White nationalism is on the rise in Canada. What does it have to do with women?

Researchers Barbara Perry and Ryan Scrivens describe far-right extremism as “a loose movement, animated by a racially, ethnically, and sexually defined nationalism.” They go on to explain that it’s “typically framed in terms of White power, and is grounded in xenophobic and exclusionary understandings of the perceived threats posed by such groups as non-Whites, Jews, immigrants, homosexuals and feminists.”

White nationalism is a core concept in this extremism. And many experts say it’s becoming more mainstream. In Canada, it’s been the basis of all kinds of dangerous things including deadly attacks, misinformation campaigns, and harassment and hate toward public figures, politicians and journalists, particularly racialized women.

In this part two episode, we’re joined by Barbara Perry, Director of the Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism and Professor in the Faculty of Social Science and Humanities at Ontario Tech University. She holds a UNESCO Chair in Hate Studies, a field in which she has written extensively, and she is generally recognized as the leading Canadian expert on hate crime and right-wing extremism. She is regularly called upon by policy makers, practitioners, and local, national, and international media as an expert on both topics.


00:00:00 Andrea 

White nationalism is on the rise. What does it have to do with women? 

I’m Andrea Gunraj, at the Canadian Women’s Foundation and this is part two of our discussion on women in white nationalism. 

Welcome to Alright, Now What?, a podcast from the Canadian Women’s Foundation.  We put an intersectional feminist lens on stories that make you wonder “Why is this still happening?” We explore systemic roots and strategies for change that will move us closer to the goal of gender justice.           

The work of the Canadian Women’s Foundation and our partners takes place on traditional First Nations, Métis, and Inuit territories. We are grateful for the opportunity to meet and work on this land. However, we recognize that land acknowledgements are not enough. We need to pursue truth, reconciliation, decolonization, and allyship in an ongoing effort to make right with all our relations. 

00:00:51 Andrea 

Researchers Barbara Perry and Ryan Scrivens described far-right extremism as a “loose movement animated by racially, ethnically and sexually defined nationalism”. They go on to explain that “it’s typically framed in terms of white power and is grounded in xenophobic and exclusionary understandings of the perceived threats posed by such groups as non-whites, Jews, immigrants, homosexuals, and feminists.” 

White nationalism is a core concept in this extremism. And many experts say it’s becoming more mainstream. In Canada, it’s been the basis of all kinds of dangerous things, including deadly attacks, misinformation campaigns, and harassment and hate towards public figures, politicians and journalists- particularly racialized women. In the swirl of media coverage about the issues, it can be hard to sort out what it’s all about and the implications from a gender and rights perspective. 

Last episode I spoke with journalist Erica Ifill about this topic. In this Part 2 episode, we’re joined by Barbara Perry, director of the Center on Hate, Bias and Extremism at Ontario Tech University. She’s written extensively on hate crimes and right-wing extremism. Her books include In the Name of Hate, Understanding Hate Crimes, and Hate and Bias Crime- a reader. 

00:02:16 Barbara 

A couple of things that I think are important to know about me in terms of my role is that one, I’m the director of the Center on Hate, Bias, and Extremism here at Ontario Tech, but we also hold a UNESCO Chair in Hate Studies, which is relatively new to us. And you say, what gets you excited? I don’t know if it gets me excited, but it keeps me up at night, I think one way to think about it. I’ve worked in hate studies now for most of my career, so going on 30 years. A lot of my work has been with targeted communities, frequently victimized communities. In the last 10 years or so, I think before it was a thing in the Canadian context, I started to look more closely at right-wing extremism in Canada, publishing the first report in 2015 which was just about the time that, you know, it really exploded, the movement really exploded across North America in response to, what? Trump’s campaign and subsequent presidency. And I guess I do get excited talking about these issues because I think that they are considerable concerns. They’re very worrying patterns and trends. Yet, I think there’s not a great deal of awareness. And in fact, in some quarters, a denial that such a risk exists in the Canadian context, we’re very complacent and we like to think it doesn’t happen here. That’s an American problem. That’s a British problem, not a Canadian problem. Well, I’m sorry to say, it is very much a Canadian problem. 

00:03:40 Andrea 

I found your TEDx talk on recognizing the dangers of right-wing extremism pretty enlightening. It’s a clarifying overview of the key elements of white nationalism across a spectrum of groups. Tell us what this looks like now and what women have to do with it. 

00:03:56 Barbara 

Well, I think it’s important to keep in mind that that TEDx talk was some time ago. Right? Really, in the early days of this dramatic rise that we’ve seen. I think it’s really been maybe the last three or four years that has really taken on and the last two years in particular, around COVID, which you know the far-right has exploited quite significantly. There and in general, you know, when I talk about what constitutes the far-right, I talk about the one thread that binds it, I think, is really this notion of nationalism. That is a very narrow, almost perverse sense of “the nation” that they’re there to defend. And it is a very exclusionary image that is dominated by white Christian euro males, heterosexual, able bodied, all of those sorts of normative identities and anything else beyond that is perceived to be a threat. 

And then you know, if we had the visual, I could show you the typology that we have, which has a number of spokes now. I mean, when we finished and published that 2015 report, really what we were seeing was very traditional, you know, neo-Nazi groups, white supremacist groups, and skinhead groups. Now it’s a very different movement, it’s much more diverse in some respects. So we’ve got the acceleration, so we’ve got the alt-right and we’ve got anti-Muslim element, we’ve got what we started to call sort of the incel, then we changed it to the misogynistic pillar, and now we’re kind of calling them gender defenders because it’s about gender in terms of men and women and that raging battle, but also around SOGI; sexual orientation, gender identity. A rebirth in homophobic and transphobic narratives. It’s almost boundless in terms of the xenophobia, the othering, the hatred. Anti-Semitism is always there, always part of the movement, sometimes simmering, you know, below, under COVID. It came to the fore again, in terms of the conspiracy theories. 

But I think coming back to gender, one of the things that we don’t talk about very much and don’t think about very much is that gender and gender security and sanctity and boundaries are really core to the movement. Have been from the get-go. If you think about one of the mottos, since the 70s or 80s, of many elements of the far-right is what’s referred to as the 14 words, that some of you may have heard referenced over the past few years. And that is- we must ensure the existence of the white race and a future for our children. So, you hear that repeated frequently. You know, it’s clear that gender is implicated- that in order to maintain racial purity, we’ve got to control our women and their sexuality and their freedom. You know, they can’t be free to choose not to reproduce because they need to reproduce the white race. They can’t be free to, you know, engage in relationships with people of colour, because that is a threat. We can’t allow gays because they don’t theoretically reproduce. So, all of those pieces become rolled up.  

But women have always been involved, you know, they’re never outsiders, and sometimes you know women are there in purely supportive and reproductive roles, right? Their role is to satisfy the men and to bear their children. Got to bring women into the movement so they can, not only physically reproduce, but socially reproduce the next generation of white supremacists and white nationalists. 

So, you know they have to be part of the movement. They can’t be just on the fringes, but they have to be believers so that they can socialize their children appropriately. Women are brought in often by their boyfriends or by their partners, but we are also seeing, perhaps it is an ascendancy of women. These are women who have provided leadership in their own right, been allowed to or forced their way, you know, sort of to the top, as representatives, as golden children of the movement. Very articulate, very passionate, very much committed to, you know, traditional gender roles, committed to boundaries and borders, and between racial communities- those key tenets of the far-right extremist group. Frequently seen in the company of bona fide far-right extremists, the most prominent far-right groups of the day. Oddly feminist and anti-feminist at the same time.  

Women are brought into the movement for a number of other reasons as well. Sometimes it’s very pragmatic in terms of, you know, a way, just as they would draw in people of colour. It’s a way to say, look, we’re not racist. Look, we’re not sexist. We encourage women to, you know, walk alongside us shoulder to shoulder- form of tokenism almost. But there are occasions too, where women come into the movement and are just as vocal, just as committed to the ideology as the man and are allowed a leadership, find themselves a leadership, carve themselves out a leadership position. So might be strategists, might be recruiters. And especially you know, young, beautiful women are very powerful, very valuable recruiters within the movement as well, just on the basis of looks. Never mind, you know how articulate they maybe.  

I just think about some recent events in the Canadian context and the role that women have played there. Four years ago now, Yellow Vest Movement and then it’s Younger and Bigger Brother Sister. The convoys, I should say in Ottawa and other places throughout the country, in the winter of 2022, we saw women come to the fore as leaders of that, as originators of the movement, empowering themselves and taking agency and ownership over a movement. But I think at the grassroots level, we also saw a lot of women, in general, soccer moms, right, being drawn into that movement. Not themselves necessarily being of the far-right, but their grievances, their interests were woven by the movement into those more hateful kinds of narratives or those more extreme narratives. 

00:09:52 Andrea 

I read a great book by Chris Bail. It’s called Breaking the Social Media Prism: How to Make Our Platforms Less Polarizing. It talks about the reality that arguing tends to push people deeper into their own ideologies. So, when you see a friend or family member saying things that fall into extremist logic, whether or not they realize it, trying to fight them out of it can make things worse. It got me thinking, how in the world do we effectively counter the spiral into right-wing extremist ideologies? 

00:10:24 Barbara 

I’m not usually a pessimist, but it really is an uphill battle because once people are pulled into this movement, they become really quickly committed to it, especially this current iteration, right? Which rejects science, rejects facts, rejects authority, rejects the state, rejects academics. You can’t argue by reason, right? You can’t argue academic sources and data and all of that sort of thing. It’s just that’s not their reality and they reject it out of hand. Really difficult to pull people back once they’re on that path. Gotta focus on the mushy middle, those who are, which is the bulk of us in many respects right, that, you know, don’t buy into the conspiracy theories, ust folks who are apathetic, and you know, don’t care one way or the other.  

But I think we need to a) keep reminding ourselves that to some extent it is a fringe movement. So, I think that gives us a space, then, to sort of keep making noise, pushing back against those narratives, to keep pushing back. You know in some respects to keep doing what many of us have been doing all along. I mean, I remember myself and my colleague on the 1st project. We felt like we were voices in the wilderness ’cause no one was talking about the far-right at the time and we kept yelling and we kept shouting, right?  We kept making noise and yeah, we just need to keep making those noises. You know, keep demanding, you know accountability from politicians as well, right? In terms of, first of all, you know, not denying that this is a threat, but also you know challenging them when they seem to support these sorts of narratives and themselves express those narratives, right? And that’s not Canada I think that we want- one that is that divisive and that polarized and you know, from whatever direction its coming, polarizing speech does not help the conversation at all.  

I think we need to continue to advocate or agitate for democracy and agitate for people to become part of that democratic process. I think we’ve abdicated a lot of our political power. We become disenchanted, just not necessarily disenfranchised, but you know, we’ve disenfranchised ourselves. Walked away from the political system, and I think it’s important that we continue to, you know, to engage politically. Look at voter turnout in the last provincial election in Ontario, for example, and you know who knows what we’ll see in Quebec.  

You know the government talks about we need a whole of government approach to this problem, I say we need a whole of society approach to this problem.  

Everyone has a responsibility. Every institution has a role to play. Let’s continue to support the grassroots initiatives. Let’s continue to support the community-based organizations that are trying and succeeding in making change and making those noises right and continuing to push back. 

00:13:07 Andrea 

Alright, now what? 

I never want to discourage anyone from raising their voices against hate, but as persuasive as we think we might be, arguing our friends out of extremist ideologies on Facebook probably isn’t going to happen. But there are things we can do. We can contribute to community-based organizations countering hate and promoting social justice and feminist anti-oppressive action.  

We can support feminist voices in traditional and new media to do what they do best. 

And we can vote for politicians and decision makers who articulate proactive plans to counter this white nationalist trend, who have a concrete vision for a better future. 

On November 30th, the Canadian Women’s Foundation is collaborating with Canadian Journalism Foundation and CBC Radio Canada for a special online panel entitled Not Okay: The Chilling Tide of Abuse Faced by Women Journalists. It’s a topic that very much aligns with the rise of extremism and I encourage you to attend. Please visit canadianwomen.org for more information. 

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