U.S. President Donald Trump’s comment about the self-described “Western chauvinist” Proud Boys during Tuesday night’s raucous presidential debate was a significant profile boost to the organization, including its members in Canada, experts on extremist groups say.
The all-male organization was co-founded in 2016 by a Canadian, Gavin McInnes, and it’s known primarily for violent confrontations with anti-fascists. The Proud Boys group says it disavows racism, yet it has been accused of having ties to white nationalists and neo-Nazis.
“This is the best thing that could have happened to Proud Boys and the white supremacist movement in probably half a century,” Bernie Farber, chair of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, said of Trump’s comments.
He said Trump’s words certainly engaged many Proud Boys supporters on social media.
And Farber has a specific message to Canadians who may be complacent and think this is an American problem: Don’t be too smug.
“They have a proud history here in Canada of defiance,” he said. “Some would argue that they’re actually more white nationalist here than they are in the States.”
History in Canada
In Canada, the group is smaller than in the U.S. and seems less likely to engage in violence than its U.S. counterpart, Farber said.
“Nonetheless, Canada is as susceptible, and the recruitment and radicalization of kids and young people is happening here as much as it’s happening in United States,” he said.
During Tuesday night’s debate, Trump was asked by moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News if he would “be willing tonight to condemn white supremacists and militia groups” and demand that they “stand down” and not add to the violence that has erupted in places such as Portland, Ore., and Kenosha, Wis.
The president said, “Sure,” but did not offer any words of condemnation, instead pivoting to blame the violence on left-wing radicals such as Antifa supporters. When pushed by Wallace, Trump asked for the name of a group to condemn — and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden suggested Proud Boys.
“Proud Boys, stand back and stand by,” Trump said.
WATCH | ‘Proud Boys, stand back and stand by,’ Trump says in debate:
Members of the organization responded enthusiastically on social media, welcoming Trump’s remarks and posting altered versions of the Proud Boys logo that included the words “Stand Back” and “Stand By.” Some, according to the Washington Post, saw a retail opportunity, pushing $30 shirts and $40 hoodies bearing the group’s logo and the words, “Proud Boys Standing By.”
McInnes, who is no longer a member of the organization, was simulcasting the debate on his website and seemed stunned when Trump made his comments.
“Did he say Proud Boys?” McInnes said.
“I control the Proud Boys, Donald,” he joked. “Do not stand down, do not stand back.”
By Wednesday afternoon, Trump attempted to clarify his remarks, saying he didn’t know who the Proud Boys were, “but whoever they are, they have to stand down and let law enforcement do their work.”
David Neiwert, author of Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump, told CBC’s The Current radio program that Trump has a long history of doing what he called the “three-step tango.”
Trump, he said, will make a statement that clearly encourages white nationalists and right-wing extremists. The next day, Trump walks it back. Then a few days later, he will go back to saying something favourable about them, Neiwert said.
However, white nationalists take that first signal as being the important one, he said.
“The disavowals … they don’t take seriously. In fact, none of them believe it. They say, ‘Oh he’s just doing what he has to do to maintain his political viability.'”
LISTEN | An Edmonton researcher on hate-crimes discusses the Proud Boys’ presence in Canada:
Edmonton AM9:35The presence of hate groups in the province
Barbara Perry, director of the Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism at Ontario Tech University in Oshawa, Ont., agreed that despite Trump walking back comments regarding the Proud Boys, the damage has been done.
“It’s clearly been a boost to their egos and boost to their confidence,” she said. “This doesn’t [just] give the American movement a boost. It also gives the Canadian group a similar boost.”
Their activities are certainly more low key in Canada. Posters for the organization pop up in communities from time to time. Arguably the biggest Canadian headlines for the group came in 2017, when five members, four of them Canadian Forces personnel, disrupted a Mi’kmaw ceremony in Halifax.
‘What an exciting time to be alive’
Still, members linked to Canadian affiliates welcomed Trump’s words.
On Pander, a conservative social media website, Proud Boys Calgary posted a clip of Trump’s comments, adding: “What an exciting time to be alive.”
It’s a pretty comprehensive movement, and all the chapters are connected, Perry said. While it’s difficult to determine the size of the group’s membership in Canada, Perry said her research has found that it maintains a presence in every large city, with potentially a couple dozen members in each, and in several smaller communities, which may just include a few people.
But when talking to law enforcement across Canada about white nationalist organizations, she said, often the first group named is the Proud Boys.
The group has made headlines recently with its clashes with radical left-wing demonstrators, including from the antifa movement, at protests against police violence and racism in Portland.
“What they’re really out there for is to go bash heads,” Neiwert said. “They come pretty heavily armed. They come armoured, and they all come eager to fight.”
The group’s tenets, according to its website, include “closed borders,” “venerating the housewife,” “minimal government,” “pro free speech,” and “anti-racism.”
Perry said some of those positions, particularly those with wide appeal such as anti-racism, are just part of a strategy to lend credibility to the organization.
The Proud Boys have been booted off some social media websites, including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. And just this week, U.K.-based apparel maker Fred Perry said it was pulling from the U.S. and Canadian markets the Black/Yellow/Yellow twin-tipped shirt that the group has adopted. The shirt won’t return, Fred Perry said, “until we’re satisfied that its association with the Proud Boys has ended.”
Meanwhile, McInnes has denied the group has affiliations with far-right extremist groups that overtly espouse racist and anti-Semitic views.
McInnes sued the Southern Poverty Law Center last year, claiming it defamed him when it designated the Proud Boys as a “hate group.”