Racism is masquerading as right-wing populism and free speech on Canadian campuses

"The alt right is really a big tent term – not all people who are involved are white, which makes it easier to defend when people involved in their activities are accused of encouraging white supremacy."



University campuses across Ontario and the country have experienced a surge in right wing activity and, at times, racist propaganda this past year. There’ve been so many digital and on-campus incidents of right-wing activity, most of them anti-Muslim, that it’s hard to know where to begin.

Incidents in Ontario include: “White Students Union” posters found last fall on the York, Ryerson, and the University of Toronto’s St. George campus a number of “White Student Union” Facebook pages emerged at around the same time last year at U of T, Western and McMaster, in addition to the University of British Columbia and the University of Victoria students at the University of Western Ontario posed in front of a giant #WesternLivesMatter banner, and flyers decrying “anti-white racism” were found on the McMaster University campus in Hamilton. A study room in McMaster’s Innis Library was booked under the name “McMaster KKK meeting.” 

Just last month, echoing the Trump campaign’s ubiquitous “Make America Great Again” motto, posters on Montreal’s McGill campus featured a “Make Canada Great Again” message with anti-Muslim and anti-gay graphics. A few months before that, posters reading “Fu*k Your Turban,” were found across the University of Alberta campus.

All of the incidents have been condemned by university administrators and campus student unions.

On December 3, St. Michael’s College Student Union (SMCSU) vice-president Kevin Vando resigned from the college’s student council after videos at a party were posted on the union’s Snapchat account. One shows a student reading aloud from a fake “Islam For Dummies” book. Another depicts the same student replacing a song’s lyrics and mocking Islam.

The video footage was filmed at “a private off-campus function and was in no way sponsored by the St. Michael’s College Student Union,” according to a statement from SMCSU. 

The statement goes on to says that “Over the next few weeks we intend to listen to members of our community in an ongoing process of needed renewal and healing. As always, our doors will be open and we encourage anyone to visit the SMCSU office to share and discuss their concerns with us.”

Vando’s resignation followed a statement issued by the Muslim Students Association (MSA) denouncing the videos saying “this incident should provoke tangible steps going forward to ensure that student leaders on campus, and particularly at St. Michael’s College, receive the necessary training and become well-equipped to interact with students of various backgrounds.”

“It’s not hard to draw a line between these kinds of incidents and the broader movements that have invoked the same kind of messaging,” says Ameil Joseph, a professor at McMaster University’s School of Social Work whose research focuses on issues of race and social justice. 

He notes incidents have dotted not only their campus but the wider community, including the attack of Noah Rabbani, a Muslim teenager who was beaten with a baseball bat earlier this month. There was no news release issued by police and little media attention given the incident until Rabbani’s mother called a local newspaper and posted about the incident on Facebook. The story was eventually picked up by a number of news outlets, including the Washington Post

Jasmin Zine, a sociologist at Wilfred Laurier University whose work focuses on post-9/11 rhetoric and Islamophobia, argues that the right-wing rhetoric of the previous Harper administration helped lay a ground-work for what’s happening today.

“The anti-Muslim speech and rhetoric of people like Harper and now Trump is profitable, so I think we’re going to see more of these views authorized and more right wing groups emboldened because of it.”

Zine and Joseph refer to what’s happening on campus as a “normalization” of usually racist and misogynistic views that are expressed more explicitly by those who organize outside of elected office.

They say the emboldening of a right wing agenda that assails the so called “political correctness” of the “establishment” – be it around racial, economic or security issues – is the engine that drives this wave of campus incidents, which aren’t just limited to Ontario. 

“Canadians like to think that we’re so much more progressive and inclusive as a country, but that underlying current of racism has always been here,” says Barbara Perry, a professor specializing in hate crimes and xenophobia at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology. “Our last federal election revealed the tenuousness of our inclusivity.” 

Perry argues that Canada is “ripe” for the “exaggerated rhetoric” projected by Trump and his supporters in the U.S.

“There’s definitely a heightened sense of anxiety on campus for Muslims,” says Dalia Hashim, President of U of T St. George’s Muslim Student Association. “We see what’s happening in the States and there’s just a general sense of fear.” 

William Walsh, a former labour activist and private security investigator, has been researching the spread of right wing politics in Toronto for the past several months. He notes that the fear and anxiety that Muslims like Hashim experience, along with other vulnerable groups such as the LGBT community, aren’t unfounded.

Just as the phenomenon of the “alt right” has emerged into the U.S.’s public consciousness since Trump’s election, a similar network of interests and groups have also been coalescing in Canada.

“The alt right is really a big tent term that covers a number of right wing interests,” says Walsh. “Not all people who are involved are white, which makes it easier to defend when people involved in their activities are accused of encouraging white supremacy.”

Walsh says that groups like UTSG’s Students in Support of Free Speech (SSFS), for example, that pass themselves off as a gathering place for advocates of freedom of expression, are really pursuing a different agenda.

SSFS, along with the University of Toronto’s Jordan Peterson, a psychology professor with whom the group is closely identified, have voiced their objection to those in the transgendered community’s request that they be referred to using gender-neutral pronouns. 

Peterson has framed this request as an attack on the basic right of free expression, though Walsh says that the issue is being blown out of proportion, acting instead as a dog whistle signal for other, more open, right-wing groups on and off campus to mobilize. 

“This drumming up of a false threat to free speech, whether it’s the ‘PC Police’ or ‘social justice warriors,’” Walsh says, “has allowed right-wing activists to create a bogeyman that’s ill defined and amorphous.”  

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