Canada’s university administrators must pay attention to right-wing activism on campuses

The surge in racism on university campuses is part of a broader right-wing awakening across the country. University administrators must counter these developments, or the credibility of their institutions will suffer.

That a populist wave has swept over much of the Western world (and beyond) in recent years should not be lost on Ontario’s post-secondary educators and administrators. Canada and its public institutions are also susceptible to the politics and rhetoric of exclusion and hate.

Aside from well-documented incidents in Alberta and British Columbia, alarmingly, the past two years have seen numerous cases of racist propaganda posted and distributed in and around Ontario’s university campuses. In the fall of 2015, “White Student Union” posters were found at Ryerson University, York University, and the University of Toronto’s St. George campus. A year later, flyers decrying “anti-white racism” were found on the McMaster University campus in Hamilton, while a study room in McMaster’s Innis Library was booked with the note: “McMaster KKK meeting.” And then, last fall, some students posed in front of a giant #WesternLivesMatter banner at Western University.

These are just a few examples from a wave of incidents. This surge in publicly racist pronouncements is part of a larger right-wing awakening across the country. And though this emboldening of otherwise suppressed and marginalized views can be traced, at least in part, to the rise of Donald Trump and populist demagoguery in the United States, it is Canada’s own history and phenomenon of far right movements that have laid the foundation for such a surge to take place.

As the far right continues to gain political and rhetorical ground in the US and Europe, university administrators in Canada should remain vigilant. Attempts to use the campus environment (and even the classroom) to reintegrate racist and xenophobic discourse and agendas back into the wider spectrum of acceptable ideas should be expected.

A Canadian problem

In a recent comprehensive study of right-wing movements across Canada, Professor Barbara Perry of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) and Ryan Scrivens of Simon Fraser University found that the country’s right-wing extremist movement is “more extensive and more active than public rhetoric would suggest.”

The study concluded that approximately 100 right-wing extremist groups have been active in Canada since the start of the 21st century. Concentrations of these groups have taken hold in British Columbia’s lower mainland, Alberta, Quebec, and Western Ontario.

Additionally, CBC Marketplace did a recent study that focused on racist and intolerant language on social media, web forums, comment sections, and blogs. The study found a 600 per cent increase in such language in the past year. Although the researchers called this surge in online racism “The Trump Effect,” internet intolerance and cyber bullying have long been a problem in the age of online communication. According to Statistics Canada, this surge in right-wing rhetoric and racism was preceded by a doubling of anti-Muslim incidents from 2012 to 2014. This also came before Donald Trump achieved serious media and political traction in the US.

It is the combination of a decidedly Canadian history of intolerance and racism along with the recent insurgency of right-wing activism, language, and electoral success in the US that has emboldened Canada’s far right. The surge in racism literature and paraphernalia on major university campuses across Canada in the past two years is a function of this convergence.

The exploitation of free speech

The perceived rise in “political correctness” has long been a central grievance harboured by those on the right. Since university campuses are supposed to be arenas where the free flow and engagement of ideas and viewpoints are encouraged, it makes sense that activists on the far right would use this principle to try and reintegrate otherwise suppressed beliefs that have long been discredited and marginalized.

Such usage of campus culture and the student body is catalyzed by the common perception that universities are biased against conservative thinkers and viewpoints. This discrepancy gives credence to a belief in the “elitist” culture of university campuses that have lost touch with society.

Thus, we see the injection and reintegration of xenophobic populism, often disguised as legitimate conservative activism. Its proponents and enthusiasts characterize this as a necessary attempt to recalibrate the skewed, left-wing university campus culture—one they say has long discriminated against conservatives who will not bow to the pervasive and repressive presence of “political correctness.”

Yet the impacts of this kind of organizing go well beyond the university campus. Groups that seek to create concentrations of far-right activists on campuses do so as a means to galvanize support for movements that aim to have regional and even national influence. The campus or campus group is simply the locus where a certain species of political or cultural rhetoric can take root. The panels, lectures, and rallies that each group undertakes, perhaps with university funding, attract like-minded people. To be clear, this kind of dynamic is basic and germane to groups across the political and cultural spectrum and is not at all exclusive to right-wing activism.

However, as far as the right is concerned, the linkage of on-campus legitimacy and off-campus audiences attracts individuals or groups that exist on the fringes of society. Campus groups may purport to stand for issues related to free speech, taxation, or immigration, but in the age of Trump—who has turned xenophobic rhetoric regarding Muslims and Mexicans into popular political stances repeated daily on broadcast television—such issues act as a dog whistle, publicly galvanizing those further down the far-right spectrum. In this way, the university campus becomes the physical location for a coalescing of right-wing dogma.

Not all conservative groups or clubs purposefully stoke xenophobia via this galvanization of the far-right. However, the success of Trump, combined with Canada’s own layer of extreme right-wing voices, may create a situation where even well-meaning student groups begin to attract voices and people that do not belong in arenas of civil debate and engagement. Currently, in light of the rather obvious state of right-wing politics, such inadvertent connections seem to be rare.

Administrators and faculty should keep an eye out for this kind of right-wing coalescing because regardless of wider impacts, it affects the university campus climate as well as minority students’ and groups’ safety and place within the campus community. Thus, the university administration’s legitimacy rests on its ability to gauge the level, political nature, and limits of right-wing activism on campus.

The politics of normalization

Incidents of campus racism do not take place or occur within a sealed social vacuum. The language used in far-right paraphernalia found on Canadian campuses reflects Trump’s rhetoric. This reinforces the theoretical connection between the rise in xenophobic campus propaganda and the political insurgency of the American right.

Professor Jasmine Zine of Wilfred Laurier University and Ameil Joseph of McMaster University, both of whom are informed by an extensive scholarly background in the study of discrimination, have related the rise and origins of such campus racism to a process of “normalization”—a gradual mainstreaming of previously unacceptable ideologies or politics by the advent of right-wing populism in Trump’s America and elsewhere.

This normalization mirrors the mechanisms of reintegration that campus groups are capable of facilitating when it comes to far right politics. Just as former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke (along with an assortment of far right extremists) have come out and expressed allegiance to Trump, legitimate conservative groups on campus may attract the same kind of attention.

If such dog whistling has been achieved at the top-most levels of national politics in the US, then it is certainly not a stretch to posit that those in smaller venues who harbour similar ambitions and views are mirroring the effect.

If the goal is to drag the national conservation or political framework toward the right, then it makes sense to establish or reinforce this process of “normalization” at every level of society and in every available venue where the exchange of ideas is prioritized. This makes Canadian university campuses a priority for right-wing demagoguery as it looks to move out from the shadows.

The populist tool and the canadian alt-right

It is not just Donald Trump that provides inspiration and comfort to those on Canada’s far-right fringe. Canada has a handful of political figures who have made it very clear that they hope to galvanize a similar electoral base. This brings the political context of campus racism into a domestic frame where it is bound to have serious consequences that warrant attention from university administrators.

Three candidates for the Conservative Party of Canada’s national leadership spoke at Rebel Media’s recent Toronto rally protesting Liberal MP Iqra Khalid’s Motion-103, which condemns racism and Islamophobia. The audience of 1,000 people ranged from “Make America Great Again”-hat-wearing Trump supporters to members of the Jewish Defense League (JDL), which the FBI has designated a terrorist organization in the US.

In other words, those in attendance represented the assortment of right-wing groups and voices that, in today’s parlance, would constitute the Canadian “alt-right.” That some of Canada’s leading conservative voices find it necessary to play to this crowd is a clear sign of the political context within which campus politics will be conducted in the years to come.

The crowd was symbolic of the larger make-up of today’s ever-coalescing right wing, which has evolved into a big-tent and surprisingly multi-ethnic group that share a single purpose: to use today’s political climate to reintegrate their allegedly suppressed viewpoints and rhetoric back into the national conversation. Due to the diversity of right-wing thought, the extreme right can use the legitimacy of those whose history and rhetoric don’t ring as many alarm bells to provide themselves with political cover. And although different right-wing groups may have varying levels of respectability, all are looking to capitalize on today’s Trump-inspired political climate to gain acceptance and more influence.

The high level of visibility and political influence that clearly xenophobic and dishonest views have reached will certainly affect the tenor and character of conservative groups and activism on Canadian campuses. A failure of university administrators to monitor and counter these developments will erode the university’s credibility.

Due to the current political atmosphere, large segments of the student body are looking to those in places of institutional power to re-legitimize their presence as full-fledged and welcomed members of Canadian and university communities. These minority populations and groups have become an absolutely integral and indispensable aspect of Canadian universities—known around the world for their emphasis on diversity of ethnic background, as well as ideological and philosophical viewpoint.

When anti-black racism, anti-Semitism, or Islamophobia are found on campuses, university administrations should, at the very least, make a very visible effort to rhetorically marginalize these acts of discrimination. Additionally, administrators should hold regular consultations and meetings with different student organizations on campus to get a better idea of what students are feeling and experiencing.

Although universities are arenas where the largest spectrum of ideas and worldviews can be engaged with and critiqued, campuses are not intellectual vacuums free from a relationship with history. There is no such thing as a functional space of ideas or intellectual exchange that tolerates those who are absolutely intolerant.

campuses are not intellectual vacuums free from a relationship with history

For instance, university spaces have no responsibility to include the neo-Nazi or pro-Ku Klux Klan perspectives. To do so would be to facilitate the corrosion of such open spaces. Thankfully, history has cast many of these unhelpful visions aside. Today’s universities should not play any role in their resurrection. AM

Steven Zhou is a Toronto-based journalist, editor, and writer focusing on national security issues and foreign affairs.