In front of Calgary City Hall, a couple dozen of them stood shoulder-to-shoulder in an attempt to make an unbreakable human wall. Each of them wore a uniform consisting of a black T-shirt emblazoned with a Roman helmet—a look that wouldn't be out of place in a biker gang. It was a line filled with mostly men, and a few women, who you wouldn't want to go toe-to-toe with in a bar. All of them were white.
Some of the III% (the "three percent," as they call themselves) brought shock canes—a non-lethal weapon that can deliver up to a million volts to the person hit—while others had billy clubs or regular old canes. On many of the shirts was the III%'s credo, "NSA"—Never Standing Alone. Scattered throughout the rest of the square were small groups overseeing the proceedings from an elevated position, as well as III%er members dressed in plain clothes milling about the crowd gathering "intel" on what they considered to be the day's enemy—Antifa, the anti-fascist group.
In front of the line their leader, Beau Welling, the president of the Alberta chapter and national vice-president of the III%, stood calling commands quietly into a mobile phone he held like a walkie talkie.
A few hours earlier, the group had swept the perimeter checking the potted plants that surround the municipal building for any improvised explosive device. They were concerned that ISIS might target the event or that Antifa may have planted weapons beforehand.
The group of III%ers was attending the rally as "security detail" for a controversial anti-Islam speaker named Sandra Solomon, who was involved in a dust up with anti-fascists in Winnipeg a few days prior. Welling had made it clear to the group beforehand that attendance was mandatory, citing the Winnipeg incident and partisan violence south of the border.
This was effectively the III% Alberta's coming out party—a planned operation that they called "Operation Shock N Awe"—and a show of force by a far-right anti-Islamic organization that claims to be heavily armed and ready for "war" on Canadian soil.
An eight-month VICE Canada investigation into the inner workings of the group has found it to be a tight-knit openly anti-Islamic group that is unique in Canada's far-right ecosystem—one that, as one expert puts it, seems to be a "wholesale lift of an American militia." During VICE Canada's investigation, the group's rhetoric and tactics rapidly escalated from virulently anti-Islam online posturing to IRL monitoring of mosques, live fire paramilitary-style training, claiming to buy land, and plans for creating smoke and flash bombs.
Welling, a key figure in the group, told VICE that he suspects that the Canadian government considers them "domestic terrorists."
"If the time would come and we would need to use force and take action, you know, we will do that."
"What we like to consider ourselves is Canada's last line of defence from all enemies, both foreign and domestic," Welling told VICE. "If the time would come and we would need to use force and take action, you know, we will do that."
Insular groups like the III% are hard to nail down when it comes to sorting toxic online rhetoric from what has the potential to lead to real world actions. But experts told us it's important not to underestimate the risks associated with a group playing with the potentially lethal cocktail of xenophobia and firepower.
When Dr. Barbara Perry, a leading researcher on far-right groups and hate crimes in Canada at the University of Ontario, was briefed on their activities she responded with a simple, "I'm scared of this."
A Quick Build
The III% (or "threepers" as they're also known) take their name from an American paramilitary group that organized after Barack Obama was elected president in 2008. They are a largely decentralized organization built around strong anti-government and pro-gun views. Numerous people linked to the III% in the US have been charged with crimes, including Allen "Lance" Scarsella, who shot five people at a Black Lives Matter protest, and a member was arrested in 2011 in a foiled plot to bomb federal buildings in Atlanta.
The Canadian origins of the III% began in late 2015, shortly after Justin Trudeau became prime minister. It started with a nationwide Facebook group called III% Canada, which quickly turned to setting up chapters across the country. It was during this time that I added my personal Facebook profile—which clearly states I'm a journalist—to the secret group, a move that was approved by Welling.
Over time, the group has been able to make that rare jump from angry online Facebook group to real-world activity. For almost a year now, the III% chapter in Alberta—which has the most active members in Canada—has been slowly forming itself into a militia-like organization. The chapter in wildrose country boasts about 150 to 200 active members and over 1,600 members online.
The people who populate the group are a rough coalition of ex-military members, preppers, conspiracy theorists, and people who are simply scared of what is "happening" to the country. They claim to be heavily armed, with many members posting photos of their numerous guns to their page. Welling said that majority of the group is blue collar shift workers or nine-to-fivers who have been hit hard by Alberta's economic downturn and claimed the III%ers have loaned out thousands of dollars to their fellow members.
Other parts of the country have chapters as well, but they are much smaller than the Albertan one and seem to exist primarily online. However, during an anti-Islam rally in Toronto, on May 6, three III%ers made an appearance and got into it with Kevin Metcalf, a journalist for Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, which resulted in one man being charged with assault and another being wanted for arrest.
When first contacted by VICE about this story several months ago, the RCMP claimed to have no knowledge of the III%ers, but when we followed up recently they gave us a statement.
"The RCMP is aware of this group," reads a statement from RCMP. "The RCMP does not investigate movements or ideologies, but will investigate the criminal activity of any individuals who threaten the safety and security of Canadians."
The Canadian III% is, in essence, a direct lift of an American militia that has been outfitted with a rough paint job to fit into a Canadian worldview—even the name III% comes from an American myth that it was three percent of the American population that fought against the British in the War of Independence. The group is hierarchical, similar to motorcycle clubs or the Soldiers of Odin, and to become a member you have to be patched in by showing loyalty and worth to your superiors.
The Albertan group claims to meet on a weekly basis to train with live ammunition and prepare themselves for when the "shit hits the fan." The group's attention shifts constantly, but it seemingly revolves around hating on Antifa, the influx of refugees crossing Canada's borders and, most prominently, the possibility of a Islamic terrorist attack. Unlike the Soldiers of Odin, or other like-minded groups, the III%ers don't seem to feel the need to play coy with their hatred of Islam.
VICE briefed several experts on the group and the III% were described repeatedly as "alarming" and every expert agreed that the group is an anomaly among the right wing groups we typically see in Canada. Amira Elghawaby, a spokesperson with the National Council of Canadian Muslims, told VICE that these groups, and their changing nature, are concerning, especially paired with the increasing number of anti-Islamic crimes in Canada.
"This is an area that we certainly have been concerned for some time and believe that Canadians may not truly understand the full impact and threat that may be out there because of a disproportionate view and focus on violent extremism when it's rising, unfortunately, from a misreading of Islam," said Elghawaby.
Welling met with VICE Canada in a north-Calgary Denny's for an interview the day after Operation Shock N Awe. The bushy-bearded Welling—who is originally from Toronto but moved to Alberta where he started a family and runs a transport company—showed up in a camo hat and was surprisingly open about their activities and vehemently anti-Islam views.
Welling told VICE that "anti-Islam" would be a fair description of the group's beliefs. From talking to Welling and seeing frequent posts on their closed group, it is clear the III% legitimately think an Islamic invasion of Canada is on the horizon, and that is what they're training for—the term he used to describe refugees and immigration was "a planned, tactical citizen invasion."
"We dislike Islam and the Muslims," he later added for extra measure.
Anti-Islam sentiment is the beating heart of III% Alberta. This worldview unites the group online and is/has been assuredly the driving force of recruitment. In the closed group, posts have been made about wiping all the Muslims off the earth, and there is frequent use of dehumanizing terms like "goat fucker" to describe the religious group. Welling once posted that all Muslims are guilty by association and "fuck the moderate Muslims." Another post by a member, referring to a debunked story about Syrian youths in a Red Deer high school, indicated that they should round up Syrian children "like animals."
With each terror attack over the past two years—from the Brussels bombing, to the Nice attack, the Berlin truck attack, to Westminster—the group gets more extreme with both their rhetoric and their training. The anti-Islam rhetoric seemingly hit a high water mark recently following the suicide attack at a Manchester Ariana Grande concert, which killed 22 people, including children and teenagers. Following the bombing Welling declared war.
"We are at war folks, we have been at war, and we are in the middle of the fight of our lives."
"We are at war folks, we have been at war, and we are in the middle of the fight of our lives," Welling posted in full caps in the closed group. "It's on mother fuckers. It's time to do patriot shit. You wanna fuck around, you've seen nothing yet. We will win this war."
The following day—according to a Google calendar used by the group that VICE gained access to—a portion of his group started "smoke and flash bomb production." The group had also purchased a number of "stun canes" that deliver over a million volts—canes VICE saw in person during their Calgary showing. VICE did not see any homemade flash bombs at the event. On May 27, Welling organized a meeting for his soldiers to discuss "battle strategy," war tactics and how to "start [their] front push back"—VICE was unable to confirm if this meeting occurred and, if it was held, what was said.
The extremist movement of the group has not been accepted by all members. At the end of March, an extremely active member, Alberta's former sergeant at arms, left the III% because of direction the group was headed in—the man confirmed to VICE that he did make these statements but offered no further comment.
"When I joined I did so believing in the brotherhood and camaraderie I witnessed, [thinking it] was a reflection on how the group would operate," he wrote in a Facebook post upon leaving. "I also believed, as is written in the pinned post, that this was not a militia or would become one in public. I no longer believe that is the case."
This extreme rhetoric and activity is one of the biggest dangers the III%ers pose, according to several experts I spoke with for this story. A lone wolf attack inspired by the III%ers aggressive narrative, but "who thinks the group is not moving fast enough" is a genuine threat, said Dr. Barbara Perry.
"There is always the potential for an individual or a small cell to take that logic to its extreme conclusion and rather than waiting for the battle, to take the battle to the mosques in this case and engaging in offensive rather than defensive violence," said Perry. "I think that there is a really strong probability that someone will go off the rails."
Staking Out Mosques
Connected to the anti-Islam sentiment is a sense of paranoia in the group, one that is reinforced by the sharing of debunked news stories and far-right wing commentary from sites like Rebel Media or Infowars. The members of the group, like their counterparts worldwide, are distrustful of mainstream news and often stray into extreme conspiratorial territory.
An example of this came when four hunters went missing in northern Alberta in late April. Though the incident has been explained as an accident, Welling implied that jihadis may have killed them and there must be "terrorist training camps" in northern Alberta. On May 21, Welling posted that he had conducted "undercover intel" of a north-east Calgary mosque where he believed (with no evidence) that jihadis were being trained—when staking out the mosque he claimed he saw crates being brought in at 4:30 AM that he asserts must have been full of guns and ammunitions. (He doesn't provide any evidence for his allegation.) In speaking to VICE about this, Welling claimed that the group, himself included, are "actively checking into" 16 mosques across Canada through the use of stakeouts.
"These mosques, from what we've gathered, from our intel, these mosques are fronts for training groups, for terrorist training groups," he said. "We will continue to watch these mosques and monitor these situations."
Welling, while referencing the Ottawa shooter and the Toronto 18, said that the group considers these mosques to be the greatest threat to Canada both in the existential and physical sense and made the alarming suggestion that the group is ready to take "direct action" if it decides the government isn't "protecting the lives of Canadians."
Perry suggests the group is capable of more.
"I suspect it's 60 percent posturing but you can't downplay the risk of something like that. It's so specific and so narrowly defined. I see [Calgary's event] as a first stage of ratcheting up from discourse to action," Dr. Perry told VICE. "I don't think they're going to go from zero to 60 but I think there will be an escalation of activity."
When asked if this "intel gathering" of mosques is likely posturing, Dr. Perry stated that this seems in line with the group's activities and that the stakeouts are probably occurring at some level. Perry said the next logical step in the group's escalation would be targeting these mosques with either protests or vandalism.
When told that the group is claiming to be staking out mosques, Elghawaby said she was shocked.
"This is extremely frightening and disturbing to hear that this is happening in Canada and certainly we would be looking towards law enforcement agencies to be monitoring any risks or threats to the safety and well being in our communities and broader communities," she told VICE.
Unique in Canada's Far-Right Ecosphere
The threepers boast to be heavily armed—one post asking the crew to show their "load outs" featured members of the group with a wide array of weapons ranging from handguns and shotguns to powerful hunting rifles and what appears to be assault rifles. The weapons are not purchased by the group itself, but are owned by members and brought into the fold when they join. Ryan Scrivens, a PhD candidate in the School of Criminology at Simon Fraser University who studies right wing extremism in Canada, explained that this is one of the many things that separates the III% away from their peers.
"I'll be honest with you, I'm surprised they're as armed as they are," Scrivens told VICE. "That's not traditional of the far-right groups in Canada at least, we don't really have that gun-toting survivalist kind of way of thinking in Canada."
The group is, by their own admission, conducting live fire paramilitary training—and the training is being led by members who claim to be former military men. Welling told VICE that the group trains weekly, practicing hand signals, platoon-style movements, assault-style live fire drills and vehicle assaults—this is something the group reiterates on their closed Facebook group. Welling said a former military medic is apparently on site for all these training exercises and conversations on their closed group indicate they train either at fellow members' rural residences or at a location off the Red Deer River near the Penhold area.
The legality of this style of training is questionable. Section 70 of the Criminal Code of Canada entitled "Unlawful Drilling" outlaws "assemblies, without lawful authority, of persons for the purpose of (i) of training or drilling themselves, (ii) of being trained or drilled to the use of arms, or (iii) of practising military exercises." A person can be sentenced to upwards of five years if being found guilty of unlawful drilling.
In fact, the legality of the group as a whole is iffy. Welling makes it clear that the group understands the precarious legal state that comes part and parcel with the term "militia" in Canada and, thusly, is hesitant to describe themselves as such. Operating a militia in general is not illegal in Canada, but several laws and firearm codes, much like section 70, outlaw acting as one. This is not lost on the III% who, in the pinned post of their rules on the closed Facebook group VICE gained access to, state "We are NOT a militia."
"We like to call ourselves loosely as a survivalist group, an outdoors group, [but] we do take the label of a militia group very, very often," Welling said. "There is no running away or hiding that fact, you can call us what you want, we'll take the name 'militia group,' there is nothing to feel shame or nothing like that."
The threat of a violent outburst from the III% is most likely low, according to both Dr. David C. Hofmann, who studies right-wing extremist groups at the University of New Brunswick, and Scrivens, who explained that these groups typically are planning for a future event as opposed to planning and carrying out raids or assaults—however, both did add that predicting the activity of groups such as these in the current age is difficult. Hofmann explained that, typically, the threat of violence hinges on how the group is approached by law enforcement agencies.
The III%ers and similar groups could not have happened without social media, particularly Facebook, which allows them to create a insular communities and organize in secret. Social media also allows for the easy transfer of American ideas, like the III%, to make their way north of the border, Hofmann says.
Organized and 'Ready to Bang'
Right wing extremism in Canada, and the United States, has been burgeoning as of late. In times of great political and economic strife reactionary groups are certain to emerge—extremist publications caring more for narrative over fact have also played their part. In Canada alone, we've seen the immense rise, and possible fall, of the Soldiers of Odin, which birthed splinter groups like Storm Alliance, and a rise in what can only be called anti-anti-Islamophobia with rallies Canada-wide put on by groups like the World Coalition Against Islam, Pegida Canada, and the Canadian Combat Coalition. In the United States, militias that started under Barack Obama are still operating on the border and we've seen armed groups like the Oath Keepers make their presence known outside of mosques.
The most recent hate crime statistics released in Canada, show that there has been a 60 percent increase in hate crimes perpetrated against Muslim people from 2014 to 2015. Nationally hate crimes in general rose by 5 percent but in Alberta they rose by 39 percent. The memory of the six men shot dead by Alexandre Bissonnette in a Quebec city mosque just months ago is still fresh in Canada. While it is still unknown what the exact motives of Bissonnette were, the man has been frequently painted by those who knew him as an online right wing troll.
A study published by Dr. Perry and Ryan Scrivens in 2015 found that in the last 30 years the amount of deaths caused by far-right groups significantly outnumbered lives taken by jihadis within Canada. They also found, at the time of their study, there were over 100 far-right groups in Canada with the majority of the groups existing in Alberta, Quebec, western Ontario, and British Columbia. Another 2015 study, this time conducted in America by the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, found after interviewing 328 law enforcement agencies that 73.8 percent stated that far-right violence was the number one threat in their jurisdiction.
All this has been leading us to where we currently are: a "free speech" (read as anti-anti-Islamophobia) rally being held in Calgary with a large group of men who are actively training themselves in a paramilitary style offering "security." It needn't be said how immensely different this group (and most likely law enforcement) would view a few dozen Muslim men and woman doing similar training and/or making shows of force.
"We are willing to lay our lives down on the line and we're prepared to bleed for the country."
Regardless of the double standard that may be at play, the III%ers are organizing and growing quickly. They have positions like province-wide president, vice president, a sergeant of arms, treasurer, and have broken down the province into ten zones which themselves have corresponding leaders. Within these zones the members chose a role of either "soldiers" and "preppers." But the III%'s focus does appear to be on being a paramilitary organization.
"Battle training is just one part of our training but it is a big part. We are willing to lay our lives down on the line and we're prepared to bleed for the country," Welling told me.
To facilitate the groups need and want for training, the Alberta chapter has started moving towards buying 160 acres of land in central Alberta for a "III%er training ground, facility, and possible hunting pen." When asked in person about this Welling claimed that the group has already purchased land. When this development was brought up to Dr. Hofmann he wasn't surprised.
"Most likely, they're looking to fort up," said Hofmann. "They're looking to build the fences against a quote-unquote hostile government. They're likely looking to stockpile weapons and food and engage in military training. This is classic activity, it happens over and over again."
The group also works on an "alert system" and a threat level system, and Welling is willing to put his group "on notice." Several months ago, Welling learned of a (three-year-old) story regarding the closing of a Calgary mosque linked to the radicalization of three men and told his group to get ready.
"Jesus. Ready to bang, just say the word," read one reply in the secret group.
Welling received numerous statements from members saying they were ready, and itching, for a fight with "the invaders."
On more than one occasion III% members, including Welling, have expressed an urge to patrol the border. In recent days another group, Storm Alliance, has started making trips to the Quebec border to view refugee crossings. Welling stated that he had conducted border patrols with his group in the past but they are not regular. When briefed on the group's initial talk of border patrols back in February, Dr. Perry described the group's activities and preoccupation with the border as "disturbing."
"That terrifies me, it absolutely terrifies me. That is something that is very different from something we've seen in the past with the anti-authority groups," said Perry at the time. "That is a much more American style. We've seen the consequences there, there have been homicides on the border. There has been shootings and beatings on the border. So, that just really terrifies me."
"I really hope it's isolated," she added.
Ready to Take on the State
Back in the Calgary Denny's, Welling took a swig of coffee and asked his young son, whom he had brought along to the interview, if he wanted a smoothie before mentioning the recent terrorist attacks in the UK. This was not the first time that Welling had brought up the Manchester and London attacks in the conversation, nor would it be the last. It's clear when talking to the man that the III%ers are tied intrinsically to the current political strife.
He claims we are losing Canada, whatever that means, and it's time for action. But he also makes clear his group is prepared to disagree with the state in regards to the operation of his group. When asked what he would do if Canada's legal system came for him and the rest of the III%, he paused for a moment and responded cryptically.
"If the warrant was warrantless you could probably expect some resistance but if the warrant was warranted than we would make our member surrender," he said. "If it... was an illegal search and seizure, than most likely expect some resistance because it's not right.
"We want what's right, we'll stand up for what's right and what's honest."
Follow Mack Lamoureux on Twitter.