Alt-rights? White supremacy in Canada and on campus

Graham Swaney explores how Canadian universities are balancing the right to freedom-of-speech in a world increasingly motivated by hate.

Far-right nationalism and white supremacy have seen a massive global resurgence in recent years. While Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 U.S. presidential election is perhaps the most notable manifestation of this trend, white supremacist activity and right-wing nationalism has also established footholds in many other Western nations.

Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front party won over a third of the votes cast in the 2017 French presidential elections, and just a few weeks ago, Germany’s far-right party Alternative for Germany took 13 per cent of the national vote which enabled them to enter the country’s parliament for the first time.

White supremacy on campus

These types of racially-motivated groups also appear to be gaining momentum in Canada, which means university campuses, despite their reputations as strongholds of multiculturalism and free speech, aren’t immune to their effects.

For instance, on Sept. 11, just days after fall semester classes began, anti-immigration posters from a group called Generation Identity made a brief appearance on the Carleton University campus. Then, on Sept. 14, the University of Toronto drew national media attention for denying the Canadian Nationalist Party access to its campus for a rally. According to Vice News, white supremacist posters from the group Students For Western Civilization have also surfaced on the campuses of both York and Ryerson University in recent years.

Officials from all aforementioned universities had the posters taken down and released statements making it clear that the posters’ messages were not in any way sanctioned by the schools.

Barbara Parry, a social sciences and humanities professor at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology who has been studying white supremacist groups in Canada, made the ‘conservative’ estimate that there were over 100 active white supremacist groups in Canada in 2015. According to her, that number has gone up by at least 20 to 25 per cent since then. She said there has been a “really dramatic increase in recent months.”

Parry added that while hate groups may be trying to recruit post-secondary students to join their cause, the overwhelming consensus on university campuses remains that the groups are unwelcome.

“We’re seeing [resistance] on most university campuses right now—those rallies generally far outnumber the far-right rallies,” she said.

While Carleton students expressed concern at the presence of these posters on their campus, for some observers, the appearance of these groups is just a more public manifestation of the racism they feel has always existed.

Selali Ayitey-Wallace, the programming co-ordinator for the Carleton University Students’ Association’s REC (Race, Ethnicity, and Cultural) Hall, an on-campus service centre dedicated to protecting and advocating for racialized students, said that, given the current political climate, she was “not surprised” to hear about the Generation Identity posters on Carleton’s campus.

She said for her, the posters didn’t reflect racist attitudes that she hadn’t seen before in Ottawa.

“A lot of the ways white supremacy affect us specifically in Canada and Ottawa are covert, and are things that you don’t catch unless you are looking out for them,” Ayitey-Wallace said.

Because she has been dealing with racist attitudes for a long time, Ayitey-Wallace said she doesn’t see the recent rise in white supremacy as a new challenge to be dealt with, but rather as a continuation of an age-old struggle.

However, Ayitey-Wallace did acknowledge that the ways in which racism has presented itself in the public discourse since Trump’s election may call for a change in tactics.

“I don’t think I can say necessarily whether we should be more concerned now than we always should be,” she said. “But, I think that we should be willing to open our eyes to the ways in which white supremacy might manifest itself that we’re not used to.”

Drawing on his 11 years of experience as president of the University of Guelph, Carleton’s interim president, Alastair Summerlee had a similar outlook on the issue.

“Clearly there is a concern that what’s going on in the [United] States might be coming north,” Summerlee said. “But, in terms of the frequency of things happening, it doesn’t seem to have changed over the last decade.”

So while Trump and other alt-right politicians may not have personally generated a new generation of racists, it appears their rhetoric may have helped to shift the line for what is acceptable public discourse. This, in turn, has allowed many of these hate groups to appear in public with greater impunity, and tap into support from individuals who may have previously been too intimidated to voice racist sentiments out-loud.

Lawrence Martin, a longtime political journalist and columnist, captured this idea in a recent column in The Globe and Mail.

“The racist categorization is too severe. But there’s a deeply ingrained prejudice at work in this crude race-baiting President,” he wrote. “It’s like Donald Trump is still in the segregated pre-civil rights era, as though his mindset on race never progressed beyond the teen years. Despairingly for the United States, its President is a creature of those bigoted times.”

According to Parry, this increased visibility may also be helping alt-right and white supremacist groups recruit new members.

“The increased visibility and bravado of these groups tends to be part of the reason why their numbers are increasing—because they’re more active in their recruitment, so there’s the risk that more members will be drawn in.”

What about free speech?

When defending their right to express hateful messaging, alt-right and white supremacist groups often claim protection under free speech laws.

According to Parry, it’s common for white supremacists to use guarded language and reframe their messages to ones of self-preservation in order to claim the right to free speech, especially on university campuses. She noted that despite using code words, the underlying messages of these groups are the same.

“[Hate groups are] trying to frame [hate speech] to make it appear legitimate, especially on university campuses. To play that card is disingenuous because hate speech is not free speech,” she said. “There need to be limits on the vilification of certain communities.”

Parry added that by treading the fine legal line between hate speech and free speech, alt-right groups are making it increasingly difficult to determine when actual laws have been violated. Despite using euphemisms on university campuses and at some public rallies, a lot of hate speech, she said, is much more overt, with online spaces being particularly prone to outright hateful messaging.

In spite of claims by alt-right groups that “hate speech is free speech,” Carleton students and administrators generally seem to agree that hate speech is not only unwelcome on their campus, but also unlawful.

“Although some may claim that denying white supremacy groups the right to express their beliefs at Carleton University is a violation of free speech, which is guaranteed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, they tend to forget that the section of the Charter clause says that a person’s rights and freedoms may be reasonably limited, as long as it is justified by the law or the free and democratic society,” said A.J. Mawani, a first-year law student at Carleton. In other words, Mawani said, sentiments that infringe upon other people’s rights aren’t free speech.

While Mawani’s sentiment was echoed by other students who spoke to The Charlatan and by Carleton’s administration in its official statement condemning “intolerance toward all groups and individuals,” not all Carleton students shared these views on the rights of hate groups.

“I think that [hate speech] would be allowed under freedom of speech, but at the same time, someone opposing white supremacists could just as easily set up a group on campus,” said Justin Mcdonald, a first-year computer science student.

Other students thought that while the law shouldn’t protect hate speech, white supremacist groups should have the right to private assembly on campus, so long as they keep their opinions to themselves.

How can society move forward?

As white supremacist and alt-right groups continue to gain traction in Canada and on its university campuses, opponents of these groups maintain that it is critical for students and school administrators to continue playing an active role in defending university communities and the diverse student populations within them.

Ayitey-Wallace made it clear that students cannot afford to just ignore the issue.

“Complacency is acceptance,” she said. “If I see those posters, and I say ‘oh, that’s there but it’s not so bad,’ in a way I’m allowing that white supremacist statement to exist, and I’m allowing that message to continue to haunt other people.”

Parry explained that some of the most effective ways for universities to resist white supremacy lie in actions that are ongoing.

“University officials have been speaking out against hate speech,” she said. “Students themselves are planning counter rallies, engaging in all sorts of awareness raising and educational activities on campus. That’s what universities do best—they share . . . alternative messages and promote positive messages of inclusion and solidarity.”

Carleton’s administration appears to be on the same page as its students when it comes to opposing to white supremacist and other hate groups. As Summerlee reiterated in an interview, the university will “continue being vigilant and asking people to identify things that they consider to be inappropriate.”

Ayitey-Wallace also touched on the need for campus communities to go beyond just resisting the messages of hate groups.

She said members of the REC Hall are stepping in to meet the needs of racialized and other minority students at Carleton who are targeted by these types of hate groups.

“I think that the most significant thing we’re doing on a day-to-day basis is letting racialized students know we’re here to listen to their stories and that we believe them,” she said. “We should be aware of the different things that might all be a result of the same big bad monster.”

Graphic by Manoj Thayalan