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Proud Boys Named 'Terrorist Entity' In Canada

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

In February, Canada added three right-wing groups to its list of terrorist entities. Included on that list, the Proud Boys. And that's an organization founded in 2016 by a Canadian living in the U.S. While the Canadian government said its investigations predated the January attack on the U.S. Capitol, the designation is highlighting Canada's different approach to confronting far-right groups. Here is Emma Jacobs.

EMMA JACOBS, BYLINE: Canada's public safety minister, Bill Blair, announced the addition of the Proud Boys and two neo-Nazi networks, Atomwaffen and The Base, to Canada's terror entity list. The designation a few months ago, alongside groups like ISIS and al-Qaida, didn't make membership illegal, but Blair said...

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BILL BLAIR: Anyone who continues to provide them with support - support with respect to travel, with gathering the material, with fundraising - all of those things now have - can have serious consequences.

JACOBS: Unlike the U.S., which only lists foreign entities, Canada has the ability to designate domestic terror groups. Canadian law professor Kent Roach says this comes partly from differing legal traditions but also with Canada's experience of homegrown violence by Quebec separatists who, in 1970, kidnapped a provincial cabinet minister and British diplomat.

KENT ROACH: This was one of the most significant episodes of Canadian history.

JACOBS: And since then, Roach says...

ROACH: We've recognized that this is an issue that is domestic.

JACOBS: Still, he says, Canada has been slow to recognize threats from the right, as so much of its national security apparatus has been focused on Islamist militant groups since 9/11. In the meantime, right-wing groups have multiplied across Canada, says researcher Barbara Perry. They've been energized by opposition to Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and by right-wing movements in the United States. She applauded the terror designation of the two neo-Nazi networks but expressed mixed feelings on including the Proud Boys, since she said violence is not as core to their ideology.

BARBARA PERRY: I think it's a double-edged sword in the sense that, on the one hand, yeah, it drives folks further underground, but it also really feeds into their sense of victimhood.

JACOBS: The Proud Boys American chairman, Enrique Tarrio, called the listing by Canada an infringement of free speech rights. Canada does have free speech protections but also outlaws hate speech. In the U.S., courts have found similar legislation runs afoul of the First Amendment. Perry, who also spent more than a decade in the United States, struggled with the discourse around free speech.

PERRY: I just got to the point of if I heard freedom of expression one more time, I was going to throw myself out a window. That absolutism is just so antithetical to Canadian thinking.

JACOBS: Still, critics in Canada say police rarely pursue hate speech prosecutions, making its laws less effective. And the jury is still out on how impactful the terror designations will be. Perry says social media monitoring shows some Proud Boys left the group, but they could easily join one of the growing number of nonlisted splinter groups.

PERRY: We're seeing more people who don't necessarily affiliate with any particular group but flow in and out of different social media platforms and so are almost cherry picking bits and pieces of conspiracy theories and other ideologies that suit their needs.

JACOBS: In fact, Canada so far has mostly seen attacks committed by these loosely-affiliated individuals, not by the designated groups. The largest, the Proud Boys, estimated it had between 1,000 and 1,500 members in Canada. Still, Leah West, a law professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, says designating some groups may still serve as a deterrent earlier in the radicalisation process.

LEAH WEST: If you just see your brother, for example, spewing the messages of some wacko Facebook group, that's one thing. But if, all of a sudden, you know that your brother is spewing the messages of a listed terrorist entity, you might take that threat and intervene in - on your brother's behalf.

JACOBS: The problem is, intervening early isn't a solution for existing group members. Rebecca Thomas is an anti-racism activist who was at an Indigenous ceremony in Halifax in 2017 when a group of Proud Boys showed up.

REBECCA THOMAS: It felt like a desire to disrupt, you know, and this kind of, like, we'll show them. This is Canada - like, our country.

JACOBS: She is pleased to see the designation of far-right extremists but also concerned it will make people more resistant to deradicalization.

THOMAS: I run myself into circles about, what is the best and most effective way to change the minds of people who don't care about me?

JACOBS: When it comes to making that kind of change, she says, a terror listing is only a first step. For NPR News, I'm Emma Jacobs in Montreal. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.