The rise in far-right extremism and the woman fighting for its downfall

What do you picture when you hear the word terrorist?

For Dr. Barbara Perry, the terrorists she deals with come in the form of white, often European Christians who hold ideologies based on xenophobic nationalism, racism, misogyny, homophobia, anti-Semitism and islamophobia.

These individuals can be categorized as far-right extremists.

“It is a white male movement for the most part,” said Perry, while describing the common member of these far-right hate groups, “The demographics are shifting in terms of gender. In terms of age, it’s a much older movement now.”

Perry is the director of the Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism and a professor in the faculty of Social Science and Humanities at Ontario Tech University.

She is an international expert in the field of hate studies.

Ryan Scrivens, Assistant Professor in the School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University, and former student turned colleague of Perry’s, said she is driven and passionate about her work, but what is unique about her is that she gives the underdog the time.

“She very kindly gave me opportunities that she didn’t have to—she really didn’t have to—she’s notorious for working on her own. I mean that’s how she got her tenure as a professor, a lot of her publications and research is just her,” he said.

Growing up on a farm in Picton, Ont. is where Perry said she grew her independence.

“I’d leave the house in the morning and head to the lake, or head to the woods, and might come home for lunch, might not—definitely would come home for dinner—and there was no worry about where I was. You know I was somewhere on the farm, and that’s all you needed to know,” Perry said.

Sporting a t-shirt with the letters PEC (Prince Edward County) she spoke of her childhood fondly and said it was a very different upbringing than kids have today.

“I spent a lot of time on my own being creative, and writing, and thinking, and reading, so I think that’s what really shaped me into an academic to be honest,” she said.

Perry earned her BA in Social Behaviour at Queens University and followed that with an MA in Sociology, before receiving her PhD in Sociology at Carleton University in Ottawa.

Her career in the realm of social justice began in the nineties fighting for gay rights in the United States.

“There was a gay rights initiative on the ballot in Maine, where I was teaching, and as we came up to the vote in November there was a dramatic increase in violence against the LGBTQ community,” Perry added, “That just really sparked my interest and took it from there.”

Perry said for her there is no such thing as a typical workday.

With the rise of far-right extremism in recent years, her days often consist of interviews with people, usually news outlets, scrambling for her take on current event issues and unfortunately, some of her busiest workdays come on the heels of other’s worst days.

“After Christchurch, after the mosque shootings here, after Minassian (the man accused of the fatal van attack that left ten dead in Toronto back in 2018), when we have those real significant events, I’ll spend a good couple of days probably doing interviews,” she said.

Millions of dollars in grants has helped fund her research, and through her research, Perry has helped spotlight these far-right extremists in order to find out how they operate, recruit, and spread.

She has informed policy and practice by working with law enforcement all across Canada to develop a multi-sectoral or multi-disciplinary approach to combatting violent extremists.

Scrivens, who co-authored the book Right-Wing Extremism in Canada with Perry, described this practice as a multistep solution to a multidimensional problem, meaning everyone from community groups, to law enforcement and government may hold a piece of the puzzle required to help solve these issues.

One thing that really worries Perry, which she recently received a grant from the Department of National Defence to look into further, is far-right extremism within the Canadian Armed Forces.

“Something we’re beginning to see is people who are former, or current military personnel, who are engaging with these far-right groups. You’ve got the training, and you’ve got the weapons, and you’ve got the xenophobia. You put the three together and it really is quite terrifying,” Perry said.

“I don’t know how I keep myself going. I’ve been asked that question a lot the last few months as it’s gotten darker and darker,” she said with a fleeting laugh.

She added that her work with communities and municipalities to develop anti-racism, or diversity and inclusion strategies, are the sorts of things that keep her going and make her feel like she has contributed in some way.

Scrivens started working with Perry as her research assistant back in 2011. He said he strives to be like Perry, particularly when it comes to her community involvement.

“I know they really value her there and I think that that’s essential. Again, that really speaks to her character because she doesn’t have to do any of that, but she really enjoys being on the front lines,” he said.

Perry said being visible at rallies, vigilant on the internet and social media, and projecting inclusive narratives in your own life, as well as holding local and provincial politicians accountable, are just some of the ways everyday people can help in the fight against far-right extremism.

Perry is currently working on multiple projects as she leads the way in the fight, but said nowadays, she finds herself trying to climb her way back to a time and place where a young girl could leave the house in the morning without a care in the world and safely return when it was time for dinner.

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