The Canadian government is considering designating the Proud Boys a terrorist organization following their involvement in the violent attack on Capitol Hill on January 6. Adding the racist, white nationalist group to the list of terrorist organizations would place them alongside Boko Haram, ISIS, and al-Qaeda. The group has spewed violence and hate speech across the United States and Canada since they were founded by the Canadian Gavin McInnes in 2016. Now, the government’s proposal to define them as a terrorist group is an opportunity to address Canada’s right-wing racism and ethnonationalism.
A Brief History of the Proud Boys in Canada
The Canadian media figure, co-founder of Vice magazine, and contributor to Canadian far-right media channel Rebel Media, Gavin McInnes, launched the Proud Boys in 2016 on the website of the far-right publication Taki’s Magazine.
Early on, McInnes defined the group as “Western chauvinists who refuse to apologize for creating the modern world,” and who are treated like “a crippled, black, lesbian communist in 1953.” Evidently, the group was conceived out of a shared belief that white people or people of European descent are increasingly targeted for their race and heritage in the US and Canada, a notion that allowed the group to rapidly gain support. This sort of doctrine is “reminiscent of more extreme white genocide conspiracy theories,” the Atlantic Council researcher Jared Hold told CBC News. The Proud Boys claim to be threatened by racial justice and diversity initiatives, and have capitalized off of giving a voice to white nationalists in the US and Canada.
The group has used this narrative to justify their violent attacks on anti-fascist, anti-racist protestors. From the get go, their political image has been characterized by various street brawls. In 2017, the group clashed with anti-fascist protests outside of NYU, where McInnes was giving a speech to the NYU College Republicans. This set the stage for the violent attitude that the group would uphold.
As Donald Trump has become an international caricature of bigotry and eccentricity, it is easy to accredit white nationalist groups as well as larger systems of oppression to the United States. However, as the Proud Boy’s Canadian presence demonstrates, these forces of oppression are very much alive in Canada today. Three years ago, the group confronted an Indigenous protest in Halifax organized by Chief Grizzly Mamma demanding the removal of a statue of Edward Cornwallis, the founder of Halifax. In the 18th century, Cornwallis organized ethnic cleansing to rid Halifax of the Mi’kmaq people, contributing to Canada’s long history of violence against Indigenous peoples. Chief Grizzly Mamma was approached by five members of the Proud Boys, wearing black polo shirts (their trademark uniform) and carrying a Red Ensign flag (the flag antecedent to Canada’s flag today), claiming to be ‘Western chauvinists’ and attempting to stop the protest.
The group carried out its most recent attack on January 6, as they were part of a group of protestors who Trump called on to march towards the US Capitol in protest of Biden’s inauguration, which resulted in the arrest of the leader of the group’s Hawaii chapter and the writing of FBI affidavits which identified members of the Proud Boys involved.
Canadian Politicans Call on the Federal Government to Crack Down
Jagmeet Singh, the leader of the New Democratic Party (NDP), was the first to make the call to classify the Proud Boys as a terrorist group, accusing them of assisting in “an act of domestic terrorism” at Capitol Hill. He went on to tweet, “Their founder is Canadian. They operate in Canada, right now,” reinforcing the group’s Canadian origins and presence. Singh told CBC Radio that “there’s over 300 extreme right-wing groups operating in Canada, and we don’t think that banning Proud Boys is enough on its own,” emphasizing that his call to action is only one step towards change. Singh’s emphasis on the group’s Canadian origins is indicative of how the presence of white nationalist movements in Canada is often overlooked. On Monday, members of Parliament unanimously agreed to request that the federal government define the Proud Boys as a “terrorist entity.”
To define the group by what it is, a violent terrorist organization, is to challenge the ideological assurance that white nationalism holds in the US and Canada today. By not calling for their eradication, Trump approved of the Proud Boys’ existence. During the presidential debates this past year, Trump told the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” when asked to delegitimize white nationalist groups in the US. His amicable appeal to the group was indicative of the very environment in which they have thrived since 2016. Over the years, the group flourished because they were not challenged, and felt encouraged because they were accepted.
Since the attacks on Capitol Hill, some Proud Boy chapters such as the ones operating in Ottawa and Manitoba have disbanded. The Telegram also posted a statement from the chapter which claimed that the “left-wing media” has damaged their reputation, and a “rebrand” is to come. The blatant violence that occurred at Capitol Hill has encouraged these chapters to disassociate from the group’s violent image, while still upholding their violent principles.
Hold explained that they “yet again have another identity crisis on their hands,” as they are “stuck in the middle between their image and their consequences.” The group must decide whether to continue their street brawls and acts of violence or lie low amidst the Canadian and US investigations. Bill Blair, the Canadian public safety minister has said that his office is keeping a close eye on the “ideologically-motivated violent extremists” who make up the group.
So what would the classification of the group as a terrorist organization actually do? As a result, the Canadian authorities would have the ability to seize or forfeit the group’s assets, and, in the long run, members of the Proud Boys would likely be blocked from using banks and companies such as Paypal, says Jessica Davis, a terrorist expert who formerly worked with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. More importantly, designating the group a terrorist organization would set a precedent for how the image and standing of white nationalist groups in the US and Canada should be challenged moving forward.
Definitions, caricatures, costumes and flags transgress their ideological conceptions to have real-world impacts, as the Proud Boys demonstrate. They can unify certain individuals by granting them a sense of acceptance, and rally prejudice against others. The Canadian government’s attempt to define the Proud Boys as a terrorist group is one step towards challenging Canada’s blindness to home-grown organized hate and violence.