The first time Calista Hills encountered a white supremacist was on her university campus.
It was during the spring, says the Dalhousie Arts and Social Sciences Society president. The man showed up uninvited to a closed event, taking the space for his own, with his friends spouting subtle racist and fascist ideals. He masked his alt-right politics under a cloak of conservative libertarianism, but Hills says they could see right through it.
Without a platform and an audience willing to engage, the uninvited guest soon disappeared into the shadows. But the movement he’s a part of is on the rise in Halifax.
Racist graffiti was found at Dalhousie last February. White nationalist group the Proud Boys interrupted an Indigenous ceremony last July. In August, a handful of National Citizens Alliance demonstraters popped up in Dartmouth, drowned out by counter-protesters.
The students of the alt-right have been organizing in Halifax, and their biggest battlegrounds are on university campuses.
“The alt-right is sort of a blanket term that’s used for kind of a new genre of far-right organizing, leading into racist organizing, that’s going on really all across North America,” explains Alex Khasnabish, a professor of sociology and anthropology at Mount Saint Vincent University.
The narrative has roughly stayed the same throughout history. Khasnabish compares it to the skinheads in the 1980s who went into communities looking for “disenchanted, disenfranchised white youth” to join their movement. “The alt-right does that today in a buttoned-down version, with a nice little coiffed fascist haircut.”
The rise of the alt-right has been seen across Canada in the past few years, says Khasnabish, and especially at universities. “Free speech” groups have formed on campuses at York, UBC, Concordia and other schools across the country. Last fall, the University of Toronto banned a white nationalist rally. Last spring, Dalhousie student Evan Jeddore was running an (unsuccessful) campaign for student union vice-president academic and external, championing free speech and denouncing diversity initiatives.
“The alt-right and the far right, in general, have made it very clear that campus organizing is one of their key prongs in recruiting new members,” says Khasnabish. “They make very savvy use of the university and its institutions in order to spread their ideology.”
It makes sense. Universities have become centralized institutions that many members of society will pass through at some point in their lives. Young people coming to university are open—some could argue vulnerable—to new ideas. They haven’t formed their identities or their political ideologies yet.
“You encounter new ideas. It’s an exciting time, and people should do that, people should spend it with all kinds of different political ideologies,” says Khasnabish. “I think it’s healthy to have spirited debates and conflicts with other people who don’t necessarily agree with you. But fascism isn’t that. They aren’t interested in debate.”
Many members of the alt-right are also skilled at turning a university’s policies against itself, especially when it comes to the discourse of free speech and academic freedom—the pillars of these institutions.
In Wolfville, Acadia University professor Rick Mehta has been spearheading a debate about freedom of speech since early 2018. While Mehta’s critics say he is being hateful and harmful, his supporters call it a necessary part of academia.
On his side is Saint Mary’s University philosophy professor Mark Mercer. While Mercer disagrees with his academic peers on the rise of the alt-right (he claims to know nothing about it), he is a big proponent of freedom of speech and the pursuit of knowledge.
“If one of the purposes of
Mercer’s method is to “objectify the ideas” brought up in his classroom, even when they are hateful. He takes such statements as void of any actual “belief or commitment.” He then evaluates them: What can be said in favour? What can be said
It’s a method of logic and analysis not uncommon
Mehta is himself under investigation by Acadia over multiple complaints that say he’s made racist and transphobic comments. He’s been criticized by his students for devoting class time to off-topic lectures about how multiculturalism is a scam and Indigenous groups are professional victims, using supporting material cribbed together from “right-leaning fringe websites.” The Jordan Peterson acolyte has also retweeted false statistics about Residential Schools and thrown his support behind the rights of white nationalist groups to put up posters around the university.
“I think it’s healthy to have spirited debates and conflicts with other people who don’t necessarily agree with you. But fascism isn’t that. They aren’t interested in debate.”
Mercer, who’s also president of the “Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship,” has publicly defended Mehta under the banner of freedom of speech. It’s the same shield used by past critics of tolerance and diversity, dating back at least 24 years to Dalhousie’s first failed attempt at an anti-discrimination policy.
But the same advocates for freedom of speech have been conspicuously quiet when the words under assault come from a non-white face, such as last fall when Dalhousie investigated a complaint against student leader Masuma Khan for Facebook comments about “white fragility” that some deemed anti-Canadian. Disciplinary action against Khan was eventually withdrawn by the university, and she
“These people want to frame this as a discourse around freedom of speech, but it’s not my right to go into a classroom and call into question the basic humanity of people,” says Khasnabish. “That’s not academic freedom. That’s me turning my platform into a weapon for hate and for violence against other people. That’s not something I’m entitled to do.”
Chris Parsons has spent a lot of time on university campuses and spoken out at length about the growing threat of the alt-right. As the co-host of Marxist podcast Dog Island—and occasional columnist for The Coast—he’s also spent a lot of time surrounded by politics. He says he saw this coming.
“The genesis of it was very obvious to people who are actually on campus, so I think a lot of people who don’t have a connection to students were a lot more surprised and don’t take it as seriously,” he says.
For Parsons, it’s not a question of freedom of speech. The presence of these ideas in a university setting is a stepping stone to more hate, even the potential
“Once people are fully radicalized as white supremacists, they are dangerous,” he says. “We have to draw a distinction between people who are at risk of becoming radicalized and people who already are.”
“Would I want Jordan Peterson’s works to be banned?” asks Mount Saint Vincent University professor Randi Warne. “No. Do I think that he is wrong? Yes. But total suppression and censorship
Focusing on creating “positive communities” is key for Parsons to combat the rising tide of hate, and something university administrators need to take seriously.
“We’ve produced a world that fractures people into individuals instead of communities and makes them alone in a world that’s really hostile,” he says.
Both Warne and Khasnabish agree they haven’t seen much alt-right organizing at Mount Saint Vincent. That’s in part, they say, to the kind of community fostered at the Mount.
“We’ve been on top of this and we watch each others’ backs,” says Khasnabish, who stays in contact with students and
“We work together. We keep our eyes open and we don’t let it take root.”
Going into the new school year, Khasnabish hopes to see more people embody those community values: Turn to each other, stand together, be present, organize.
“We’ve seen this amazing grassroots response to the spectre of fascism,” he says, “that I think you can’t see as anything less than hopeful.”