Feature: Québec’s far right steps out of the shadows

Feature: Québec’s far right steps out of the shadows

This article first appeared in the June 2017 issue of Life in Québec Magazine.

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Québec’s far right steps out of the shadows

By Yascha Wecker

Sylvain Brouillette never planned on joining a far-right movement. But the 52-year-old, who goes by the nom de guerre Maikan, began to see things differently when, in late 2015, Justin Trudeau became prime minister after promising to welcome 25,000 or more Syrian refugees to Canada. “I want my kids to experience the same quality of life that I had, and I don’t want it to be affected by unchecked multiculturalism,” he says. He believes multiculturalism “will deconstruct our society into something that doesn’t work.”

In joining La Meute (“The Wolfpack”), Brouillette found a community of people who viewed the world through a similar lens. In Brouillette’s words, they believe that if immigrants do not integrate into the culture of the host country, “it can lead to social disorder and possibly even civil war…we believe in a multiethnic Canada, but not a multicultural Canada.”

La Meute claims it does not oppose immigration or hosting refugees. However, its members believe current government restrictions on immigration are insufficient. They say that if immigration were to go unchecked, it would allow for followers of radical Islam to impose those values on the rest of the population – – and they believe that that trend is beginning now.

Of Québec’s population of 8.2 million, about 370,000 are immigrants who have arrived in the past decade, of which just over 10,000 are Syrian refugees. Between 2005 and 2014, before the beginning of the current Syrian refugee admissions schemeprogram, just over 28,000 immigrants from the Middle East settled in the province, of which 17,000 were still present in 2016 (Québec does not maintain immigration statistics by religious affiliation). “”It’s not that we’re being overrun by Islam, it’s more about being cautious and making sure we don’t end up in a situation like many European countries,”” explains Brouillette, now a spokesperson for the group. “”If they had taken the precautions we take in Quebec Québec now, they wouldn’’t have had as many problems.”

A common theme

La Meute is one of many neo-nationalist groups that have sprung up in the province over the last several years. Although offline events are organized by a core group of about 20 members, La Meute’s social media iterations have about 50,000 followers across the province. The common theme among them is a firm rejection of established conservative parties as well as skepticism towards globalization and immigration, which they believe threaten to erode the Québécois way of life.

“”Right now, in places like MontréalMontreal, Québécois culture is being drowned,” ,” says Rémi Tremblay, the Québec City-based media liaison for the Federation des Québécois de souche, who is based in the Québec City area. The group was founded as a protest movement in the aftermath of Québec’s reasonable accommodation crisis in 2007. Tremblay explains that its concern is not with specific groups of immigrants, but rather with the concept of immigration itself. “”Peoples that are strangers to each other and who have different values and traditions can’t live side by side indefinitely without there being frictions and problems,” ,” Tremblay argues.

Unlike the FQS, many far-right groups single out radical Islam as being the most serious threat linked to immigration. They see radical Islamist terrorism as an imminent threat.

“”We believe radical Islam has no place here. We can see the damage it does in Europe and we don’t want the same to happen here,” ,” says Daniel Boucher, the president of the Alliance nationale réformiste du Québec (formerly known as the Front National du Québec), an aspiring far-right provincial party. He argues that it is dangerous for Québec society to dismiss this threat as marginal. “”Of course it’s not the majority, but still, it doesn’t always take a majority. It’s usually a minority that causes the damage. You still have to be cautious.”

While the vast majority of these groups are more influential online than in the real world, some do not hesitate to take their message to the streets. The Québec chapter of the Soldiers of Odin, for instance, announced plans in December 2016 to “patrol” what it describes as the “mostly Muslim” areas of Québec City (Muslims make up about two per cent of Québec City’s population and are not concentrated in any particular area of the city). “”We won’’t allow them to bring mayhem to our streets,”” the group’’s spokesperson, Katy Latulippe, told CBC at the time. A later CBC report indicated that “patrols” had taken place in the Vanier and Saint-Roch neighbourhoods of Lower Town.

“People who are scared”

No one knows the dynamics of these groups better than Maxime Fiset, a former far-right activist who has recanted his radical past to work with Montréal’s Montreal’s Centre for the Prevention of Radicalization Leading to Violence (CPRLV). He points out that the scope of Québec’’s right-wing groups is difficult to measure and their actual figures numbers are difficult to nail down. “”Either they operate in secrecy, or they hide a large part of their activities so as to only showcase what they believe is beneficial to their public relations campaign,”” says Fiset, who was a founding member of the FQS before turning his back on the far right.

“”These are people who are scared, worried, people who don’’t know ‘‘the other’’,”” says Fiset, adding that far-right demagogues exploit people’s worries in order to make their message resonate more loudly in the media and in society.

Labels are one of the sore spots of Québec’s far-right movements. They shun terms like “far-right,”” “”neo-nationalist”” or “”alt-right.”” . But Herman Deparice-Okomba, director of the CPRLV, does not hesitate to call them exactly that. “”You just have to look at the discourse they convey. It’’s a discourse of hate, of rejection, of fear of ‘’the other’’,”” he says.

Maxime Fiset notes that the rejection of labels mainly has to do with the groups growing increasingly concerned about their public image. He maintains that in order to create social acceptability, “”these groups will try to soften their statements so as to render them more politically correct and to avoid the far-right label.””

Driven by a global momentum

Over the last few years, several Western democracies have witnessed the surge of populist movements. Donald Trump, Brexit, the National Front’’s historic score in France’’s presidential election and the success of other right-wing populist movements in Europe are just a few examples.

Rémi Tremblay of the FQS has no doubt that neo-nationalist groups in Québec have benefited from that momentum. “”Inevitably, the populist winds that are sweeping across Europe will blow over here,”” he says.

Herman Deparice-Okomba has also noticed this trend. “”These are people who were working out of their basements, having a discourse that wasn’t audible in the public arena. Since last year, we can see them leaving the private sphere and entering the public sphere,”” he notes. “”Donald Trump has lent credibility to this kind of discourse.””

Incidentally, the latest Québec government statistics show that reported hate crimes jumped by 40 per cent between 2013 and 2014.

Maxime Fiset suggests that this phenomenon can at least in part be attributed to the failure of the neoliberal economic model to fulfil its promises. “”I think the disillusion with respect to globalization fuels this enthusiastic renewal of nationalism with all the negative consequences it entails,”” he says.

Political ambitions

The renewed vigour of Québec’’s far right has yet to translate into a coherent political movement, though Fiset says he would not be surprised to witness the birth of a far-right political party at the provincial level in the coming years.

Alliance nationale réformiste du Québec is already working on such a plan. Daniel Boucher intends to put up forward candidates in all of Québec’s 125 ridings in the 2018 general election. Boucher may not expect to win, but he does not rule anything out, especially since the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency. “”Maybe they’ll think to themselves, ‘’why not?’’, and they’ll vote for us,”” he speculates, before bursting into laughter. “”It might just happen like that!””

Fostering dialogue

Even though far-right groups in Québec are unlikely to take their views to the National Assembly any time soon, there is no reason to believe that their influence isn’’t growing.

Herman Deparice-Okomba understands this very well, which is why the CPRLV is closely monitoring the groups and their activities. “”We’re getting calls from concerned citizens every day,”” he says, adding that his job is to target those who try to use hate speech or violence to impose their views on others.

While the groups themselves say they reject physical violence, some feel internal pressure from members to turn their ideas into action. Rémi Tremblay says some members feel pushed toward radical action because they feel their voice is not being heard. “”In Québec, you don’t have the right to have an open discussion about immigration on the public stage. There is always one, and only one position which is politically acceptable,”” he argues.

In order to foster mutual understanding, some groups insist it is vital to open up a dialogue with the Muslim community. “”People need to talk to each other. We need to work together towards a better society,” ,” says Boucher, pointing out that the aftermath of the Québec City mosque shootings provided a key opportunity for increased dialogue.

La Meute also maintains that the Muslim community needs to be part of the discussion. “”We keep working with Muslim groups that are in favour of secularism; we think that this is part of the solution,”” Brouillette says.

Promoting dialogue plays an important role in preventing radicalization, Fiset, the former radical, points out. He believes this includes those who oppose far-right groups and their ideologies. In order for extremist views to be countered, they must first be expressed. “”Even if you’re, say, very left-wing, you need to give your adversary space where they can express themselves and create a debate,”” he says. “”This is necessary for Québec democracy to function.”
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