Thousands of people marched against hate and racism in Montreal over the weekend in a rally that was endorsed by more than 160 community groups across the Canadian province of Quebec.
Demonstrators said the march also aimed to counter the apparent growth of far-right extremist groups in the province.
Maxime Fiset, a prevention officer at Montreal’s Centre for the Prevention of Radicalization Leading to Violence and an expert on the far-right in Quebec, told Al Jazeera that there has been an “increased legitimacy of extreme-right discourse” in the province.
Fiset is a self-described former neo-Nazi and skinhead who grew up in Quebec City, the provincial capital.
He said his beliefs were “a matter of exclusive nationalism” and “very extreme-right … not so different than the ones you can find today”.
He began disavowing far-right ideologies when he went back to university in 2013, he said, and has since voiced his staunch opposition to views he once espoused.
Today, he tracks how far-right groups operate in Quebec.
Fiset said active membership in extreme, far-right groups remains low in the province today, but it is safe to say that Quebec is experiencing “an early stage of a rise of the extreme right”.
“It’s like European countries 15 years ago,” he said.
So just how many far-right groups exist in Quebec, what are their beliefs, how much support do they have, and what ties do they hold to similar groups across Canada and abroad?
La Meute [loosely translated as “The Wolfpack”] is “the biggest group by far”, Fiset said. Its leaders are from towns around Quebec City and the group has branches in areas across the province.
Storm Alliance is a group that in 2016 broke off from the Soldiers of Odin, an anti-immigrant group with branches across Canada that got its name from an organisation founded in Finland in 2015.
Fiset described the Soldiers of Odin as “openly neo-Nazi”.
Atalante-Quebec is a “street-level organisation”, according to Fiset. He said its members engage in brawls, hand out food to homeless people – “white only, of course”, Fiset said – and clean up graffiti.
Its sister organisation, the Federation des Quebecois de Souche, which can be translated as The Federation of Old Stock Quebecers, is an openly nationalist group. Fiset said the group is more secretive than others and its members are more educated.
The first Canadian branch of the European anti-Muslim group PEGIDA [an acronym for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West] also appeared in Quebec in 2015, but the group operates primarily online.
Most of the groups maintain a hardline anti-immigration stance.
They often talk about the need to preserve “Quebecois culture”, and espouse an extreme nationalist discourse.
Some of the groups also say they are protecting Quebec against the alleged – and baseless – threat of “Islamisation”.
However, Fiset said the groups’ official discourse is often muted in public so as not to be labelled far-right.
“What is extreme is the private discourse,” he said, or what the group members believe to be private.
Andre Gagne, an associate professor in the theological studies department at Montreal’s Concordia University, said the main focus of far-right groups in Quebec is immigration.
The groups fear what Gagne called “le grand remplacement” [French for “the big replacement”], which is the conspiratorial idea that Western civilisation “will eventually be replaced because of mass immigration”.
That fear has been fuelled by the arrival of thousands of asylum seekers at the US-Canada border, many of whom left the US since Donald Trump was elected president, Gagne said.
He said many of the groups have been emboldened by the rhetoric of Trump and some of his administration’s policies, including a proposed ban on immigration from Muslim-majority countries.
“A lot of [the groups] are scared of the ‘Islamisation’ of Canada or the ‘Islamisation’ of Quebec,” Gagne said.
Dave Tregget is the leader of Storm Alliance who left Soldiers of Odin last year to form the group. When he was still with Soldiers of Odin, however, he told CBC Montreal that the group was about “Canadians helping Canadians”.
“I want to protect our Canadian charter of rights and liberties. We’ve got to fight to keep these rights,” Tregget said.
Eric Venne, one of the founders of La Meute who goes by the name Corvus, told CBC Montreal in December 2016 that the group sought to defend Quebec against Islamic extremism.
“I don’t have the desire to live under sharia. I don’t want to live under a totalitarian Islamic regime,” Venne said. “But we are heading that way. It may not look like it in 2016. Tomorrow, people might go ‘Oh’. But by then it will be too late.”
The groups have varying degrees of Islamophobic discourse, though many publicly say “they are not against Islam”, Fiset explained.
La Meute began as a staunchly anti-Muslim group, Fiset said, but toned down its rhetoric when it realised that it would not attract as many members with its hardline position. He said it first shifted towards criticising “radical Islam”, and now the group only seldom discusses Islam.
Still, Jacques Grandmaison, leader of La Meute’s chapter in the Abitibi region of Quebec, described Alexandre Bissonnette, the suspected killer of six Muslim worshippers at a Quebec City mosque in January, as an “audacious killer of Muslims”, Fiset said.
La Meute talks more openly about corruption, democratic representation and other issues “in a populist way to recruit people into an extreme right group with a racist agenda”, Fiset said.
In that sense, the group should be considered “an agent of radicalisation”, he said.
“They take people who have ambiguous views of life and society and they fill them with fear and anger and hatred until some of them end up much more radical and eventually much closer to violence than they were previously.”
While they have tens of thousands of members on social media, La Meute’s real-life membership – people who participate in rallies and other events – figures closer to around 1,000 people, Fiset said.
Fiset said events organised by Storm Alliance can draw up to 150 people, which is “still something, considering that the extreme right is still very marginal”.
PEGIDA-Quebec was forced to cancel two rallies in 2015 and 2016 in Montreal after anti-fascist protesters mobilised to shut down their events. Local media reported that only a handful of PEGIDA supporters showed up at either rally.
Fiset said members of these types of groups tend to be over 45 and poorly educated. Many are “scared and preoccupied with Muslim immigration” and what they describe as “illegal immigration”, he said.
“There is a generational gap because younger people do not fall for these groups… Educated people do not fall for these groups,” Fiset said.
Anti-fascist counterprotesters often far exceed the number of participants at far-right protests and a handful of far-right rallies have been cancelled after counterprotesters mobilised against them.
In August, a far-right rally against immigration planned at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, which temporarily housed Haitian asylum seekers over the summer, was cancelled after hundreds of counterprotesters turned up to confront the extreme-right activists.
La Meute has a chapter in France, Fiset said.
Storm Alliance was founded by former members of Soldiers of Odin, which got its name from the Finnish anti-immigrant group.
Storm Alliance is operating in Western Canada, Fiset added.
Relations between the Soldiers of Odin’s various Canadian branches have splintered in the last year, according to local media reports.
The breaks came after the head of the Soldiers of Odin’s Canada chapter called Finnish group members “racist, unorganised [and] reckless” thugs.
Sister organisations Atalante Quebec and the Federation des Quebecois de Souche have ties to CasaPound and Generation Identitaire, two far-right groups based respectively in Italy and France, Fiset said.
Despite these varying relationships, infighting and feuds between the groups are common, Fiset said.
Maryse Potvin, a professor in the education department at the Universite du Quebec a Montreal, said some members of Quebec’s far-right groups have announced their intention to enter provincial politics.
The former spokesperson for PEGIDA Quebec, Sebastien Poirier, registered a new political party – the Quebec Traditionalist Movement – with Quebec’s director general of elections earlier this year.
Poirier told local media the party will “defend the culture and local traditions of Quebec”. It has a clear anti-Muslim stance and wants to seal Quebec’s borders to prevent the arrival of new immigrants.
“One thing is clear: at the next elections, we will be there,” Poirier told Montreal newspaper La Presse.
Provincial elections will be held in 2018 in Quebec.
The move towards mainstream politics is “dangerous because we don’t want Quebec to find itself with a party like the National Front,” said Potvin, referring to the far-right political party led by Marine Le Pen in France.
“When an extremist party arrives on the political scene, it becomes more legitimate to hear their discourse,” Potvin said.
“The danger is there.”