Our home and hate-stained land
U.S. officials recognized a former Winnipeg soldier as a public-safety threat and acted quickly; why are others like him allowed to thrive on this side of the border?
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 23/01/2020 (1158 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
It’s one thing to say good journalism protects communities, but quite another to see it in action. Sometimes, it takes a shape that even the journalist could not have expected. Sometimes, it sheds light on dark corners that too long have gone unnoticed, exposing what dangers lurk in those shadows.
Over the last week, the truth of that shook Winnipeg all over again when the FBI arrested six members of a far-right terrorist militia called The Base. The accused include Patrik Mathews, a Canadian Forces reservist who fled south after a Free Press investigation by journalist Ryan Thorpe uncovered his identity.
Homegrown hate: Coverage of a neo-Nazi recruiter in Winnipeg
Read Ryan Thorpe's story on infiltrating a neo-Nazi paramilitary group, and the Free Press' follow-up coverage.
Now, Mathews and the others are charged with a variety of U.S. federal offences. Court documents filed in the case, outlining the evidence against Mathews and others, are chilling — and in ways that demand our ongoing attention.
According to those documents, Mathews spoke of wanting to start a civil war. He told the other members of the hate group that he “only exists for the white revolution.” He said he wished that he’d booby-trapped the weapons cache in his Beausejour home, so that RCMP would have been blown up when they raided it last summer.
And he urged bloodshed, including the murder of two innocent people who engaged in anti-fascist advocacy. He called for a mass attack at a gun rights rally in Virginia that was brimming with white supremacist militia groups, apparently in hopes of inciting even wider violence and triggering a full-blown race war.
Throughout this, he also spewed racist and anti-Semitic hate, recorded a video of himself in a gas mask calling for other white supremacists to “derail some f—–g trains, kill some people and poison some water supplies.” Oh, and also he wanted to see my Free Press colleague murdered for exposing him.
Thankfully, none of that happened. Instead, the Free Press investigation triggered a series of events that led to Mathews fleeing into the arms of FBI agents. Now, he is in custody in Maryland and facing federal charges. The judge who denied his request for bail called him a “very dangerous person.”
This latest chapter puts into stark perspective how remarkable Thorpe’s work on this story was, and how necessary that work is to properly combat the spread of white supremacist terrorism.
To put it another way: had Thorpe simply written a story about the appearance of neo-Nazi recruitment posters in Winnipeg, thus amplifying the message without any personal cost to the perpetrators, it’s quite likely Mathews would still be in Manitoba, still recruiting, still plotting to shed blood for the sake of “white revolution.”
If that sends a chill through your spine, well, it should. Because what the Mathews case illuminates is how little we know about the white supremacist movements that are boiling under society’s surface; so as news of the arrests of Mathews and other members of The Base settles, it leaves lingering questions.
It’s clear from court documents the FBI has been closely monitoring The Base for some time. Investigators had infiltrated their communication networks, at least one of their apartments was under video surveillance, and one undercover agent had become close enough with the group to be privy to their plans.
Yet in Canada, the RCMP seemed to be caught off guard by the original Free Press revelations about Mathews. Within hours of it being published, they raided his home and seized firearms, yet he was still able to escape to the United States days later, slipping under the radar until he landed on FBI surveillance.
With all this in mind, it is well beyond time for the public to get a better understanding of what the RCMP and other relevant agencies are doing to monitor white supremacist terrorism. I don’t expect the RCMP to spill details of open investigations, but it remains unclear whether sufficient resources are being directed to this threat.
Greenbelt, Md. — As Patrik Mathews was led into U.S. federal court in Greenbelt, Md., Wednesday morning, his head was on a swivel. He seemed to scan the faces — lawyers, journalists, law enforcement — that lined the dark wooden benches in the courtroom.
And then he saw me.
His eyes narrowed to slits; his face scrunched up, transformed into an angry grimace. He glared — hard.
We looked at one another for what felt like a long time, but was likely only a few seconds, before I dropped my eyes to the notebook in my lap and scribbled away. When I looked up, he was seated in his chair, facing the front of the court.
On that note, what of the military? Mathews served as a Canadian Forces reservist, where he received training in weapons and explosives that he allegedly hoped to use to murder civilians. This is a well-trodden path: a 2018 military intelligence report identified 16 extremist hate-group members in the Forces.
Given the nature of its work, as well as the unique capabilities and responsibilities of its command, the military must ensure that it is not a training ground for terrorists. Even before the Mathews news broke last year, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan was being taken to task over the issue; the response then was unsatisfactory.
Now, with the extent of the evidence against Mathews laid bare, it is time to ask again. We need to hear more about what the Forces are doing, and what they plan to do, to keep white supremacists and terrorists out of the military, to ensure that the purveyors of hate are not getting a paid education in violent means.
Here’s one more question: surely, someone in Mathews’ life had to have had an inkling that he was veering into toxic ideology; given the intensity of his hatred, as revealed through court documents and the Free Press investigation, it’s hard to believe it didn’t seep out into his interactions. Nobody is that good an actor.
Meanwhile, all signs indicate neo-Nazi groups such as The Base are growing in size, confidence and ambition. Academics, journalists and anti-fascist organizers who study them have been sounding the alarm for years, as they have watched the ideology of hate surge both online and in public.
Above all, the one thing to remember is that this hatred is not just online or at rallies. Those who espouse it live among us, walk among us, are linked to our friends and family.
Above all, the one thing to remember is that this hatred is not just online or at rallies. Those who espouse it live among us, walk among us, are linked to our friends and family. They find safety to organize in our communities — often discovering that their embrace of hate carries little social or personal cost.
So what is being done to give everyday citizens the tools to protect themselves from would-be terrorists in their communities and take away those safe havens? What is being done to promote de-radicalization? Right now, the majority of that work is being done by grassroots advocates — or reporters — at real risk to themselves.
This story isn’t over, but it could have gone in a different, horrifying direction. Mathews and his associates were sloppy. Their bravado made them incautious, and that got them arrested. There are others out there who have the same objectives, but who will not make the same mistakes.
What Canadians deserve to know now is what we can do — and what is being done — to keep us safe.
Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.