By Jon Milton,
“When I started doing this work, you knew who the haters were,” says Kurt Phillips. “They shaved their head, wore Doc Martens, and beat up immigrants. Now that has shifted.”
Phillips is a teacher in Drumheller, Alberta. He’s also a board member at the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, an organization which monitors the activity of right-wing extremists across Canada. Before being on the board of CAHN, he was a founding member of Anti-Racist Canada, a recently-retired blog which tracks far-right groups.
Phillips says that the organized hate groups in today’s Alberta look very different than they used to. Rather than boots-and-braces skinheads, today’s far-right prefers a different look: like bikers.
“Even their bylaws are often cribbed directly from the Hells Angels or outlaw biker gangs,” says Phillips. “It’s because they know it’s intimidating, and they want to have those intimidation factors.”
There are many such groups active today in Alberta, Phillips says. Many of them are fairly small, and internal schisms regularly lead to the creation of new groups. The largest one, he says, remains the Soldiers of Odin—a far-right group originally founded by a Finnish neo-Nazi known for making “patrols” of immigrant neighborhoods.
Other active groups include the breakaway Wolves of Odin (which performed its own intimidation—cruising on Edmonton’s Whyte Avenue and at a prominent mosque), Northern Guard, the Canadian Combat Coalition, and the bizarrely named Woke Onez Rebellion. One group was briefly named The Clann, a not-so-subtle allusion to the Klu Klux Klan, before undergoing a rebranding.
“These guys go back and forth between the groups,” Phillips says. “They all want to be the leader, so they form new ones.”
The groups may be fairly small in terms of membership, but they represent a growing threat, Phillips says. Over the past months, they have shown themselves to be increasingly willing to disrupt—sometimes violently—the activities of those they view as political opponents.
The most infamous case of such disruption occurred in the fall. In Red Deer, far-right activist and “Wexit” co-founder Pat King had been threatening violence online in the lead-up to the an anti-racist demonstration in late September. King co-organized a counter-demonstration, and far-right activists assaulted multiple participants at the peaceful anti-racist rally.
Just weeks earlier, an unknown driver hit an anti-racist in with a car in Ponoka, hospitalizing the activist. At a press conference discussing the car attack, far-right activists organized by King showed up to heckle the speakers, calling them liars and shouting over the land acknowledgement.
“I think the labour movement is intertwined with anti-racism and anti-fascism. It’s about equity, it’s about making people’s lives better—and that includes opposition to racism, to fascism, and to all forms of oppression.”
Rural Alberta is Organizing Against Racism
For Jason Heistad, AUPE’s Executive Secretary-Treasurer, organizing against racism is inseparable from his commitment to the union. “I see this as being the same thing as union organizing,” he says.
Heistad is a co-founder of the Welcoming and Inclusive Communities Committee in Innisfail, the town where he lives. He and other community members helped create the committee over the summer, following a series of controversies related to a local anti-racist demonstration.
“I saw the Calgary event. There was a thousand people there or more,” he says, referencing a large Black Lives Matter demonstration which took place in the city following the police slaying of George Floyd. “I was moved by that. There was no violence. Then [anti-racist rallies] started coming into the rural areas, and there started being a trickling of violence, people speaking against it…. That’s not Innisfail—that’s the far-right trying to make an issue of everything. It was all set up, it was all made up. When you look back on it, it’s sick, really.”
In the time since then, Heistad says, the Committee has begun to assert itself. It organized a two-day long training session for city councilors, and has begun outreach to local businesses and cultural organizations.
“There was one councilor, he’s probably in his 70s. He went to the meeting and he was, well, skeptical,” Heistad says. “He left that training and admitted to us that he had actually learned a lot. We gained some ground there.”
Anti-racist organizing looks very different in rural communities compared to cities, Heistad says. “It’s a lot more community-focused, relationship-focused,” he says. “You can’t just call a group of people on the Left to counter-protest or whatever.”
For Heistad, his organizing in Innisfail is about elevating the voices—the vast majority of the community, he says—that are opposed to discrimination. He knows that Innisfail is full of good people, and he wants everyone else to know that as well.
“There’s a lot of work that’s been done with Welcoming Communities, in just three or four months,” Heistad says. “We’re going to continue doing this work, making workshops, figuring out how we can talk about racism, and do so effectively.”
“There’s a lot of work that’s been done with Welcoming Communities, in just three or four months. We’re going to continue doing this work, making workshops, figuring out how we can talk about racism, and do so effectively.”
Organized Labour can Lead the Fight
Ana Neves was one of thousands of people in a massive demonstration in Edmonton.
It was June, and in the weeks since a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd, uprisings swept across the United States, North America, and the world. In Edmonton, 15,000 people took to the legislature grounds demanding an end to systemic racism.
“I work in mental health and addiction,” Neves, an AUPE member who sits on the union’s Human Rights Committee, says. “So having that kind of background, it gives me a little more of a keen eye for things that might escalate.”
Neves, who was on the protest security team, says that before the rally began the team had developed profiles of potential far-right extremists. “It was a matter of what they were wearing, probably on the outskirts of where the crowds were” She says that the group was on “high alert” all day.
Luckily, Neves says, there wasn’t any major confrontation with far-right groups or individuals that day, beyond a quickly-defused verbal altercation with man who heckled the crowd. The rest of the day went off well. But even though no serious confrontations happened that day, organizers such as Neves—and everyone involved in social movements, she says—need to prepare for that risk.
Labour is no exception. When Regina’s Co-op oil refinery locked out its workers in late 2019, those workers, members of Unifor, began a major struggle against proposed pension rollbacks. During the lockout, Unifor and other unions organized secondary pickets at Co-op gas stations across the prairies.
Organizers of 2019’s Yellow Vest convoy—a far-right group which claimed to be about promoting pipelines—revealed their true ideology. These previously staunch defenders of good oil jobs began posting pictures online about how to run over picketers with their trucks—an increasingly frequent method of terrorism in North America, and one whose perpetrators have inflicted with impunity. USA Today reported in July 2020 that “Cars have hit demonstrators 104 times since George Floyd protests began”. The Yellow Vesters also organized a convoy to the Carseland, Alberta, picket line with the intent of intimidating union organizers.
Just as the fascists of the 20th century co-opted the language of socialism before seizing power and immediately turning on workers, fascists today pretend to care about working people—but when workers need allies on the ground, the far-right arrive as their enemies.
So far, Phillips says, the far-right in Alberta has not been focused on disrupting union activity, but they’ve been anything but supportive.
“When the hospital workers went on their wildcat strike, there was a lot of condemnation of them online by the far-right,” he says. “The accusation was that these are fakers, they’re part of a conspiracy to enslave Albertans, as part of the so-called ‘plandemic.’”
Neves isn’t surprised by the opposition from the far-right—or that her union brothers and sisters are fighting against racism. “In the same way as the people who disrupt anti-racist rallies also disrupt picket lines,” she says, “it’s also the same people who are on picket lines, who are doing union work, will support anti-racist demonstrations.”
Phillips points out that the far-right groups’ unhinged, conspiratorial anti-communism leads to the belief anything good for working people is part of a sinister left-wing plot. “Things that should be not-controversial are now deemed as communist,” he says. “They describe the NDP as a communist party. It’s difficult to get in reasonable legislation when you’ve created this boogeyman where there’s a link between $15 an hour minimum wage and soup lines.”
He says that “the role of labour is to support workers, and the far-right has been attacking workers in various forms for generations. Historically, labour has also been some of the best avenues to organize against racism, for LGBTQ rights, and so on.”
“The labour movement in Canada, and around the world, has a long history of opposing the far-right—and really being the vanguard of that.”
That leadership has been the case elsewhere in the recent past. When the far-right street gang Patriot Prayer tried to organize a demonstration in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2017, the famously militant International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) passed a “Motion to Stop the Fascists in San Francisco,” inviting “all unions and ant-racist and anti-fascist organizations to join us defending unions, racial minorities, immigrants, LGBTQ people, women, and all the oppressed.” The ILWU organized thousands of members to turn up on the streets and run the fascists out of town.
The history of the ILWU also shows some of the specific power that organized workers can wield. The union refused to unload ships from Apartheid-era South Africa and the US-backed neofascist Chile governed by General Augusto Pinochet. ILWU members used their power-base—the workplace—to weaken far-right regimes across the world.
If you want to start organizing against racism, the workplace is a great place to start. You can form a workplace committee to plan how you and your co-workers can collectively respond to racist actions from members of the public. You can join other members to encourage your local or chapter pass anti-racist and anti-fascist resolutions and form official committees inside locals—a strategy adopted by the Pacific Northwest Anti-Fascist Workers Collective.
For union organizing to be successful, organizers need to be able to reach everyone on a shop floor to inspire them to work together as a union. That principle, of engaging in blanket-outreach to all of your co-workers, can and should also apply to anti-racism. When bosses divide workers—whether by race, gender, or sexual orientation—the bosses win. For workers to win, we need to dismantle the systems that divide us.
“I think the labour movement is intertwined with anti-racism and anti-fascism,” Neves says. “It’s about equity, it’s about making people’s lives better—and that includes opposition to racism, to fascism, and to all forms of oppression.”