Montreal, Canada – A new organisation has been set up to track hate groups in Canada amid what experts say is a marked rise in far-right sentiment across the country.
The Canadian Anti-Hate Network (CAN) was launched earlier this month, just as news broke that one of the most prominent neo-Nazi propagandists in North America was living and recruiting members in Montreal.
The Montreal Gazette identified Zeiger – as he is known online – as a local IT professional named Gabriel Sohier Chaput. He is the second-most prolific writer on a neo-Nazi website, The Daily Stormer, the newspaper reported.
Al Jazeera did not independently verify his identity.
Zeiger was attempting to build a white supremacist network in Montreal, the Gazette said. Anti-racist activists protested in his north-end neighbourhood after his identity was revealed, and another demonstration is planned for Saturday.
“I can’t really overstate how important Zeiger is,” Evan Balgord, CAN’s executive director, told Al Jazeera.
“He’s a propagandist. He has written materials that I’ve seen teenagers on forums cite as the reason that they got fully radicalised into this hate movement … He is overtly racist in the worst forms you can imagine – and defends the use of violence.”
Balgord said that while local watchdogs have monitored hate groups or worked on de-radicalisation in Canada before, most have operated in their silos without much coordination.
CAN is the first organisation that will be devoted to monitoring hate groups nationwide, he said. It aims to expose some of their activities and will contact law enforcement or community groups if there is something they should be aware of.
Balgord likened CAN’s mandate to the type of investigative work done by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which currently monitors 954 hate groups operating in the United States.
Barbara Perry, a professor at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology and the foremost expert on hate groups in Canada, said she believes between 120-130 such organisations operate in the country today.
These groups, some of which exist solely online, range in size from a handful of people to dozens or even hundreds.
A host of new far-right groups have emerged in recent years, including Quebec’s La Meute, the Proud Boys, Storm Alliance, Soldiers of Odin and several chapters of anti-immigrant group PEGIDA.
Perry, who will be collaborating with CAN, told Al Jazeera that “there’s much more diversity” in the far-right in Canada today than there was decades ago.
In the 1990s, the main neo-Nazi group in the country was The Heritage Front, which operated largely in the province of Ontario. The group disbanded in the mid-2000s following public pressure from anti-fascist activists and others, as well as the death of its leader.
“They certainly didn’t have the kind of social media access that [these groups] have today,” Perry said.
“This is certainly not something that I’ve seen in my memory. I think this is a unique era in our history.”
Balgord said the most recent wave of far-right hate groups in Canada began in 2014, adding that it “really exploded” in 2016 with the election of US President Donald Trump.
Last year, a parliamentary motion to condemn Islamophobia, known as M-103, “galvanised” Canada’s far-right sympathisers, Balgord said.
“[For far-right website] Rebel Media and pretty much the entirety of the far-right, this was their lightning rod,” he said.
“This is when they started doing real-life demonstrations,” added Balgord.
Those protests were led by people that are “often just overtly racist towards Muslims and in some cases, advocate violence towards them”, Balgord noted.
While they are distinct, some members of far-right or neo-Nazi groups were also in attendance at those protests, he added.
According to Perry, while there is no ideological difference between the so-called alt-right and traditional neo-Nazis, “what the alt-right has mastered is this sanitised presentation of self”.
“They’re much more careful with their language. They’re certainly less aggressive on the streets; they leave that to the shock troops like La Meute and Storm Alliance and Atalante and all of those groups,” she explained.
“You’ve now got this sort of intelligentsia that distances itself from the violence and the aggressive posturing … but is nonetheless feeding the movement.”
Far-right views have recently been tied to deadly acts of violence in Canada.
Last month, it emerged that the accused driver of a van that mowed down pedestrians in Toronto, killing 10 people, was motivated by misogyny and belonged to a group which experts say has ties to the far-right.
In April, evidence was presented at a hearing in the trial of Quebec City mosque shooter Alexandre Bissonnette that showed how obsessed the 28-year-old was with far-right commentary in the lead-up to the attack that left six Muslim men dead last year.
Bissonnette had been looking at the Twitter feeds of neo-Nazi Richard Spencer, Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, Infowars’ Alex Jones, and some right-wing commentators, the Montreal Gazette reported.
He was also obsessed with Trump’s online posts.
While Bissonnette doesn’t appear to have belonged to any far-right group, his ideology was “close to the alt-right”, said Maxime Fiset, a former neo-Nazi who now works at the Centre for the Prevention of Radicalization Leading to Violence.
Fiset, who is based in Quebec, told Al Jazeera that Bissonnette “chose his target for ideological reasons”, but he also apparently had violent impulses.
“The peculiarity of the alt-right is to have few coherent groups,” he said.
“That being said, a radicalised person has never needed to be part of an official group to be radicalised. It was always possible to be radicalised through contact with a community of thought.”
While Fiset said the alt-right is not widely mobilised in Quebec, the next few months will be a good indicator of whether groups like La Meute or Storm Alliance can still rally their members publicly.
“Their discourse still has a strong power of attraction on the population … [and] a big part of their game is to influence politics by influencing the culture and public opinion in some ways, without ever doing politics directly. They’ve maintained that power,” he said.
For his part, Balgord said he remains hopeful, noting that awareness is growing due to the work of organisations such as CAN to uncover what far-right groups stand for.
“By exposing them, we disrupt their activities, and we prevent the further spread and the further creation of these kinds of propaganda materials that can radicalise and lead to real-world violence,” Balgord said.
“I am hopeful that we will be able to contain the threat right now and to counter these groups on behalf of all Canadians because they really are threatening all of us.”