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Opinion: Is Canada finally taking far-right extremism seriously? Latest arrests are a positive sign

Historically, Canadian police have disproportionately targeted Muslim communities in counter-terrorism efforts, while far-right extremists received comparatively scant scrutiny. Is that changing?
An RCMP emergency response team (ERT) members respond to a scene in North Vancouver, Jan. 5, 2024. - Paul McGrath/North Shore News

In late summer 2023, the RCMP made headlines with the arrests of two men in Ottawa and Kingsey Falls, Québec, on terrorism and hate propaganda charges. The arrests marked a significant victory in a three-year investigation by the Integrated National Security Enforcement Team targeting the neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen Division.

One of the men arrested was Patrick Gordon Macdonald, 26, on charges of participating in and facilitating terrorist activities and the wilful promotion of hatred tied to his alleged involvement with the Atomwaffen Division. His apprehension followed the previous year’s arrest of a teenager in Windsor, Ont., similarly charged with terrorism for his involvement with the same extremist group.

Macdonald is out on bail after his parents posted $40,000 in sureties and must stay at their home under strict conditions.

The case against Macdonald is unprecedented in Canada, marking the first time an alleged far-right extremist was prosecuted for both terrorism and hate propaganda.

Inconsistent approach

Canada’s approach to prosecuting terrorism has been inconsistent.

In February 2020, a violent attack at a Toronto spa led to terrorism charges against a 17-year-old suspect due to his incel ideology. In contrast, Alek Minassian, who had similar motivations when he killed 10 people in Toronto in 2018 in a van attack, did not face terrorism charges. Nor did others charged with crimes that seem to fit the terrorism bill.

For example, Nathaniel Veltman’s Islamophobic attack on a Muslim family in London, Ont., initially resulted in murder charges, though they were later upgraded to include terrorism. Conversely, Alexandre Bissonnette, who murdered six people at a Québec mosque in 2017, was not charged with terrorism despite comparable motives.

These discrepancies highlight a critical issue — why do far-right extremists often evade terrorism charges, while those inspired by Islamic extremism do not?

For instance, a Toronto sting operation in 2006 led to all Muslim defendants being charged and convicted of terrorism. Similarly, in the R v Nuttall case, John Nuttall and Amanda Korody were initially charged with and convicted of terrorism following their conversion to Islam before their proceedings were stayed due to police entrapment. In another case, Chiheb Esseghaier and Raed Jaser, two Muslim men, were charged with terrorism for their involvement in a plot to derail a VIA Rail train.

Implications for Canada’s national security

Are the RCMP’s recent terrorism arrests cause for celebration or just cautious optimism?

According to University of Calgary scholar Michael Nesbitt’s 2021 research, all terrorism charges in Canada between 2001 and 2019 were related to Islamic extremist groups, with none linked to far-right ideologies despite numerous violent incidents.

This divide has long shaped Canada’s counter-terrorism efforts, an imbalance that has sparked considerable debate.

The RCMP’s recent actions, namely the sting operations targeting neo-Nazi groups in Windsor and Ottawa, suggest it’s responding to mounting public pressure following high-profile incidents like the London truck attack.


This shift towards investigating far-right groups could be seen as a positive step forward. The arrests of people like Patrick Gordon Macdonald indicate that law enforcement is beginning to address the threats posed by far-right extremism with the same seriousness traditionally reserved for Islamic terrorism.

But consistency in applying anti-terrorism laws across all forms of violent extremism remains critical. Canadian law enforcement has historically and disproportionately targeted Muslim communities in counter-terrorism efforts, often under controversial circumstances, while far-right extremists received comparatively scant scrutiny.

This discrepancy has led to accusations of systemic bias within law enforcement agencies.

Adapting to changing dynamics

While the recent arrests of those accused of far-right extremism signal some progress, the true measure of success will be the RCMP’s consistency in applying anti-terrorism laws across all forms of violent extremism in the future.

As Canada’s national security strategy evolves, it must continuously adapt to the changing dynamics of violent extremism. The RCMP’s approach to addressing far-right extremism with terrorism charges represents a critical step in this journey.

However, the complexities ahead are significant. The RCMP and other law enforcement agencies must navigate a landscape where the lines between different forms of extremism are often blurred and public trust hinges on the perception of fairness.

Ensuring that anti-terrorism efforts are applied in an equitable manner is crucial for maintaining the integrity of Canada’s national security initiatives.

The RCMP and prosecutors must show that the law can deal with not just al-Qaida or ISIS, but all violent and hateful ideologies.

The Conversation

Basema Al-Alami does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.