The term “neo-Nazi” is now thrown around by some progressives as a casual epithet to describe anyone whose views are seen as even marginally conservative. But Canadians of my (middle-aged) generation have memories of real neo-Nazis such as Ernst Zündel, who once published such tracts as The Hitler We Loved and Did Six Million Really Die?
The neo-Nazi Heritage Front, established in 1989, unsuccessfully tried to infiltrate Canada’s Reform party, a mainstream entity that eventually would form the base of Stephen Harper’s Conservative Parliamentary majorities. The Heritage Front was disbanded in 2005, as modern Canadian conservatives properly and decisively rejected these bigoted voices. And while hatemongers have made news in recent years, they generally have been marginal, widely mocked figures operating on the local level—such as the duo of James Sears and LeRoy St. Germaine, who wrote a garbage Toronto newsletter called Your Ward News that promoted the legalization of rape and Holocaust denial. Other far-right groups in Canada include the Canadian Nationalist Front, the Aryan Strikeforce, the Wolves of Odin, the Soldiers of Odin and the Canadian Infidels.
The names are scary, but the groups have relatively little influence. Unfortunately, even lone bigots can cause horrible violence. Two years ago, an Islamophobe beset by mental-health problems named Alexandre Bissonnette murdered six Muslims peacefully worshiping at a Quebec City mosque and injured 19 others. Quebec Superior Court Justice François Huot declared that Bissonnette’s hate crimes were “truly motivated by race, and a visceral hatred toward Muslim immigrants.”
The history of Canada’s right-wing hate movements, as we would now recognize them, dates back to before World War II, when Montreal journalist Adrien Arcand (1899-1967) published and edited such charmingly named papers as Le Fasciste Canadien. Arcand, who allegedly had connections to Conservative prime minister R. B. Bennett, was a real political force. He later created and led the National Social Christian Party, whose platform included a plan to deport Jews to the shores of frigid Hudson Bay. He was interned during the war but reemerged as a political candidate on numerous occasions (though he was never elected).
In 1948, Pierre Trudeau—who would go on to become prime minister for a decade and a half from the late 1960s to the early 1980s—published an article called Reflections on a Democracy and Its Variant, in which he criticized Canada’s wartime government for the suspension of democratic rights, including “government by decree, the suspension of habeas corpus, [and] the Arcand, Houde, Chaloult incidents.” (René Chaloult and Camillien Houde were Quebec politicians who opposed war conscription. Houde was actually sent to an internment camp without trial as a result of his anti-war advocacy, but returned to Montreal in triumph and was re-elected as mayor.)
Almost 17 years later, Trudeau, by now a nationally prominent figure, explained that he was speaking in defence of the larger principles of free speech and due process. A full reading of his article and his political track record makes this assertion credible. As Trudeau biographers Max and Monique Nemni wrote, “Trudeau was not approving Arcand’s ideology.” His support for the man was based on the need to protect the principles of “democracy, freedom and justice.”
Canadians now live in a different era, one presided over by Pierre’s son Justin, Canada’s current prime minister. And the problem of far-right extremism is—though serious, and sometimes deadly—far less threatening as a national Canadian campaign than it was at the height of the fascist movement in the 1930s and 1940s. And yet Justin Trudeau has taken an approach that is opposite to what his father articulated in Reflections on a Democracy and Its Variant. He is hyping the problem for political gain, rather than contextualizing it as a challenge to democratic liberalism that should be managed within our existing political framework.
Canadians will go to the polls this fall. And in the run-up to the vote, there has been a concerted effort by Trudeau’s Liberals to falsely link their Conservative opposition to the forces of the far right. In some cases, this has involved exaggerating the significance of marginalized figures—such as political candidate Faith Goldy, who snatched a handful of photo-ops with mainstream figures before becoming disgraced and toxic. In other cases, it has involved inventing pure fictions, so as to scare Canadians and tar Liberal opponents.
Trudeau often has been ridiculed for his politically correct postures. But during the early part of his tenure, these postures were seemingly well-intentioned and sincere, in keeping with his “sunny ways” political strategy more generally. The bad cop in this coordinated good-cop/bad-cop routine was his chief strategist and long-time friend Gerald Butts, who has much sharper elbows.
Back in February, 2018, long before he was sidelined by an unrelated political scandal, Butts set off a firestorm when he Tweeted that “the lesson to take” from a British alt-right conspiracy theorist who had mocked Trudeau for his political correctness was that “nazi friends of the Rebel [a fringe Canadian alt-right media outlet]” are “paying attention. Game on, #TeamTrudeau.” The context for this was a well-publicized episode in which Trudeau had tut-tutted the sexism of a woman who had used the word “mankind” in a public forum (Trudeau jokingly suggested that “peoplekind” would have been more appropriate)—a spectacle that had attracted derision from all corners. Yet, ludicrously, Trudeau’s chief lieutenant was suggesting that this mocking reaction somehow was a symptom of the “Nazi” menace, which Canadians could fight back by supporting “#TeamTrudeau.” (Celebrity journalist Piers Morgan joined the fray by telling Butts on Twitter, “I’m not a Nazi,” and “if you’re one of @JustinTrudeau’s chief advisors, no wonder he’s making so many gaffes.” Morgan’s statement proved prophetic and the gaffes continued.)
That infamous Tweet by Butts made explicit what clearly had been a political strategy that mostly had been conducted sotto voce, which was to link small-C and large-C conservatives alike to the Nazis—i.e. to a movement that exterminated tens of millions of innocent people, and which properly stands as a byword for human evil. The irony here is that mainstream Canadian conservatism of the kind promoted by Conservative parties at the national and provincial levels is generally of a strain that barely would be recognized as “conservative” by most Americans. Andrew Scheer’s federal Conservatives support socialized medicine, generous foreign-aid programs, free trade, and the long-standing Canadian policy of welcoming hundreds of thousands of immigrants—and tens of thousands of refugees—every year.
Early in his mandate, Trudeau tried to position himself as a Canadian anti-Trump (even as he treated Donald Trump himself with considerable tact). When the U.S. president announced his ban on migrants from seven Muslim-majority countries, Trudeau Tweeted: “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada.”
In politics, as in life, be careful what you wish for: What followed Trudeau’s Tweet was a rush of border crossings, especially into Quebec from upstate New York. Many ordinary Canadians, especially Quebecers, were outraged, as Trudeau and his federal ministers stared at their shoes. Yet when Scheer’s Conservatives gave public voice to these widespread concerns, Butts pretended as though Canada suddenly was under siege from “alt-right” racists, Tweeting, “enough is enough. It’s time to stand up to this divisive fear-mongering about asylum seekers. Let’s not allow the alt-right to do here what they’re doing elsewhere.” (Months later, when the number of refugee claimants surpassed 40,000, the Trudeau government itself moved to mitigate the flow of asylum seekers—yet Butts was strangely reticent about his boss’ “alt-right” move.)
In large part, the Liberal strategy has played on the language slippage that now marks all forms of political dialogue on social media: To be conservative, even slightly so, is to be right wing. To be right wing is to be alt-right (never mind that the decade-old term specifically relates to a xenophobic, bigoted strain of conservatism that has little to no mainstream influence in Canada). To be alt-right is to be extremist. And to be extremist is to be a Nazi. By this sort of rhetorical daisy chain can the laziest slur against any Canadian conservative be grossed up into the suggestion that we are on the verge of some kind of nationwide Kristallnacht.
In January, 2019, after Queen’s University professor Amarnath Amarasingam quoted a Politico report to the effect that “a coordinated online campaign by far-right activists pressured mainstream European parties to drop support for a UN migration pact that was years in the making,” Butts demanded that Canada’s Conservatives be included in the list of impugned parties, Tweeting that Scheer and his caucus “were enthusiastic participants in this campaign here in Canada.” Even when it comes to the Trudeau government’s carbon-tax policy, an important but wonky subject on which reasonable people clearly can disagree, the same hyperbolic language is used. According to Butts, Conservative opposition in this sphere is rooted in the fact that Scheer’s party “has been taken over by the far-right fringe.”
While Trudeau usually used Butts as his effective mouthpiece for these slurs, he sometimes has involved himself personally, especially when the issue of race was needed as a diversion. This was the case in the aftermath of the scandal known as the SNC-Lavalin affair, when Trudeau rose in Parliament to claim that “the Conservative leader [Scheer] refused to denounce white supremacists in this House.”
On Twitter, Trudeau lectured Scheer to the effect that “white supremacy has no place in Canada. It’s time for all parties, including Andrew Scheer’s Conservative Party, to stand together in denouncing hatred in all its forms.” This was Tweeted in reaction to Conservative Senator Leo Housakos, who had made comments that a Trudeau minister had claimed were tantamount to dismissing the threat of white supremacy.
What Senator Housakos actually said was: “I can’t identify a single country in the world where governments are supporting White supremacist movements.” This had come in response to the Liberals’ claim that white supremacists represent a grave threat to Canadian democracy. In the Liberal rhetorical universe, one now can be accused of being in league with white supremacists merely by taking issue with the idea that our society is on the cusp of racist apocalypse.
Indeed, a number of Liberals not only knowingly mischaracterized Housakos’ claims; they accused other Conservatives of somehow abetting the forces of white supremacy because they had not publicly shamed Housakos for his (entirely fictional) nonchalance about the issue. The Liberals have cycled through this “when-did-you-stop-beating-your-wife” routine on a number of occasions. (Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen seems to have a special fondness for this cynical game.)
Many Canadian journalists have sought to signal-boost this Liberal smear campaign. Maclean’s magazine, which is a sort of Canadian counterpart to Time or Newsweek, ran a sensationalistic report to the effect that “Andrew Scheer Has a Problem”—meaning racism. But the facts reported within the article were so meagre that even the headline writers were forced to retreat to the underwhelming claim that the Conservative leader “has left himself open to charges of intolerance in his party.” The argument here is circular, of course, since Scheer is only “open to charges of intolerance” if media play along with the melodrama, which Maclean’s seems happy to do. On the cover of the magazine’s June, 2019, print edition, the editors even tried (and failed) to render the dimple-faced Scheer as some kind of sinister two-faced figure.
* * *
What is an actual “neo-Nazi”? According to the ADL (formerly known as the Anti-Defamation League), it’s someone who “revere[s] Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany and sometimes tr[ies] to adopt some Nazi principles to their own times and geographic locations.” Similarly, the ADL defines traditional white supremacists as being in the mold of the Ku Klux Klan. There isn’t a single Canadian politician of significance, at any level of government, who meets these criteria. The closest anyone comes is the aforementioned Goldy; who, at the height of her short, gonzo political career, got 3 percent of the vote share in a Toronto mayoral election (much of it likely as a protest vote); and Monika Schaefer, a former federal Green Party candidate who denies the Holocaust and claims to have convinced her party leader, Elizabeth May, to have submitted her 9/11 conspiracy petition to Parliament five years ago.
Is May a neo-Nazi? Of course not. Is her Green Party a harbor for the far right? No. Oddball candidates pop up in all parties. Prime Minister Trudeau omitted mention of Jews in his statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2016. The plaque Trudeau unveiled when he opened the Canadian Holocaust Memorial also made no mention of Jews. Does this make Trudeau an anti-Semite or holocaust denier? Of course not—no more so than Scheer’s appearance at a public event gatecrashed by Goldy makes him a white supremacist.
One might imagine from reading the Liberal attacks on Scheer that the Conservatives were racist xenophobes instead of a party with a long track record of supporting immigration policies largely similar to those of the Liberals. (Indeed, under Stephen Harper’s Conservative tenure from 2006 to 2015, total immigration to Canada actually increased.) Scheer has been explicit in his support of multiculturalism and tolerance, and his party consistently has supported Israel and Jewish concerns in general—so much so that Conservatives have been accused of being too solicitous of Jewish voters. That doesn’t exactly sound like playing footsie with “neo-Nazis,” does it?
In defense of Jewish Liberal colleagues in Parliament, Scheer said, “It’s shameful to see two MPs subjected to such anti-Semitism, accused of dual loyalties, simply because they’re Jewish & support Israel. The entire @CPC_HQ caucus & I stand w/ our colleagues across the aisle, proudly supportive of all Jewish Canadians.” In a 2017 interview, he said, “My message is that the Conservative Party is an inclusive party, that welcomes the contributions of people of the Muslim faith, and I’m glad that they make up our cultural fabric.” Scheer has made a number of such statements, often in response to yet one more Liberal claim, made on no evidence, that he believes the opposite. He has been crystal clear in his stance on the far-right extremism, saying that, “we denounce any elements of society that would promote hate speech.”
The Liberals’ strategy of diluting the concept of extremism for political purposes should alarm everyone—including their own supporters—who understands the real threat that extremism holds in our society. A healthy government runs on its record. An ailing government runs on fear, and the Trudeau government’s tactics suggest that it is indeed a very sick patient.
Join the newsletter to receive the latest updates in your inbox.