'Alt-right' finds ground in Canadian divisions too

By Robin Baranyai, Special to Postmedia Network

The past few weeks have provoked considerable anxiety about mainstreaming of white nationalism, and the increasingly visible "alt-right" movement.

Pennsylvania Avenue marks the epicentre of this newly emboldened presence -- from the appointment of former Breitbart executive chairperson Stephen Bannon as White House chief strategist, to National Policy Institute conference delegates applauding Richard Spencer's speech with the Nazi salute amid a chorus of "Heil victory."

As with any earth-shaking event, the aftershocks can be even more damaging. European democracies are bracing for the possibility ultra-right candidates such as Marine Le Pen could soon be swept to centre stage.

Canadians have reacted to these developments with alarm, and maybe a little smugness. But the aftershocks have rippled northward. We ignore our own deep cultural divisions at our peril.

There are people on both sides of the border who feel concerns about immigration are validated by the Donald Trump victory. People who resent the loss of jobs and feel left behind by a changing economy. Many share the same sense of political correctness run amok. They speak of censoring their thoughts for fear of being labelled intolerant. Nor were we immune from the incidents of hateful harassment of minorities that spiked in the days after the election.

This week, political commentator Van Jones was in Toronto with a warning: "People keep saying that this hate wave that's moving across the West cannot hit Canada. And you are wrong. It is happening throughout the Western democracies . . . it can happen in Canada too."

On election night, Jones spoke emotionally about the "whitelash" against a changing nation and a black president. In Canada, the context for the alt-right is less about black civil rights and more a backlash against historically liberal immigration policies.

This backlash finds expression through such groups as the Council of European Canadians, which believes Eurocanadians' "ethnic integrity" is threatened by "fanatical immigration." It embraced Trump's victory as an opportunity to more openly promote its goal of protecting white European heritage, pushing "a politics that is similar to Trumpism as a very normal, accepted, established politics."

Some media outlets are working hard to fight the normalization of the alt-right. The editors at left-leaning ThinkProgress were among the first to reject the benign-sounding name, announcing they will print "white nationalist" or "white supremacist," as appropriate, noting: "We won't do racists' public relations work for them." So far, it's an uphill battle.

Conservative leadership hopeful Kellie Leitch has tapped into the backlash with her proposal to screen immigrants for "anti-Canadian values." According to a Forum Research poll, two-thirds of Canadians, and a whopping 87 per cent of Conservatives, support the idea - even without a clear articulation of the values in question.

The pitch seems to resonate with Canadians whose tolerance runs to both sides of the spectrum: from anti-immigration to those who welcome diversity and want to make sure newcomers welcome it, too, with a few pointed questions about women's equality and LGBTQ rights.

But there are others who question how "Canadian" it is to demand all people share the same values. Seven in 10 Canadians support marriage equality -- a solid majority, but well short of universal. Canadians also support the freedom to hold a range of personal and religious beliefs, even when they're out of step with Canadian rights and freedoms -- so long as we all respect the rule of law.

Like her government's "barbaric cultural practices" snitch line, for which Leitch later apologized, her values proposal takes a dark turn toward fostering suspicion of the "other." We've seen how that ends.