Shortly after the House of Commons voted unanimously to call on the Trudeau government to identify the Proud Boys as a terrorist entity, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said he’ll listen to the intelligence collected by the country’s security agencies before deciding on next steps.
“To be clear: the decision to list any organization as a terrorist entity is based on intelligence and evidence collected by our national security agencies,” said the minister in a statement sent to CBC News last night.
“Terrorist designations are not a political exercise.”
Canadian authorities have been collecting information about the far-right Proud Boys group as part of a possible terrorist designation following reports about the organization’s role in this month’s deadly U.S. Capitol attack.
Multiple media reports have linked Proud Boys members to those who stormed Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., after a speech by then-U.S. president Donald Trump on Jan. 6. Last week, a self-described organizer for the Proud Boys was arrested for taking part in the siege.
The Canadian government has not said if the Proud Boys will be added to Canada’s formal list of terrorist groups. Such a move would come with immediate ramifications for the group; financial institutions would freeze their assets and it would become a crime to knowingly deal with the group.
“We’re very mindful of ideologically motivated violent extremists, including groups like the Proud Boys. They’re white supremacists, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, misogynist groups. They’re all hateful, they’re all dangerous,” Blair told CTV News in an interview earlier this month.
“Our national security officials are very mindful of these individuals. They’re gathering intelligence. They bring that intelligence before me and I bring it before cabinet … We’re working very diligently to ensure that where the evidence is available, where we have the intelligence, that we’ll deal appropriately with those organizations.”
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh brought forward a motion Monday calling on the government “to use all available tools to address the proliferation of white supremacist and hate groups, starting with immediately designating the Proud Boys as a terrorist entity.”
‘Pretty direct politicization of the process’
While the motion is non-binding, it has some national security experts troubled by what they see as the politicalization of the terror list.
“The issue I have is by including the call to list the Proud Boys, it is a call for the government to engage in a legal process and with a predetermined outcome,” said Leah West, a former Department of Justice lawyer and now a national security professor at Carleton University.
“I tend to have issues with parliamentarians asking for certain criminal law effects to take place on individuals in the House of Commons. I think that there should be a separation between parliamentarians and a process that, in this case, is not a typical criminal law process but is a legal process that could have a criminal effect.”
West said she worries about setting a precedent. She pointed to statements by some MPs in early 2020 describing Indigenous-led rail blockades as terrorism and asking whether the groups protesting should be added to the terror list.
“There’s nothing to stop a similar type of motion from being brought to the House floor around Indigenous or environmental protesters who arguably engage in activity that could give rise to meeting the threshold,” she said.
“I just want us to be careful [and avoid] approaching listing terrorist entities in the same way we saw with the Trump administration in the U.S., where basically [he] used terrorist listings as a way of condemning groups that were unfavourable, or his enemies, or that were critical of the government”
Jessica Davis, a former senior intelligence analyst with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service who now heads Insight Threat, called the vote “a pretty direct politicization of the process.”
“All of these MPs should know better in terms of how the process actually works. It’s been well-articulated. They have access to information about how these things happen,” she said.
“This motion is meant, I guess, to put pressure on the government to list a group, but we don’t even know yet if the group meets a technical threshold.”
A spokesperson for the NDP said the party isn’t trying to politicize the process, but argued the Proud Boys are an undeniable threat to the United States and Canada both.
“The rise of white supremacy and neo-Nazi [organizations] is an underestimated threat in Canada and people are scared. Canadians don’t want to see what happened in the U.S. happen here in Canada. We need actions and we need them, now,” said Melanie Richer.
Decision lies with minister
According to the Department of Public Safety, the process of designating a terrorist group begins with a report from the RCMP and CSIS detailing “reasonable grounds to believe that the entity has knowingly carried out, attempted to carry out, participated in or facilitated a terrorist activity; or the entity is knowingly acting on behalf of, at the direction of or in association with, an entity involved in a terrorist activity.”
That report is reviewed by the minister of public safety. If the minister has reasonable grounds to believe that the group in question meets the threshold, the minister makes a recommendation to cabinet to place the entity on the list.
Davis said the process could use more transparency and clarity from the government about the criteria used to make a determination.
Created in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the terrorist designation list includes more than 50 organizations. Many of them are Islamist terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, Hezbollah and ISIS.
Two far-right groups — Blood & Honour, an international neo-Nazi network, and its armed wing, Combat 18 — were added in June 2019 under the public safety minister at the time, Ralph Goodale.
Where does the government draw the line?
“The activities that the groups are engaged in range really dramatically from al-Qaeda — who we know conducted many large-scale, high-impact attacks and inspired many others — to Combat 18, who seem to have committed one politically motivated assault and a firebombing,” said Davis. “There’s a lot of daylight between those two examples.
“So where is that criteria? Because if it’s closer to the Combat 18, I think that that’s more of a problem. It really allows a very expansive definition of terrorism in this country.”
West said the process is not above political influence but it has some safeguards in place.
“So it’s not that there is no politics involved in this, in that it is a cabinet decision. But it’s not unusual in the realm of national security for ministers to be making decisions like this,” said West.
“This decision is also reviewable by a federal court to ensure that that the minister’s decision is reasonable and compliant with the statutory requirements set out in the Criminal Code.”
Davis said the process is inherently political because it’s a cabinet decision — but bringing in a multi-party committee into the process or striking a committee of bureaucrats could remove at least some of the political taint.
“So there’s a number of ways to move that ministerial responsibility, but at the same time, I think that it is important that the government be responsible for this list,” she said