A Winnipeg anti-racism activist and former sociology professor says the public and authorities should pay close attention to recent hate graffiti in the city.
Over the weekend, messages such as "Lost white civilizations" and "White extinction?" were found scrawled on streets and a bench on Wellington Crescent as well as in the West Broadway area.
Hateful graffiti turns up in Winnipeg, alarming residents, Jewish group
Helmut-Harry Loewen is a former sociology professor at the University of Winnipeg. He's also an anti-racism activist and member of the group Fascist Free Treaty One.
He spoke to CBC News about the graffiti and the operation of hate groups in Manitoba.
The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
CBC: What was your initial reaction when you learned about the graffiti?
Loewen: My impression was that these graffiti are an attempt to, you know, claim public space on behalf of someone who wants to push a racist or even a fascist agenda. One of the graffiti messages mentioned George Soros. Soros is in many ways one of the bogey men for the far right, who claim that he is the puppet master behind anti-racist groups, diversity groups and so on, which of course is not the case.
We certainly get no support from Soros and have certainly not solicited such support. But in many ways, the figure of George Soros is a foil for many of these far-right groups to advance a kind of coded, anti-Semitic, Jewish conspiracy theory.…
One of the graffiti here mentions Soros and then spoke about white extinction, and that's a very interesting trope which is being used by a number of far-right groups these days, to claim that there is a so-called white genocide that is being orchestrated by the government through immigration policies, by anti-racists, human rights activists and so on.
'It's an attempt to occupy public space to send a message to the public that certain groups are not wanted here'
— Helmut-Harry Loewen
Now, of course, that's utter nonsense, but it's a very compelling narrative which many … who have, you know, concerns about immigration, about changing demographics in the United States and Canada, want to promote, that the white race is moving towards extinction.
So that graffiti here in Winnipeg is very telling. It indicates that whoever may be behind the graffiti is keeping abreast of this far-right-wing nationalist discourse, perhaps through the internet, possibly in the wake of the events of Charlottesville on the weekend and so on, and it's using very specific language — white extinction, white genocide.
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But the bottom line is these groups, in drafting this kind of graffiti, it's an attempt to occupy public space to send a message to the public that certain groups are not wanted here. These are messages aimed at intimidating, whether it's the Jewish community, the LGBTQ2 community and other minorities in society. These types of incidents need to be taken seriously.
The graffiti on this bench on Wellington Crescent references George Soros, a philanthropist, investor and author who's become a target of neo-Nazi groups. (Holly Caruk/CBC)
Aidan Fishman of B'nai Brith Canada suggested the vague nature of the graffiti could be an attempt to get the public to learn more about those groups. Is that a strategy that works?
[Fishman] made a very good point, that these messages, they're cryptic and they're also camouflaged. There's a whole discourse behind messages about so-called white extinction or white genocide, and [Fishman]
was quite correct in pointing out that these very brief messages in the form of graffiti may in fact compel people to explore them further, you know, via social media and other outlets. That, too, is part of a strategy used by people.
In this case, whoever posted or made that graffiti, it was done intentionally, consciously, in a targeted fashion and in full knowledge of a discourse of racism and even neo-fascism which is behind these very brief slogans.
White nationalists were joined by white supremacists, neo-Nazis, avowed fascists and myriad other ultra right-wing groups for a torchlight march in Charlottesville, Va., on Friday night that was reminiscent of Ku Klux Klan demonstrations in the American south.
White nationalists were joined by white supremacists, neo-Nazis, avowed fascists and myriad other ultra right-wing groups for a torchlight march in Charlottesville, Va., on Friday night that was reminiscent of Ku Klux Klan demonstrations in the American south. (Mykal McEldowne/The Indianapolis Star/Associated Press)
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How common are these kinds of beliefs and these incidents in Winnipeg and in Manitoba?
As someone who has studied this for decades, I actually was a bit astonished, although not surprised, at the extent of organizing on behalf of different hate groups currently in Manitoba and also the willingness of local participants to very publicly vocalize their opposition to immigration, to refugees. Prime Minister [Justin] Trudeau has been targeted in particular with some very vicious comments, not just locally but across the country, including death threats. In fact, there have been a number of cases where, in Saskatchewan, for example, where those who conveyed death threats were convicted of a Criminal Code offence in connection with those messages.
Now, we know from our research here, which is ongoing, and I work with a local group which is called FF1, Fascist Free Treaty 1 … and we conduct a lot of research on these organizations and their local connections. Some of the local groups have attempted to organize public rallies to promote Islamophobia. Some of these rallies were attempted at city hall back in March. Through our organizing, we were able to counter these attempts and essentially show that there is a strong group that is able to resist any attempts at publicly organizing on behalf of this or that hate group.
There have been a number of attempts, and thus far, five attempts to organize publicly on behalf of, for example, a group called the Worldwide Coalition Against Islam, some of whose executive members are full-blown fascists, neo-Nazis quoting Hitler and so on. There's nothing camouflaged about that kind of hatred, but it's coded as concerns about immigration and so on.
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Now, we know many of the local racist activists and have uncovered the connections that they have with like-minded people in Calgary, for example. Locally, what we've seen are attempts by a number of groups to get established. We found out very recently that a group called the Canadian Combat Coalition, which is based in Alberta, is attempting to start up a new chapter in Brandon.
The Worldwide Coalition Against Islam, again, very active in Alberta ... they have local members. There's a group called the Oath Keepers, an American group. Oath Keepers are former police officers and military people who claim that the federal government is illegitimate and that it is justifiable to overthrow federal tyranny. They have their supporters in Manitoba.
Furthermore, there's a group called the Three Percenters, the Threepers. This is a militia. Recently, there was press coverage, a couple of months ago, the attempt by Three Percenters to organize paramilitary training in the province of Alberta. They too have local supporters.
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The list goes on. We're not dealing all that much currently, although there are some, but not all that much in terms of neo-Nazi skinheads, but we have the Three Percenters, the Canadian Combat Coalition, the anti-Muslim hate groups, groups like the Proud Boys, who were also active in Charlottesville this weekend. The Proud Boys were organized by a Canadian, Gavin McInnis, formerly from the Rebel media outlet. The Proud Boys were in Winnipeg just a few weeks ago, linking up with some local neo-fascists, and trying to recruit on their very brief visit to Winnipeg.
I mean, this is ongoing. And if the public hasn't heard all that much about these hate groups organizing in Winnipeg, it is precisely because these anti-fascist groups — specifically FF1 — have been very, very strong in terms of conducting research, in terms of exposing and then publicly opposing this type of hate group activity here.
So from what you're saying, it sounds like organizing and and attempts at recruiting within these groups is on the rise?
It's certainly on the rise. Some have referred to it as the Trump effect, and we certainly saw that in Winnipeg just within days after Trump's election. Posters went up downtown from various organizations. Some of them were posted on campus at the University of Manitoba promoting a kind of white students union. All of this happened in the wake of Trump.
But Trump in many ways is only the thin edge of the wedge. This has been ongoing on a lower level prior to Trump, but certainly the election of Trump and especially the events in Charlottesville this last weekend, they've certainly unleashed a force which will be very difficult to contain if there is not a strong resistance organized by citizens and also close monitoring by the authorities, by CSIS and the RCMP in Canada.
How concerned do you think Canadians should be about what happened in Charlottesville happening in our own cities, such as Winnipeg?
It may occur on a different scale, and there have been in the recent past confrontations between fascist groups and anti-fascists, whether it's here, in Calgary, Toronto or Montreal. Montreal have been some very large mobilizations as well — there's a group called La Meute, the wolfpack, which is a very militant fascist organization which has had clashes with the anti-fascists.
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The scale may be different than Charlottesville, but this is certainly something that we anticipate and are always on guard for as anti-fascists who try to monitor these trends within our own country.
The rhetoric against refugees and immigrants has mobilized many people. The poll numbers indicate a fairly high degree of what's called skepticism against Trudeau's refugee policy and general immigration trends. These are some indicators of potentially rising levels of intolerance, and out of that pool, people may be recruited to take the further step and link up with this or that hate group. We've seen some of that here as well.
I won't mention names, but I know some members of local hate organizations are very proud of their affiliations with the Conservative Party of Canada, and have actually cheered on Facebook and elsewhere the election of Andrew Scheer. Now, I'm not painting Andrew Scheer with the same brush that I would paint a David Duke and so on. But there's no question that some political parties are playing a very dangerous game in terms of fuelling resentments that feed into the far-right wing in Canada.
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Just consider recently Michelle Rempel, the Conservative member of Parliament from Calgary, appearing on the Tucker Carlson show on Fox News in the United States, or Conservative members of Parliament writing editorials in U.S. newspapers criticizing Canadian refugee and immigration policy.
A lot of that kind of anti-immigration posturing feeds into the far-right wing and gives them energy. They can then say 'Well, see, our policies are not that much different from Andrew Scheer's or Michelle Rempel's,' and they find some kind of succour from getting what they think is support from the political establishment in Canada.
So mainstream political parties need to be very, very careful how they approach, how they frame the discourse around refugees and immigration.
With files from Isaac Wurmann