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Canada can’t continue to give the Proud Boys and other extremist groups a free pass
Originally published in the Globe and Mail 11 January 2021
This op-ed was originally published in the Globe and Mail on 11 January 2021, prior to the listing of the Proud Boys as a terrorist entity.
The events in Washington last week shocked the world and have led to calls for action against right-wing extremists. In Canada, federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has called for listing one of the groups present, the Proud Boys, as a terrorist entity, and the government has confirmed that they are considering taking action. The question is: Do the Proud Boys meet the threshold for being designated as a terrorist entity, and what would this listing achieve?
Canada has previously listed two right-wing terrorist groups: Blood & Honour and their armed branch, Combat 18. The public rationale for their listing includes politically-motivated murders committed by members of the group and a 2012 firebombing in the Czech Republic. The threshold to be listed as a terrorist group is not high, but there are still some basic requirements.
The process of listing an entity involves establishing that the group has attempted, facilitated or knowingly carried out a terrorist activity, or that they collaborated with a terrorist entity. These actions have to meet the definition of terrorist activity in the Criminal Code of Canada. This means that their acts must have been committed, at least in part, for political, religious or ideological objectives, and had to have been committed to intimidate the public or to compel a government to do (or not do) something. These acts also had to intentionally cause death or serious bodily harm to a person by the use of violence, endanger a person’s life or cause a serious risk to the health and safety of members of the public. Based on a report on the group’s activities and beliefs drafted by either CSIS or the RCMP, the Minister of Public Safety makes a recommendation to the Governor in Council as to whether the group should be listed or not.
Even prior to the events last week, some of the Proud Boys’ activities could potentially meet the threshold for terrorist activity. The group, which was founded in the U.S. by Canadian Gavin McInnes and also has a Canadian presence, has engaged in politically motivated assaults, property damage and violence. In the past, other members of the group have been arrested for assault, while the current leader of the group was arrested before the riot on weapons charges.
The events on Capitol Hill may serve as additional grounds for listing the Proud Boys. While the exact nature of that incident is subject to debate amongst terrorism scholars, with some arguing that the storming of Capitol Hill constituted terrorist activity, and others suggesting it did not, the threshold is actually whether the same activity would constitute terrorism in Canada based on the definition in the Criminal Code.
The events last week caused the death of a Capitol Hill police officer, and the intent to do serious harm can be established by the presence of at least two improvised explosive devices, a cooler full of Molotov cocktails and other weapons, as well as public statements by individuals vowing harm to politicians. While there was not a uniform objective to the incident, the intent of the rioters seems primarily to upend the democratic process. It is also difficult to fathom how, given the weapons the rioters carried, their statements prior to the incident, and their actions in the Capitol, their objective was not to intimidate the public or government and cause serious harm to politicians.
If the Proud Boys are found to meet the threshold for being listed as a terrorist entity, what would this achieve? The group’s assets would be seized and/or forfeited. While the group and its various chapters are unlikely to have much in the way of assets, there would be follow-on effects for publicly identified members of the group, of which there are many. These individuals would find it difficult, if not impossible, to obtain a bank account, conduct financial transactions (including purchasing a house), both in Canada and abroad. They would also find it difficult to cross international borders. In addition to this, other counter-terrorism powerscould be used to disrupt the group’s activities.
If the Proud Boys meet the minimum threshold for being listed as a terrorist entity, it is up to the Minister of Public Safety to make the final recommendation. If the government chooses to pursue a listing, it’s also worth noting that there were other groups present at the riot as well that could meet the listing threshold. The current climate is also an opportune time for the government to release material gathered in the listing process so that the public has a better understanding of both the process itself and who the Proud Boys are. It is beyond time for greater transparency in this process, and while the Proud Boys are a blight in Canada and abroad, they are far from the only extremist group in this country getting a pass.