Canada’s Parliament passed a motion this week unanimously declaring that the far-right extremist Proud Boys should be designated a terrorist group, in the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. It has become increasingly clear that the Proud Boys played a central role in that violence. At least six members of the group, including one of its most prominent, have been arrested in the U.S. in connection with the riot.
The Canadian legislature’s largely symbolic move is not a formal designation, despite some viral tweets and news headlines suggesting the contrary. But extremism experts are concerned that it actually sets a dangerous precedent.
Canada has somewhat broad criteria for what constitutes a terrorist group, and perhaps the Proud Boys would fit the definition. Extremism researchers and Canadian national security experts are worried, however, that the motion risks politicizing a sensitive process intended to be handled outside Parliament while doing little to actually confront the threat of far-right extremism in that country.
Canada’s terrorism listings are decided through a process in which federal law enforcement, intelligence agencies and the Canadian Department of Public Safety review evidence of terrorist activity. This Monday’s motion deviates from that process, seeking to pressure the agencies and the public safety minister to “immediately” designate the Proud Boys as terrorists.
“The enforcement of criminal law and criminal law sanctions should be arm’s length from politics,” said Leah West, an assistant professor at Carleton University in Ottawa who was formerly involved in the terrorism listing process at the Canadian Department of Justice.
“We might all agree that the Proud Boys engage in acts of violence that we all deem reprehensible,” West said, “but it’s a slippery slope and a bad precedent for politicians who are seeking to curry favour with a certain segment of the population to be deciding who is and isn’t a terrorist under the criminal code.”
There are also concerns that fast-tracking the terrorist designation process or loosening its standards under political pressure could open the door to future abuse, potentially becoming a way for conservatives to target protests they dislike, such as the blockades of energy pipelines by Indigenous and environmental activists last year.
“We don’t want those criteria being glossed over or loosened because that has the potential to rebound on anti-racist and BIPOC groups. It wasn’t long ago that some MPs called for Indigenous land defenders to be designated as terrorists,” said Evan Balgord, executive director of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, which monitors extremism.
In the U.S., then-President Donald Trump once threatened to list anti-fascist activists as terrorists (although legal experts doubted he could).
“I’m concerned that we might have taken a page out of the Trump administration’s book of using listing as a means to condemn,” West said.
What this could mean for the Proud Boys
When Canada designates a terrorist organization, the immediate consequences for the listed group are mostly financial: Monetary transactions with the group are blocked, authorities can seize assets held in Canada and private businesses gain a broad mandate to deny services.
What might happen to individual Proud Boys if the group ends up on Canada’s list is less defined. A terrorist designation wouldn’t outright criminalize membership, but it would allow financial institutions to terminate members’ bank accounts and make fundraising harder by denying them services. It could also mean that Canadian border authorities refuse entry to known Proud Boys and that prosecutors charge Canadians sending money to the organization with providing financial support for a terrorist group.
Canada sets several vaguely defined criteria to meet the threshold for a terrorist listing. The group has to pose a serious threat of violence that goes beyond simple property damage or physical altercations. It must intend to commit violence with the goal of intimidating a certain section of the population or another political group. Finally, the group must be driven by an ideological motivation, which in the Proud Boys case would likely be its misogynist, white nationalist and fascist beliefs.
Canada has its own ties to the Proud Boys. Founder Gavin McInnes is a Canadian citizen, and chapters of the group are active across the country. In 2017, five members of the Canadian military who were also involved with the Proud Boys disrupted an Indigenous rights protest. The military reinstated the service members to active duty after a brief suspension.
The Proud Boys are less active in Canada than in the U.S., however, and last year part of the Canadian membership splintered off to create Canada First, a neo-Nazi group.
Experts have pointed out that there are numerous other far-right extremist groups with extensive ties to Canada that represent equal or greater terror threats in the country and argued that addressing Canada’s white nationalist problem requires a broader approach than simply adding more names to a list.
Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said that he will consult with intelligence agencies before deciding on what action to take against the Proud Boys. Canada’s terrorist listing process has previously placed an emphasis on Islamist terrorist groups. Only two far-right groups have been added to the list so far, even as the international threat of far-right extremism has grown.