdoctoral fellow at Concordia University. Recently, the public has seen right-wing zealots rebrand, Perry says, adding that groups call themselves anti-Muslim, anti-immigration, white nationalists, and, of course, “alt-right.” Perry says these groups are becoming more organized, presentable and are expressing their views in a PR-friendly way.
As these groups evolve, so do the ways journalists cover them. In the age of social media and the deep dark web, reporters struggle to determine what’s newsworthy. How much of these groups’ activities need to be covered and how much of their narrative should journalists let go unchallenged?
Montpetit first stumbled onto the beat in 2016 when Radio-Canada did a story about an anti-Muslim pamphlet that circulated in the eastern townships around Sherbrooke, Quebec. The pamphlets were placed in residential mailboxes and tucked under the windshield wipers of cars. They warned against the alleged rise of “radical Islam” and said, “Don’t let these abusers turn Quebec into Islamic territory.” The pamphlets were signed, “La Meute.”
That one incident snowballed into Montpetit getting contacts for groups such as La Meute, Soldiers of Odin, and Atalante Québec. Montpetit says most groups operate secretly online, using private online pages. He has succeeded in joining some, but knows there are deeper, closed areas he does not have access to.
There are, however, some left-leaning groups that have snuck into the deep private pages and become helpful resources for journalists. Anti-Racist Canada (ARC), for instance, is an online blog that tracks several Canadian right-wing groups and posts their private plans and conversations online. For example, ARC uncovered that, on January 27, 2018, around the one-year anniversary of the Quebec mosque shooting, Pegida Canada and participants from the Northern Guard, The Three Percenters militia, and the Proud Boys all staged an anti-Muslim protest at Toronto’s Nathan Phillips and Mel Lastman squares. The blog revealed that some members were wearing armour and sporting makeshift weapons. One screenshot shows a video of a leader from Northern Guard’s Toronto Chapter showing off his concealed knife, with the caption, “Glad this never had to be used. Always a good thing.” Another shows a member bragging about the violence inflicted upon anti-racist protestors. It reads. “We won, chased a fucker into McDonalds, punched another and one walked into my flagpole, great day.”
ARC has reported on several stories about far-right groups, including the conspiracy theory, which spread throughout the U.S. and Canadian far-right, that the Antifa would wage a war against the right on November 4, 2017.
In the age of social media and the deep dark web, reporters struggle to determine what’s newsworthy. How much of these groups’ activities need to be covered and how much of their narrative should journalists let go unchallenged?
Perry and Scrivens are the top researchers in Canada working in this field. Together, they have published several papers and reports examining the history of these groups and how they are changing.
In “Uneasy Alliances”, Perry and Scrivens tracked several instances of violence in Canada that have been connected to right-wing groups, and talked to former members of the far-right and to the police. One example reads, “In 2008, a 17-year-old Aryan Guard member attacked a 26-year-old Japanese woman in Calgary. The youth first made disparaging comments about Asians, and then followed Asako Okazaki as she left a bar. He drop-kicked her in the back of the head and continued to kick her after she hit the ground, all while wearing steel-toed boots.” The man was convicted of assault with a weapon, assault causing bodily harm, and three counts of breaching probation from previous convictions.
Perry and Scrivens note that, until recently, extremist right-wing groups have been considered “fringe” and uncommon. However, according to their study, the internet has increased visibility and recruitment for these right-wing groups, based on the data collected for their study.
On July 5, 2017 Hannah Thibedeau sits in a CBC studio about to host another segment of Power and Politics. The topic this week is about five members of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) who face expulsion after they interrupted an Indigenous protest on Canada Day at the Edward Cornwallis statue. (Cornwallis is the founder of Halifax, who put a bounty on the Mi’kmaq people in 1749.)
“They carried the Red Ensign flag and sang ‘God Save the Queen,’” Thibedeau tells her viewers.
Video footage shows five white males, all wearing khakis and black polo shirts with a yellow stripe across the collar. They march up to a group of Indigenous leaders and position themselves in a face-off. There are smiles on their faces.
“The men accused the protestors of disrespecting Halifax founder Edward Cornwallis, who established a policy of genocide against the Mi’kmaq people,” Thibedeau says.
The five men refer to themselves as members of the Proud Boys, website describes the group as a “pro-Western fraternal organization for men who refuse to apologize for creating the modern world.”
“Joining me now from New York City,” Thibedeau says, “is Gavin McInnes. He’s the co-founder of Vice, he’s the host of his own show, and he’s a co-founder of the Proud Boys men’s movement.”
McInnes is wearing the same black polo shirt with the yellow stripes, and his arms are crossed on the table in front of him. Thibedeau asks what he thinks of the suspension of the five men from the CAF. He tells her it’s “abhorrent” and that “we have stabbed our servicemen in the back.”
“This whole story has spun out of control and a bunch of rumors—made up by Antifa and the alt-left—have become the truth to the point where the top brass is already apologizing. They’ve already been sentenced and they didn’t do anything,” McInnes says.
(The men were not actually sentenced. Rear-Admiral John Newton issued a statement on August 31 that said the investigation had been completed and that no criminal charges were laid. Except for one member who decided to leave the CAF, all have been reinstated in their regular units.)
Thibedeau asks McInnes to “straighten out the rumours,” looking for his account of what happened that day. McInnes tells her the men were at a bar on Canada Day when they heard about an anti-Canada Day rally happening nearby and decided to check it out.
“The protestors get very confrontational, tell them to get the hell out of there. And by the way, our boys, the Proud Boys were told to take that flag down on Canada Day!” McInnes raises his hands in an “I give up” motion.
(The flag the five men carried with them hasn’t been the official flag of Canada in over 50 years. The Red Ensign flag was replaced by the Maple Leaf in 1965. Paul Fromm, white nationalist and director of Canada’s Association of Free Expression, wants the Red Ensign to be reinstated as Canada’s official flag. Fromm has been quoted, saying it is “the flag of the true Canada, the European Canada before the treasonous European replacement schemes brought in by the 1965 immigration policies.” The flag has been called the Canadian version of the U.S. Confederate flag.)
“And that becomes ‘disrupting an Indigenous ceremony’?” McInnes asks. “Disrupting a disingenuous ceremony is what it was.”
Thibedeau continues by pointing out that Cornwallis issued a bounty on the scalps of the Mi’kmaq people. “Can you see why the Indigenous people were protesting?” she asks.
“Can you see why Cornwallis issued a bounty on Mi’kmaqs?” McInnes responds.
There is a short awkward pause.
“What does that mean?” Thibedeau finally says. McInnes continues to recount a version of history in which the French and the Mi’kmaqs joined forces to fight the English and won. According to him, Cornwallis issued the bounty to counter this attack.
(The Canadian Encyclopedia says that Cornwallis believed that the French and the Mi’kmaq joined forces but, in reality, they didn’t. He sent soldiers and mercenaries to push the Mi’kmaq away from the settlement but they refused. In October 1749 Cornwallis ignored London’s plea to make a trade with the Mi’kmaq and issued an order known as the scalping proclamation.)
Thibedeau doesn’t interrupt McInnes’s rant, but lets him continue to promote a petition he started, which attempts to collect 10,000 signatures to exonerate the five men. (The website, which redirects users to a page on Rebel Media shows no indication of how many signatures McInnes succeeded in collecting.)
Thibedeau attempts to counter McInnes’s claims by stating that the Chief of the Defence Staff put out a statement calling the five men’s behaviour inappropriate. McInnes takes this statement as an opportunity to rant about how the Canadian military’s top ranks are corrupt.
In a Canadaland article published on July 6, CBC admitted, in an email, that it “erred” in its presentation of that particular interview. “While the intention was to provide insight and context about the group, we erred in not providing details of Mr. McInnes’s published anti-Jewish sentiments nor did we adequately challenge him on some of his and the Proud Boys’ controversial views. The show did have an expert on immediately following Mr. McInnes’s appearance who challenged what the group stands for, but a more comprehensive response would have included an Indigenous representative to critique Mr. McInnes’s views,” wrote Chuck Thompson, head of public affairs for CBC English Services.
Thibedeau later publicly apologized for the failings of her interview and did a follow-up segment with Indigenous lawyer, Katherine Hensel, who explained the flaws in McInnes’ claims. Thibedeau did not respond to repeated interview requests from the RRJ.
“It’s superficial coverage,” Davide Mastracci says on how Canadian media has been covering the far-right.
Mastracci sits across from me in a crowded café in Toronto’s Distillery District. The so-called “poster boy of leftist propaganda masquerading as journalism”—a title given to him by an angry writer in an article in The McGill Daily—is concerned with how journalists have been portraying these groups. Mastracci has written several stories on the far-right, anti-Islam rhetoric, and free speech on platforms such as Al Jazeera, Vice, the National Post and The Walrus. He is currently the associate opinions editor at HuffPost Canada.
Although he has never interviewed members of the far-right, he researched it while writing a story for The Walrus called, “Why Canada Missed its Best Chance to Deradicalize the Alt-Right,” which analyzes why such groups seem to be gaining attention. He says journalists are not giving the full context in their stories and need to write more critically. This includes giving relevant background information and asking for proof of the claims members are making on air. Questions such as, “How do you know that?” and, “How did you get that information?” are key.
“It’s superficial coverage.”
“Those sort of people [like McInnes] know how to use the media. They’ll say certain things or make certain controversial claims to get their foot in the door,” says Mastracci. He warns that if journalists don’t challenge members of the far-right during interviews and make them provide evidence to support their claims, they risk simply giving them a platform to share their views.
Even Montpetit acknowledges that giving free PR is one of the risks journalists run when covering these groups. He tells the story of David Tregget, the former leader of Quebec’s Soldiers of Odin, who has left to create Storm Alliance. Tregget had agreed to speak with Montpetit, but before the interview heard a story that Radio-Canada had done about his group. He didn’t like it.
“He [messaged] me and said he was really upset,” Montpetit recalls of the conversation, which occurred over Facebook Messenger. “He said, ‘I’m no longer going to cooperate with you. I’m not interested in taking part in the interview.”
Tregget, however, changed his mind once he read Montpetit’s first story on La Meute, which was published on December 4, 2016. He agreed to talk for a profile on his group, which Montpetit published 10 days later.
“The generous explanation is that he saw we were objective and agreed to let us take part,” Montpetit says. “The more accurate description is he wanted the publicity.”
But does publicity lead to an increase in membership? No one knows for sure. Perry and Scrivens agree that the numbers are growing, but it’s hard to say why they’re growing and by how much. The two are currently trying to better measure growth.
Perry estimates a growth of about 25 percent based on the new groups she has come across in her research since 2016. This increase, she says, is visible through the emergence of new chapters of some of the groups that they identified in 2015, and new groups they had never heard of before.
Evan Balgord is a journalist who has been monitoring far-right groups in Toronto since February 2017. He writes a biweekly column for the Torontoist called “Eye On Hate” in which he reports on their activities. Balgord says most of these groups won’t speak to journalists: they see the media in one of two ways, either as the enemy, or as a tool to use to represent themselves in the best light. Balgord has written about the far-right for Now Magazine, Canadaland, the Toronto Star, and Canadian Jewish News. He’s also recognized by the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society as an experienced researcher on “the overlapping anti-Muslim and white nationalist movements in Toronto and Canada.”
“They will absolutely misrepresent themselves,” Balgord says, adding that there’s one ethical question journalists need to ask themselves every day: How much do you let these groups represent themselves versus giving the readers a true representation?
The big debate is whether journalists can both challenge these groups while also remaining objective in their reporting. Montpetit says calling these groups racist would be editorialising because technically they do not identify as being racist, but as being anti-Muslim and anti-immigration. But is that a difference worth noting?
Last year on November 25, La Meute and other members of the far-right in Quebec held a rally in Quebec City. They were met with anti-racism protestors and the day ended with 44 people arrested, almost all of whom were anti-racism protestors. The next day, Montpetit published an article about the rally. He wrote that “La Meute, for its part, publicly denounces the use of violence and rejects racism.” Nora Loreto, a writer and activist who has written for The Walrus and rabble.ca, has a problem with that.
“When they say that [these groups] are not racist, you literally report that. Does it fucking matter what they say?” says Loreto. “Isn’t there a neutral way to evaluate whether or not they’re racist? It’s like, ‘Oh wait, there’s literally an SS thunderbolt, yeah, that’s pretty racist.’”
How much do you let these groups represent themselves versus giving the readers a true representation?
Loreto says journalists can be objective without letting these groups define themselves. She adds that there can be accuracy without condemnation. Journalists don’t have to outright say these groups are bad, they just need to show it by offering the history of the group.
“Is La Meute a racist organization? Despite what they say, yes,” she says. Can you report what they say? For sure, but you need to put it into context.”
In Mastracci’s article for The Walrus, he wrote that while many were asking how Nazis could be marching in the streets in 2017, “marginalized people, however, were asking another question: How did it take so long for everyone else to notice white supremacy is alive and well?”
Loreto says that since the journalists taking on the responsibility of covering the far-right are primarily white people, the reporting is biased.
“White journalists are ill-equipped in general to write about this stuff,” Loreto explains. “And I say that because it is one thing to live in a society where you are experiencing racism, it’s a whole other thing to be white and to go through the process of understanding how racism exists.”
Loreto says if you haven’t experienced racism as a white journalist, you are always bumping up against an invisible barrier preventing you from getting the story right. As a result, the story tends to break down into a sort of tennis match—Antifa on one side and the far-right on the other. “But that’s not actually at all how it works. There are degrees to how racism exists in society: it goes from from banal, systemic, pernicious racism that is everywhere, all the way to Neo-Nazis trying to fight people in the streets, which we have here,” she says.
Loreto lives in Quebec City on the street where La Meute and anti-racism activists faced off on November 25, 2017. She has many friends who were part of the anti-racist protest. The anti-racist protestors tried to halt La Meute’s demonstration by blocking their route, and some even threw snowballs at the group. However, before the two groups got close to each other, police swarmed the anti-racist group and tear-gassed and arrested them.
Despite this, Loreto says, the media portrayed it as “another protest, another clash.” When it is white journalists writing these stories, Loreto says, the media either sensationalises the event or trivialises it.
When I met Balgord, he spoke openly and bluntly about the interactions he’d had with far-right group members.
“At one point, I was on an enemies list, which was physically distributed at an event,” he says. “And on that enemies list they were nice enough to actually label me as a leftist, semi-legit, media, which I thought was nice because they weren’t nearly as nice to others.”
It’s safe to say that Balgord knows all the major players of the far-right in Toronto fairly well, and they know him. They recognize him when they see him at rallies. He tells me about one interaction he had with the Three Percenters, an armed militia group that holds anti-Islamic views and seems ready for war. “I wandered into a rally and they were inquiring very loudly as to whether my tripod would fit sideways up my ass.”
Under these circumstances, Balgord has reason to fear for his safety. But that doesn’t stop him from attending the rallies. In the summer, there was a far-right rally at Nathan Phillips Square almost every month. He attended the majority of the rallies and made sure he was always prepared.
“As a journalist you should be taking some safety precautions,” Balgord says. “You wear a helmet. You wear smart clothes. I also started wearing sturdy boots.”
Everyone I spoke to about the far-right agreed that the main thing journalists are missing is proper research. This is common in regional coverage, says Mack Lamoureux, Vice Canada’s go-to reporter on the far-right. At these smaller outlets, he explains, journalists have to juggle several stories at a time and typically work in a small team. As a result, when reporting on, for example, the Soldiers of Odin, they fail to mention that the group was founded by Mika Ranta, an avowed white supremacist who was convicted of assaulting an immigrant in Finland. According to Lamoureux they also fail to mention that within their organized groups, there’s typically a lot of anti-Islamic behaviour and members tend to have connections to groups such as Blood and Honour, although the RCMP has not confirmed that there is a link between the two groups.
“There tends to be a lot of nuance left out,” Lamoureux says, referencing when journalists wrote about the free snow shovelling services offered by the Soldiers of Odin in 2016, “which is not the full story.”
“There tends to be a lot of nuance left out.”
Balgord says Canada does not have any organizations that track these groups, as the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) does in the United States. The closest Canada has is ARC.
But there’s only so much ARC can do as an independent blog. What Canada really needs, Balgord says, is a professional group to collect and maintain all of this information. In a Toronto Star opinion piece he co-wrote with former chief executive officer of the Canadian Jewish Congress, Bernie Farber, Balgord said that “Canada needs a professional organization to track, document and counter right-wing extremism and racist groups.”
In the time since Montpetit first started covering hate he has gained a lot of access to far-right groups in Quebec and has developed relationships with them. They invite him to their discussions, they tell him when they’re planning a rally, and they offer him insight into how they organize.
Montpetit is aware that for the most part the groups that he covers are trying to use him, but he believes showing the public how these groups organize and the rhetoric that they are putting out outweighs the risks of publicity.
“I don’t think we’ve helped them in any way,” Montpetit says. “For people committed to fighting against the spread of the far-right, they need to have access to what these groups are about, how they organize.”
Active Canadian far-right groups
La Meute: The group was created by Eric Venne and Patrick Beaudry in 2015, just after the first wave of Syrian refugees arrived in Canada. The two modelled the hierarchical group after their military backgrounds. The Facebook group boasts over 43,000 members. So far, La Meute has not spread past Quebec.
Atalante Québec: The group advocates for a “renaissance of the neo-French in Quebec.” It’s unclear whether the group has a leader. It was responsible for a sign at a far-right rally on October 15, 2016, that read, “Death to Terrorists! Islam Out!”
Proud Boys: Founded by Gavin McInnes in 2016, the group considers itself a “pro-Western fraternal organization” for men who “refuse to apologize for creating the modern world.”
Soldiers of Odin: An anti-immigrant street patrol group founded in Finland in October 2015 after the European migrant crisis, the group’s founder, Mika Ranta, has connections to the far-right neo-Nazi movement. The group has spread all over the world, and has several chapters in Finland, Australia, the United States, and Canada.
Northern Guard: The group was formed by several former members of Soldiers of Odin in fall 2017. The men-only group is anti-immigration and claims to protest against what they call “illegal immigration.” The group believes Canada has too many immigrants and should stop accepting new arrivals.
Pediga Canada: The Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West is a German nationalist group that believes Germany is becoming increasingly Islamicized. The Canadian chapter of the group shares the same concern and protests against Islamic extremism.
Three Percenters (III%’s): Founded in Alabama in 2008, this American militarized, anti-Islamic movement fights against restrictions on private gun ownership. The Canadian movement began in 2015, shortly after Justin Trudeau became prime minister. The Alberta group claims to be preparing itself for a war against those who are threatening to steal their land, and is meeting weekly for gun and combat training.
Storm Alliance: The group was founded by Dave Tregget, a former member of the Soldiers of Odin, in the of summer 2017. This group protests against the presence of refugees. Members have been known to patrol borders to intimidate immigrants and refugees who attempt to seek asylum in Canada.
Aryan Guard: Based in Alberta, this neo-Nazi group was founded in late 2006. Members boast “white pride worldwide,” and carry swastikas and the celtic cross. The group often refers to its leader as “micro-fuhrer.”
Blood and Honour: Originally founded in 1987 as a neo-Nazi music promotion network and and U.K. political party, Rock Against Communism. The neo-Nazi group has an official presence in 20 countries. The Canadian charter aims to “raise awareness of issues concerning our unique and combined European cultures and heritage so that we may preserve and pass on those values to future generations.” The group uses the swastika, confederate flag, celtic cross, and the South African flag used during apartheid. The group has ties to Combat 18, an armed and radical branch. Combat 18 is known for its white supremacy, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia, as well as its involvement in violent measures like murder and bombing in the name of its cause.