Last week, Canadian Proud Boys suddenly found themselves members of a terrorist group after Canada's Department of Public Safety gave the extremist street-fighting gang the same legal distinction as ISIS, al-Qaeda, and 72 other terrorist groups from around the world.
The Proud Boys were among four far-right organizations newly added to Canada’s list of designated terrorist organizations, along with the Base and Atomwaffen Division—two neo-Nazi terror groups under FBI scrutiny in the U.S.—and the nationalist Russian Imperial Movement based in St. Petersburg.
While the exact number of Proud Boys in Canada isn’t known, there are roughly five to six chapters across the country likely comprising over a hundred people. (Experts declined to give a hard number to VICE World News.) This makes it undoubtedly one of the largest groups operating in Canada on the terror list. According to the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, in 2020 a “pro-fascist and neo-Nazi arm of the Canadian Proud Boys” splintered from the Canadian Proud Boys; that group, Canada First, operates a Telegram channel with thousands of subscribers and has been denounced by the official Proud Boys group in the U.S.
So, how will this new legal definition affect a Proud Boy in Canada who woke up last week to find himself associated with a terror group?
According to Jessica Davis, president of Ottawa-based private intelligence firm Insight Threat Intelligence and a former senior analyst at Canada’s spy agency, the answer is simple: At the individual level, the designation mostly involves financial repercussions.
“Banks and other financial institutions in Canada are required, obviously, to not deal with terrorist property. But they also have a reputational risk to manage. And a lot of that involves not providing financial services to people who are associated with a terrorist organization, which the Proud Boys now is,” she said in an interview with VICE World News.
Davis was quick to point out that in Canada, membership in a terrorist organization on the designated list doesn't directly lead to criminal charges. The association could, though, seriously impact someone's ability to engage with the banking system. Canadian banks are notoriously risk-averse, and some of them could very well be looking at cutting ties to known Proud Boys, as the designation gives them the grounds to do so.
“Some [Proud Boys] could be having very interesting conversations with their banks that want to exit that relationship," she said."They could be looking at having their assets frozen, not being able to conduct a transaction, maybe not being able to renew a mortgage.
“Mortgage brokers fall under Canada’s anti-terrorism money laundering laws.”
The other question is, who is a Proud Boy? Is it a man who wore a black and yellow Fred Perry golf shirt to a protest? Is it one who was formally initiated into the group? Is it a subscriber to a Telegram channel, or is something more required? If so, what?
Public Safety Canada told VICE World News that membership in the Proud Boys isn’t a criminal offence, but they stopped short of defining who qualifies as a member.
“The listing of an entity is a public means of identifying a group or individual as being associated with terrorism,” said a spokesperson for the department. “The definition of an entity includes a person, group, trust, partnership or fund, or an unincorporated association or organization.”
“Membership, in and of itself, is not a criminal offence. However, one of the consequences of being listed is that the entity's property can be the subject of seizures/restraint and/or forfeiture.”
Public Safety did broadly warn that anybody who knowingly “participates or contributes to, directly or indirectly, any activity of a terrorist group may be charged under the Criminal Code if the purpose of the participation is to enhance the ability of any terrorist group to facilitate or carry out a terrorist activity.”
There’s a much clearer distinction between people who are part of Atomwaffen Division and the Base and those who aren't, because they offer carefully defined routes for admission: Recruits are vetted by senior cell leaders in numerous phone calls and quizzings related to accelerationist neo-Nazi culture before they are given entry to encrypted chatrooms where organizing takes place among fully-fledged members.
In recent memory, Canada’s anti-terrorism laws haven’t been directed at the far right but at members of ISIS or al-Qaeda, two organizations that similarly prioritized clandestine cell structures and acts of lethal violence. The identities of members in all of these groups are usually notoriously difficult to determine with many going by aliases instead of their legal names.
The Proud Boys, by contrast, have made little effort at being a covert organization.
“I think this is going to definitely have an impact on the public posture of the group,” said Amarnath Amarasingam, an assistant professor at the school of religion at Queen’s University who researches terrorism and has extensive experience monitoring ISIS.
He thinks the latest terrorism designation will not only hinder the Proud Boys and its ability to fundraise or receive donations but also affect its public-facing persona.
“They can't recruit and mobilize out in the open with such brazenness. And I think they'll be more careful about the kinds of violence they might engage in, because there is a danger of a terrorism charge,” he said. (In the future, if Canadian members of the Proud Boys do engage in acts of violence on behalf of the group, prosecutors will be able to charge them under federal terrorism laws.)
Amarasingam thinks the new legislation will also impede the Proud Boys from making alliances with like-minded organizations.
“Whatever networks they were forming with other non-listed groups in Canada and abroad will also float away," he said, "as these groups might now be worried about legal consequences."
Given that the Proud Boys in Canada have significant numbers, it would be difficult to penalize every single member with financial penalties. Davis thinks more prominent leaders could be the ones facing troubles.
As for Gavin McInnes, the Canadian founder of the group who stepped down as its leader in 2018 and dissociated himself from the organization, he may still face problems from Canadian and American financial institutions.
(Disclosure: McInnes, was a co-founder of VICE Media. He left the company in 2008 and has had no involvement since then. He founded the Proud Boys organization in 2016.)
“I can't say for sure what will happen to him,” said Davis of McInnes, who was known to be based in the New York City area as of 2019, “but I would be surprised if he doesn’t face at least some serious conversations with his banks, either in Canada or the U.S.”
She thinks McInnes might also be facing some screening at the border should he return home.
“On the border, again, because he's coming into Canada, [it will] probably be a very interesting conversation at the border. He may have a lot more difficulty traveling internationally.”
In the past, McInnes has denied the Proud Boys promoted violence and was an extremist organization.
In a statement, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), Canada’s federal police force, emphasized that thoughts aren’t crimes in the country, and that the promotion of violence is what’s at issue.
“Lawful protest, viewing ideological content or having extremist thoughts is not a crime in Canada,” said an RCMP spokesperson. “This behaviour becomes a threat when people advocate or engage in violence as a means of promoting or furthering their ideology.”
It does seem clear that in the coming weeks, Proud Boys in Canada and outside will be facing unprecedented scrutiny from the government.
The Canada First account on Telegram didn’t react well to the news.
“Sheeeit,” it posted with a link to a story on the designation.
— With files from Mack Lamoureux
Follow Ben Makuch on Twitter.