Canada Says the Proud Boys Are a Terrorist Group
The listing of the far-right organization raises serious civil liberties questions.
Canada has designated the Proud Boys, a far-right group central to the storming of the U.S. Capitol building on Jan. 6, as a terrorist group—an extraordinary step when neither the organization nor its members have ever faced terrorism charges.
The decision came Wednesday afternoon, with Public Safety Minister Bill Blair announcing that listing the group would be “an important step in our effort to combat violent extremism in all forms.”
Earlier in January, politicians of all stripes in the Canadian House of Commons called on the government to designate the far-right street brawling group, which appears to have played a central role in the assault on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, as a terrorist entity.
Along with the Proud Boys, Ottawa is also listing neo-Nazi groups The Base, Atomwaffen Division, and the Russian Imperial Movement, as well as a raft of foreign terrorist groups tied to the Islamic State and other radical Islamist movements. Many of these groups have organized terrorist plots in the past.
Being added to the list of terrorist entities does not outright criminalize the organizations themselves, but it significantly lowers the investigative threshold to allow for broader and more intense surveillance of their members. Being listed further criminalizes providing material support to the groups, meaning that providing funds, purchasing merchandise, or even renting space to them can be prosecuted.
While their numbers in Canada are small, the Proud Boys were founded by Vice magazine co-founder Gavin McInnes, who was raised in Ottawa. McInnes is long divorced from Vice, but he brought some of the same sleek punk ethos to his embrace of the far-right. In the Proud Boys, McInnes tried to fashion a modern skinhead movement—swapping shaved heads and Doc Martens for neatly coiffed hair and Fred Perry polos. While he has disavowed white supremacy and anti-Semitism in one breath (opting, instead, for the euphemistic ideology of “Western chauvinism”) he and other leaders have encouraged street fighting and targeted assaults against antifa and Black Lives Matter protesters.
In recent years, the Proud Boys have cemented their place as the goon squad for the far-right. Then-U.S. President Donald Trump’s call for the group to “stand back and stand by” during a televised debate significantly emboldened the movement. Multiple Proud Boys members faced charges after the violence erupted inside the Capitol, with two facing conspiracy to obstruct justice charges, and others facing prosecution for trespassing and vandalism.
Despite that, the Proud Boys have never been charged with terrorism offenses, nor have they been convincingly linked to any successful preplanned terrorist attacks—at least not yet.
Canada’s designation of the Proud Boys drew surprised reactions, even from organizations that research the far-right. Evan Balgord, executive director of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, expressed reservations about listing the organization, as its presence in Canada is limited and—while not entirely peaceful—does not quite rise to the level required to be considered terrorism.
“We shared those concerns directly with the minister’s office,” Balgord told Foreign Policy.
According to his organization’s research, the Proud Boys have a modest footprint in Canada, which has only shrunk since Jan. 6. In recent days, the Manitoba chapter of the group disbanded. “I wouldn’t say that the Proud Boys are particularly present in Canada,” Balgord added.
National security officials who briefed media on the designation on Wednesday morning acknowledged that no other country has listed the Proud Boys as a terrorist group, nor have any Proud Boys members been prosecuted for terrorism offenses.
Blair, however, indicated that Canada’s security intelligence services had received a large amount of intelligence and threat assessments, including from the United States and other Five Eyes countries, that led to the decision. The public safety minister said that while the Jan. 6 riot were not the impetus for the decision, the investigation into the violence offered a “trove of evidence” that helped the decision-making process.
Yet, even in the prosecution of Proud Boys member Christopher Kelly—picked up on obstruction and trespassing charges after the Jan. 6 riot—FBI Special Agent Michael Andretta noted that “Proud Boys members routinely attend rallies, protests, and other First Amendment-protected events, where they sometimes engage in violence against individuals whom they perceive as threats to their values.” While Andretta is a member of the FBI terrorism task force, he describes the Proud Boys as a “nationalist organization with multiple US chapters and potential activity in other Western countries.”
To be sure, the Proud Boys are soaked in violent rhetoric. On a popular Proud Boys Telegram channel, boasting more than 45,000 subscribers, white nationalist myths that demand bloody action are common. “If you want America & Europe to remain free, you have to fight with everything you have to preserve the white majority,” the channel wrote on Wednesday morning.
Their real-world presence in Canada, however, has been meeker. In 2017, six members of the Canadian Armed Forces who self-identified as Proud Boys were suspended after interrupting an Indigenous demonstration in Halifax, Nova Scotia. While they appeared to try to intimidate the Indigenous protesters from afar, they left without incident.
Balgord said he has seen self-identified members of the group commit “vicious and unprovoked assaults” on demonstrators at rallies, but he said the real radicalized element of the group has actually split off from the main organization.
“There is a terrorist offshoot that is operating in Canada, but they’ve ditched the name,” Balgord said. They now identify as “Proud Boys Canada First.”
But the group is not on the same scale as the others listed. Atomwaffen and The Base had been tied to multiple terrorism and assassination plots in recent years. Their members, including some Canadians, have been arrested and charged with terrorist offenses.
The Russian Imperial Movement is, as its name suggests, primarily based in Russia. Background documents from the Canadian government allege that the group has been linked to bomb-building plots and paramilitary training. The group is alleged to have “donated money to foreign neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups.” It is believed to have provided training to Swedish neo-Nazis, who went on to orchestrate a bombing campaign against refugees in Gothenburg.
Blair insisted that all of the listed groups have, at the very least, “some influence” in Canada.
What’s telling is which groups are missing from the list. Other far-right groups, including militias that have been active in Canada, were not included. That includes primarily American organizations, such as the Three Percenters and Oath Keepers, which were present at the Jan. 6 protests as well as other armed protests that have turned violent, and organizations more present in Canada, including the anti-immigrant Soldiers of Odin and La Meute.
Also not on the list is the Order of the Nine Angles, a Satanist movement that often identifies with national socialism and that has been embroiled in multiple mass murder plots. In September 2020, Toronto resident William Von Neutegem, who posted extensively about Order of the Nine Angles, allegedly murdered Mohamed-Aslim Zafis outside of a Toronto mosque, and he is suspected in the killing of Peter Singh, a homeless man who was stabbed to death days earlier.
Canada has also seen two attacks from adherents of the Incel (“involuntary celibate”) ideology, although national security officials have said that it can be more difficult to list such amorphous ideologies as terrorist cells.
Canada’s terrorism listing process has built-in safeguards. The Proud Boys, or any other group added to the list, can request a review from a federal court.
Leah West, an assistant professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa and a former government national security lawyer, said the charges laid against the Proud Boys members in connection with the Washington riot likely aren’t enough to justify their listing as a terrorist group. “[W]hat happens if the group’s members are not convicted?” she asked on Twitter.
Speaking to Foreign Policy, West noted their designation itself poses challenges. “Who is going to serve as their lawyer? And how are they going to pay them?”
She added that it would be “incredibly challenging” for a group to win such a challenge, “because of the way the process works and the type of secret evidence that the government can rely on.”
Given that some of that secret evidence, Blair noted, came from U.S. security services, the possibility that the Biden administration could seek some similar designation is possible.
But, as Trump’s quixotic campaign against antifa showed last year, there is no clear process to list domestic organizations as terrorist groups. The U.S. government can designate foreign groups, in an attempt to choke their funding and domestic support, but the mechanisms simply do not exist to go after homegrown movements.
Justin Ling is a journalist based in Toronto.