Thinking Beyond Extremism: A Methodological Reorientation to Studying Right-wing Nationalism and the Far-right Movement in Canada

  • Author / Creator
    Tetrault, Justin
  • Right-wing nationalist movements have gained traction in Westernized countries such as France, Greece, Hungary, Austria, the United States, and Germany, where political figures or groups have mobilized nationalist ideas and right-wing populist sentiment to gain governmental power and/or influence public policy (Mudde 2014, BBC News 2019, Perry & Scrivens 2018: 177). Contrary to Canada’s benevolent international reputation, Canadians have demonstrated increasingly exclusionary politics in the last decade. Anti-Islam rhetoric, for instance, has substantial legitimacy in popular discourse and Canadians are increasingly skeptical of the country’s federal multiculturalism policy (Angus Reid 2017, Braun 2018, Andrew-Gee 2015; Angus Reid 2010, Canseco 2019, Todd 2017). Academics, journalists, and public figures assert that Canada is experiencing “similar trends” to Western Europe’s wave of right-wing populism, pointing to the “growing threat” posed by Canadian far-right groups, also referred to as “right-wing extremists”, “hate groups”, and sometimes the “alt-right” (Perry & Scrivens 2018: 177, Boutilier 2018, Mastracci 2017, McKenna 2019, Habib 2019). Upon closer scrutiny, dominant scholarly and popular discourse tends to reduce this discussion to a problem of white nationalist ideology and the public safety risks posed by these groups, such as terrorism, hate crime, threats and intimidation, and hate speech. Experts struggle to explain how right-wing and far-right groups operate as a social movement seeking mainstream legitimacy in Canada, and the dominant fixation on “extremism” in the form of white nationalism and criminality sometimes obfuscates significant trends in right-wing organizing. Using Canada’s yellow vests movement as a case study, this project identifies and critiques three broader trends in scholarship on right-wing and far-right social movements: 1) the passive acceptance of the ambiguous concept “hate” as an explanation for right-wing mobilizing (chapter 3); 2) the growing popularity of criminological or security-centric methods for understanding how right-wing groups mobilize as a social movement (chapter 4); and 3) Eurocentric scholarship that defines right-wing populism as inherently ethnonationalist and illiberal (chapter 5). I use empirically informed analysis based on semi-ethnographic data to argue that the preceding three trends can hinder our understanding of right-wing politics and nationalist movements. My ethnographic approach involves 35 semi-structured interviews with 42 Canadian right-wing activists (RWAs) (ten of which I consider “far-right” or white nationalists), and over 40 hours of observational fieldwork at 20 right-wing political rallies and meetings in Alberta, almost all of which were organized by my participants. My findings show that, contrary to dominant expert narratives, the Canadian right-wing nationalist movement is not primarily white nationalist nor promotes vigilante violence. Instead, the most successful right-wing nationalist groups in Canada foreground liberal ideas and fetishize law and order politics (rather than being anti-state/anti-authority), with the objective of ultimately delegating violence to the state, such as demanding increased policing and surveillance of certain marginalized groups, such as Muslims and undocumented immigrants. Moreover, rather than right-wing groups being “anti-” or “ill-” liberal, my findings show how aspects of liberalism and liberal multiculturalism can serve as fertile ground for chauvinist nationalism and right-wing populism. Dominant approaches to studying right-wing and far-right groups are rarely attuned to capturing the messiness of social movements (Plows 2008, Law 2006). By examining how right-wing nationalism is practiced on the ground and debated between and among groups, this project shows how ethnographic methods are an effective tool for capturing the fluid structure, political contradictions, rapid changes, unanticipated elements, and mainstream appeal that characterizes contemporary right-wing nationalist movements.

  • Subjects / Keywords
  • Graduation date
    Spring 2021
  • Type of Item
  • Degree
    Doctor of Philosophy
  • DOI
  • License
    This thesis is made available by the University of Alberta Libraries with permission of the copyright owner solely for non-commercial purposes. This thesis, or any portion thereof, may not otherwise be copied or reproduced without the written consent of the copyright owner, except to the extent permitted by Canadian copyright law.