EDMONTON—The poster plastered on a Red Deer lamp post comes across as harmless at first glance: A symbol featuring the rising sun nestled behind the Rocky Mountains and three maple leaves, surrounded by two wheat stalks with the words “Think Green, Buy Local.”
There is also a URL for a website that tells a very different story.
The website identifies ID Canada as “Canada’s leading identitarian movement” and says it was created as a response to “Canada’s decaying identity, increased third-world immigration and the prevalence of anti-European sentiments.”
“Canada is not a ‘Nation of immigrants.’ The Dominion of Canada was formed by Europeans,” the website reads.
Alberta recently received international attention when an energy company was connected to a decal of a cartoon depicting what appeared to be the sexual assault of 17-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg. Another decal of a train driving through protesters was also criticized as incitement of violence toward those who support Wet’suwet’en blockades. The decals are part of a rising trend involving the spread of offensive messages through stickers and posters, and experts in extremism say people should be paying attention.
Experts have observed a trend across Canada of far-right groups spreading their messaging through posters and stickers in public places, especially since the election of Donald Trump. They say there’s been a shift of far-right groups moving from the online sphere, where extreme ideologies are typically disseminated and welcomed, as they try to target a wider audience in mainstream society.
People expressing offensive sentiments through a sticker and decal on their car is different than ideological groups advertising themselves on an anonymous poster, because there’s a level of ownership, said Barbara Perry, director of the Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism at Ontario Tech University. But they both show how people are increasingly willing to air views that would be perceived as offensive by most Canadians.
She pointed to a 2018 Ipsos poll where more than 30 per cent of respondents said they felt “freer” to express their views about minority religions and ethnicities.
“It is another symbol to the extent of which people do feel emboldened to express those kinds of sentiments … There is a public recognition that it’s more OK now than say 2016, 2015, to make those kinds of public statements.”
On Friday, OUTSaskatoon, an LGBTQ+ community organization, and the Saskatoon Open Door Society, which helps immigrants settle, both told the Star their buildings were targeted this week with posters that raise alarm about the “Great Replacement of European Canadians.”
Last month, the anti-racism activism group Yellow Vests Canada Exposed posted another Red Deer ID Canada poster with the same URL, symbol and the words “Defend Canada, Join the Fight” as well as one in Edmonton. ID Canada’s posters have also been spotted in Calgary and Strathmore, Alta., and Peterborough, Ont.
The Canadian Anti-Hate Network said they’ve noticed a spate of postering in the last month or so, with about six to 12 incidents in the last month, particularly in Ontario and Alberta.
Most recently, a Twitter account called Red Deer Antifa posted the “Think Green, Buy Local” poster on Wednesday.
“Buying local means buying white,” Yellow Vests Canada Exposed tweeted in reference to the most recent Red Deer sticker. “These stickers popped up around the time the racism targeting Chinese Canadians increased, due to coronavirus.”
The Organization for the Prevention of Violence describes the so-called identitarian movement as a form of right-wing extremism that advocates for “the reinforcement or re-establishment of the privileged position of individuals of European heritage in Western societies.”
The movement is linked with white supremacy and groups such as Soldiers of Odin and Blood & Honour, groups that have seen an increase in activity in recent years. The groups differ in their branding and symbolism but are all driven by the same grievance, Perry noted.
“It’s a fear of a loss of privilege … It’s not just change, it’s what that change implies for white cultural supremacy,” she said.
That fear and anger over loss of status is boiling over from the dark corners of the internet into community centres, Legion halls and downtown streets.
“It’s almost a resurgence of old-style recruitment,” Perry said. “As if with the online recruitment they recognize that’s not enough, not everyone’s going to find them randomly.”
Individuals who fall into the online rabbit hole of extremism, racism and hate tend to seek out those materials themselves and self-radicalize by lurking on fringe forums and watching YouTube videos. But this form of activism is more in your face and harder to ignore, Perry said. It could signal an attempt to expand extreme messaging to a wider and different audience.
“Are these old-school attempts, the posters, the decals, the pamphlets on people’s windshields, are they an attempt to broaden to an older demographic as well? Because that’s one thing we are seeing with the movement — there are more middle aged and older people sort of being lured into the movement,” she said.
“We certainly saw that with the yellow vesters and I think we’re seeing that with the fringe of the Wexit movement as well.”
Omar Kinnarath, an organizer with a Winnipeg anti-hate group called Fascist Free Treaty 1, has torn down posters in his city advertising ID Canada and The Base, a group that has been described as a neo-Nazi terror network. He’s noticed an uptick in the posters in the last three years.
“Basically after Trump won the election, there was a big spike in these kind of postering campaigns,” he said.
He believes the reason the posters are showing up more is because the far-right groups have received push back from anti-hate groups when they try to hold public events.
But he says he thinks the postering campaigns are intended to incite and provoke, rather than recruit.
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“They’re showing up right in the middle of downtown Winnipeg, which is like 70 per cent Indigenous and immigrants,” he said. “The only reason they’re doing that is to get a reaction.”
Groups like ID Canada often present their message in an innocuous and unobjectionable way. It’s a sort of bait and switch, Perry said, to seduce Canadians who may be more wary of blatantly racist or anti-immigrant messaging.
“They’re trying to present them in very palatable neutral terms, if you will. What could possibly be wrong with defending Canada?”
Perry has observed posters with slogans similar to the “Defend Canada” one seen in Red Deer, but also others saying “Defend the family.” It’s here where the movement shows its true colours, she said.
“That hearkens back, really, to the roots of defending which family? That traditional white Christian nuclear family. This is very much part of a broader trend,” she said.
The words “Think Green, Buy Local” don’t come across as hateful, but Perry acknowledged that the “Buy local” phrasing could be interpreted as a racist dog whistle. The environmental component could be a nod to a growing movement called “ecofascism,” she said.
She compared them to “eco-warriors of the right.”
“They lay the blame for environmental problems, global warming, climate change, at the feet of the Far East in particular, the expansion of non-white populations and unbridled growth,” she said.
ID Canada did not respond to a request for comment.
Another example of extreme messages being presented as merely a harmless defence of “traditional” Canadian values was a series of posters with the phrase “It’s OK to be white” displayed at universities nationwide. Some who study hate crimes saw it as a deliberate attempt by far-right internet trolls to get the media to report on racism in order to trivialize and mock the issue.
Some of those posters were displayed at MacEwan University, where Irfan Chaudhry manages the Office of Human Rights, Diversity and Equity. Chaudhry, who researches hate crimes, said there’s been a “steady stream” of pamphlets and stickers with extreme messages popping up in Canadian cities, especially at universities.
“What’s interesting with some of the right-leaning and even borderline hate groups is the amount of stickers that they go through,” he said, noting that stickers advertising the Proud Boys, a far-right organization, were recently seen in downtown Edmonton.
Physically distributing their material to the public not only offers a larger and more diverse audience, but is also seen as more effective, Chaudhry said.
“Handing out a physical thing makes you feel like you’re doing something … versus kind of posting something or retweeting or liking something (on Facebook),” he said.
Moving from the underbelly of the internet to posters on downtown lamp posts shows that these groups do believe there is a section of Canadian society that is receptive to their ideas. But Perry says they also seem to recognize that it’s a minority.
“I think there is still some concern about, for all that they’ve been louder and bolder in the past, there’s still some level of uncertainty for who’s going to be sympathetic to that kind of narrative as opposed to pushing back,” Perry said.
Bumper stickers and decals with distasteful messages are nothing new, Chaudhry said, but they seem to be more common in Alberta as the political climate becomes more polarized. He referenced decals of former Alberta premier Rachel Notley being urinated on by a Calvin & Hobbes cartoon character, and the ubiquitous “Turdeau” decal.
When he was recently attending a meeting of a federal committee on radicalization toward violence, he mentioned a decal he had seen on a vehicle in Alberta with a picture of the province and the words “Fit in or F- off.”
“I shared that with the intention in my mind that I was going to hear other similar stories from the folks across the country. And they all just had their jaw to the ground saying ‘We’ve never seen anything even like that in our province,’ ” Chaudhry said.
“I think it’s an Alberta thing … You do have a strong sentiment there where people do want others to know how they feel about left-wing governments, essentially.”
In April, the Star reported that Alberta is home to a disproportionate number of extremist groups, according to a report by the Organization for the Prevention of Violence.