HALIFAX — Until this week, few Canadians had heard of the Proud Boys. That changed on Canada Day, when five young men in matching black polo shirts disrupted an Indigenous ceremony in Halifax.
That brief, 10-minute confrontation at a statue of Edward Cornwallis — the British general who founded the city and issued a bounty on the scalps of the Mi’kmaq people — has put the military career of each man in doubt. The incident has shone a spotlight on a retrograde group that sprung up last year amid the rise of U.S. President Donald Trump and the many in-your-face, far-right groups that support him.
Will Sommer, a journalist in Washington, D.C., who has followed the small movement, said the group was founded in the U.S. by Gavin McInnes, a Canadian who helped establish Vice Media and is now an outspoken political pundit with an internet talk show and regular stints on Fox News and Canada’s Rebel Media website. (Vice severed ties with McInnes in 2008.)
McInnes has been eager to speak to reporters about the Canada Day incident, saying he plans to travel to Halifax to present military officials with an online petition that describes what happened as a witch hunt.
CBC’s Power and Politics invited McInnes to its show Wednesday and has since received considerable backlash. The show apologized Thursday for the controversy, with reporter and occasional host Hannah Thibedeau saying viewers were not informed about anti-Semitic sentiments McInnes has expressed in the past.
“We could have also challenged him more on his controversial views,” Thibedeau said on the program. “And although we heard from an academic immediately following the interview, to get an opposing perspective on the group, we also could have followed up that interview with an Indigenous voice.”
CBC spokesman Chuck Thompson echoed that sentiment, saying the network “erred in not providing details of Mr. McInnes’ published anti-Jewish sentiments.”
Earlier this year, McInnes sparked outrage with a video on the Rebel website entitled 10 Things I Hate About Jews. The title was later changed to 10 Things I Hate About Israel.
Sommer — a journalist with The Hill, who also produces an online newsletter about conservative media — said McInnes has made a second career as a “right-wing provocateur” and “prankster.”
“(The Proud Boys) are definitely worth keeping an eye on,” he said. “They tell themselves it’s like the Elks Lodge or the Knights of Columbus, but there’s this political element, and the prankishness has allowed them to say they’re just kidding around. … There is a violent aspect to it, though they say it’s all in self-defence.”
Sommer said the group, which probably includes no more than 1,000 members in the U.S., is a tamer version of the hard-core, racist and anti-Semitic alt-right groups that have sprung up in the shadow of Trump’s presidency.
The Proud Boys, Sommer said, are “alt-lite.”
“They are able to have events all over the country and they can pull about 20 or 30 people in random cities,” he said. “It’s not a huge organization … (But) as we saw in Canada, they’re willing to go places and disrupt things.”
The group’s public Facebook page has about 10,000 followers.
However, becoming a Proud Boy involves more than just signing up online. As part of the group’s odd initiation ceremony, prospective members declare, “I am a Western chauvinist who refuses to apologize for creating the modern world.” Existing members then pummel the recruit as they try recite the names of five breakfast cereals.
It’s all in good fun, said McInnes, who is based in New York. The frat-like rite was adopted from a rough game he learned while attending high school in the Ottawa suburb of Kanata, he said in an interview Thursday.
McInnes insists the Proud Boys are just a bunch of lads who like to share a brew or two in a club — away from their wives.
With the rise of feminism in the 1980s, men have stopped getting together to form bonds at social clubs, McInnes said.
“So we started bringing it back, and there was a huge demand for it,” he said, insisting the group does not tolerate racism or homophobia. “Almost overnight, there were chapters all over the world.”
The group now has about 3,000 members, he said.
Initiation rites accorded with higher status include getting a tattoo, abstaining from masturbation for a month and “getting into a major fight for the cause.”
McInnes said he isn’t advocating violence. He said the group has been forced to take steps to protect their members at rallies where brawls with anti-fascist protesters have become common.
“We get attacked every day just for wearing (Make America Great Again) hats,” he said, referring to Trump’s campaign slogan.
As for the masturbation clause, McInnes said it started off a joke.