(photo from Anti-Racist Action UVic/Facebook)
On Nov. 9, the anniversary of Kristallnacht, a swastika and “Heil Hitler” were found written on a hallway blackboard in the University of British Columbia Forest Sciences Centre. The antisemitic graffiti was first reported to Hillel BC, who then contacted security.
This was one of several racist incidents that have occurred on B.C. campuses and across Canada in recent months, including pro-Nazi posters found at UBC on Remembrance Day. On Halloween night and in the days following, posters reading, “It’s okay to be white,” appeared on several Canadian university campuses, apparently based on instructions from a post which Vice Canada traced to the anonymous online forum 4Chan, a hub for the alt-right.
During the same week, antisemitic posters found at the University of Victoria read, “Those who hate us will not replace us. Defend Canadian heritage. Fight back against anti-white hatred. A message from the alt-right.” The word “those” was placed in triple parenthesis, a way of identifying Jews. When the posters were taken down, moderators of Anti-racist Action UVic Facebook page and others reportedly received a backlash of hateful messages online.
The election of Donald Trump one year ago this month is widely perceived as a triumph for the tangle of white supremacists, antisemites, misogynists, racists and ethno-nationalists who have come to be called the “alt-right.” In Kill All Normies, a book about the genesis of the group, journalist Angela Nagle describes an online world where cynicism, irony and absurd in-joke humour have combined with racism and misogyny to produce a “taboo-breaking anti-PC style” that has come to characterize the alt-right. Since then, the movement has tapped into latent racism and xenophobia, bolstered by the rise of people like Richard Spencer and Milo Yiannopoulos.
Not everyone is happy with the use of the term “alt-right.” Given their white supremacist beliefs, “alt-right” is somewhat innocuous. The Associated Press avoids the term because its editors think it downplays the movement’s racist goals.
Long before the 2016 election, the alt-right was gathering strength and allies. Trump granted the racists among his supporters visibility, lowering the social costs of bigotry and inspiring these supporters with a hope that their vision of “white identitarianism” could come to rule America once again. This has emboldened them and brought them out of the shadows.
In the days following the election of Trump, Canada saw a spate of vandalism, hate speech and pamphleteering directed against Jews and other minorities. As in the United States, this did not come to Canada overnight. In 2015, the CBC temporarily closed all online comments on stories featuring First Nations people because of the “staggering number of hateful and vitriolic comments” posted. In August 2016, the premier of Saskatchewan was forced to issue a plea for an end to hate speech following the second-degree murder of an aboriginal man on a farm. As a result, his own Facebook page was flooded with racist messages.
The posters at UVic were discovered by an anti-racist group on campus organized by Tyson Strandlund, who said the increasing activities of the alt-right in the public sphere are what led to his group’s creation in September. Strandlund said there has been heightened concern on campus since last summer, when an art installation meant to inspire conversations about resistance to racism was instead extensively defaced with racist slurs and had to be dismantled. He mentioned a meeting that was to take place in the Student Union Building on Nov. 15, for students and others to discuss anti-racist strategies.
David Blades, president of the Jewish Federation of Victoria and Vancouver Island, said they are “keeping close tabs” on the alt-right movement. “We have a good sense of who these people are,” he told the Independent. “What’s increasing is their public activity, not their numbers, which have remained pretty stable for years.
“Nevertheless,” he warned, “we have to be vigilant because they are also recruiting. There is no question that there is latent racism in Canadian society and it can be tapped into. My concern is that this was not isolated to the University of Victoria, this also happened at the University of Alberta and elsewhere. It was a coordinated national event. That’s my concern as Federation president. This is a shift in the overall organization of this group.”
Blades said he is “really happy with the response of UVic” and that there are plans in the works for “five days of activism against racism.”
“In some ways,” he said, “these incidents have been more effective at inspiring the opposite of what they intended: an increase in anti-racist activism.”
Matthew Gindin is a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He writes regularly for the Forward and All That Is Interesting, and has been published in Religion Dispatches, Situate Magazine, Tikkun and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter.