A deputy prime minister verbally attacked for the sake of social media views. A self-proclaimed monarch known as the “Queen of Canada” rapidly gaining followers. A major city and international border shut down by angry truckers during the 2022 Freedom Convoy protests.
Once the headline news of other countries far from this mild and gentle nation, it seems extremism in politics has finally taken root in Canada. But what exactly is extremism and why is it on the rise?
Extremism can be defined as “holding extreme political or religious views,” and UCalgary’s Dr. Jean-Christophe Boucher, PhD, says human history is filled with examples of fanatical zeal, including nation-changing outbursts like the French Revolution.
“Extremism has always been part of our political environment, but this isn’t a good argument to diminish or feel reassured about what’s going on today,” says Boucher, associate professor at the School of Public Policy and in the Department of Political Science.
“Right now, a lot of extremism literature comes from the U.S., and in Canada, we used to think that we were inoculated from this craziness.”
Expressive views come in varying forms
Specifically in the U.S., Boucher says the current political polarization we’re witnessing is a shift from political conversations as a civil debate over policies and ideas, to political views becoming part of people’s identities.
“This shift, from a political debate as part of a democratic process to one structured around political affiliation as an identity marker, explains why extremism, violence and incivil discourse are on the rise. More and more Canadians feel that, in some respects, their association to a party forms their identity.”
In this respect, partisanship creates in-group or out-group dynamics. A person’s group, or those with a similar political view, are seen as good, aligned, and trustworthy, while everyone outside is considered evil.
“When you have this in-and-out group perspective, extremism starts to unravel democratic discourses and debates around good government that take the form of a zero-sum game,” says Boucher. “Toxicity and public discourse start to rise. This is when the narrative changes from debating policy choices to ‘How can I demonize the other side and win.’”
When this happens, people start to dehumanize others and behave in ways that don’t associate to civic norms, he says.
“With the Deputy Prime Minister Freeland situation in Grand Prairie, instead of a debate on policy choices, toxicity and disengaged debates have increased. People don’t want to argue with toxic people, and fringes on both sides don’t talk to each other because the conversations don’t go anywhere. There is a rise of intolerance in people’s political views, which will damage our democratic cohesion as a society.”
Extremism isn’t new, but it’s rising thanks to social media
In Canada, extremism isn’t new, but it should be taken seriously. While there have always been divisions around settlers and First Nations, Inuit and Métis in Canada, or around linguistic communities, political views are now becoming a bigger part of a person’s identity — similar to what we may see in other countries around the world.
“People are now unwilling to have interactions or conversations with people from other parties or political views,” says Boucher.
Another reason that extremism is rising is because of social media and how deeply it’s integrated into our lives, he says.
“Our information space has changed because of the digital revolution. How we debate and share things in society is changing so fast that we don’t have the regulations and laws in place to deal with online extremism.
"At the societal level, we don’t have the norms to underpin these online environments. It contributes to rising extremism as misinformation, intolerance, and toxicity starts to spread.
“It used to be difficult to find like-minded people with extreme views. Now, social media creates visibility and brings people together easily — you can easily find your own people and show your identity with one click. It allows you to create networks, from the local, to the national and international levels.”
He says a great example of this is the Freedom Convoy which grew out of Canada and created pockets of movement all over the world.
“Things that we would typically only see in the U.S. and Europe are spilling into Canada because of social media,” says Boucher.
What’s the solution to extremism?
Right now, democracies around the world are trying to adjudicate the need for free space while balancing the rise of intolerance, hate speech and disinformation — and Boucher says there is no easy answer to keeping extremism at bay.
“We’re trying to find a silver bullet to make this problem go away, but we will need a lot of different things,” he explains.
“For example, we need laws to regulate online conversation — both for content creators and platforms. In addition, as a society, we need to grow the norms and values that will help us develop rules of online behaviour that we find collectively acceptable.
“A lot of new technologies, such as TikTok, are changing our environment very fast, and we haven’t found a way to determine what is and isn’t acceptable.”
Boucher says we usually have standards in society to regulate what toxic or acceptable behaviour is, but we currently don’t have this on social media — and unfortunately, it will take years to form.
“A lot of our younger generations aren’t politically literate and end up in fringe groups. People must be able to debate things without falling into identity politics. We need to find a way to organize this conversation.”
Boucher feels that better civic education may be part of the answer.
“We have emphasized STEM, data literacy and all sorts of other things in our education system, but less people are becoming involved in civic and social studies,” he says.
“We need people who are well-rounded, and we must educate our citizens. How we conduct ourselves online and in political debates are crucial skills for a healthy democracy. We can’t erode these things without severe consequences.”
Boucher feels that universities are a great place to start this education.
“As a university, we need to put this civic education in place. We need to continue to push for respectful debate and have our professors talk to the media. It’s a very important part of what universities can do.
“The more we share knowledge, the more we can get in on the debate and counter extremism.”