As some students become radicalized, these Quebec teachers are pushing back
Noémie Verhoef was taken aback when she read the paper her student handed in.
Jews had provoked the Germans into wanting to exterminate them because of their "irrational" religious faith, he wrote.
In the Philosophy 101 essay, the student went on to blame victims of massacres throughout history for their own persecution.
The situation is not a one-off.
Once or twice a semester, Verhoef — or one of her colleagues at CEGEP de Victoriaville, about 170 kilometres northeast of Montreal — comes face to face with the ideas of the far-right — budding or in full bloom — in their classrooms.
Immigrants and transgender people are common targets.
The far-right views these communities as "dangerous minorities that are going to subvert our culture, that they are too different from us, [and] that we can't be inclusive because they're going to change us," said Verhoef.
Facing the growing presence of the far-right in Quebec, Verhoef and fellow researchers at the Centre of Expertise and Training on Religious Fundamentalism, Political Ideologies and Radicalization (CEFIR), have launched a toolkit to help teachers understand how their students may become radicalized and how educators can respond.
CEGEP as frontline
The two years of junior college (CEGEP) after high school and before university is a pivotal time for Quebec teens entering adulthood, a period in which young people begin to find themselves, navigate complex ideas and try to understand the world they live in.
It is also a time when they tend to become more interested in politics, sometimes getting information from internet chat rooms as opposed to the classroom, said Verhoef.
According to Martin Geoffroy, who heads research on the far-right at CEFIR, the polarization of society and its politics are mirrored in the schools. "The classroom in a CEGEP is a microcosm of society," he said.
"Teachers are all too often unable to recognize the far-right discourse taking place in their classrooms before it's too late."
In a four-part series of French-language video capsules funded by Public Safety Canada, teachers are warned that failing to intervene can lead to normalization of the far-right in the classroom and can have consequences, especially on cultural and ethnic minorities.
Extreme thinking harms healthy learning environments, but teachers must proceed carefully when responding to a situation in which intolerance is expressed, the videos explain.
Not showing empathy and dismissing or ridiculing students will backfire, said Verhoef, from experience.
It's important to allow students to express themselves — but with clear boundaries, CEFIR recommends. It suggests allowing discussions in the classroom to remain constructive with clear rules and a warning scale to de-personalize any disciplinary measures that may be taken.
An open debate could potentially radicalize the student even more, and to someone with extreme right beliefs, the teacher may be perceived as a state-backed representative enforcing censorship or a "progressive agenda," according to the toolkit.
When challenged, conspiracy theorists often spout a plethora of unexpected, unprovable points and numbers that have the effect of sowing confusion, muddying the waters of a discussion and causing others to doubt their own information, the videos explain.
In such cases, it is best to avoid direct confrontation and invite the student to have a one-on-one discussion in private, said Verhoef.
However, deradicalizing is not something a teacher — or psychologist — can accomplish alone.
Comparing radicalization to alcoholism, Geoffroy said that to escape, the person must want to make a change.
"Throughout the years, I've helped some people get out of these groups, but because they contacted me, and they wanted to get out," he said.
But that does not mean giving up on the student still under the sway of the far-right.
"I think that it's important that people understand that humans make mistakes and they can change," said Verhoef. "Who they are evolves constantly, and it is our duty as citizens to not let our fellow citizens hate each other."
The Quebec Ministry of Education supports organizations like CEFIR as part of its plan to combat radicalization and social polarization, it said in a statement.
What does the far-right look like in Quebec?
A CEFIR report reveals a surge in incidents, 521 committed by over 45 different far-right groups between 2010 and 2020 — 113 of which involved violence. From 2010 to 2013 there were fewer than three violent incidents a year. By 2020, the annual rate had grown steadily to reach 35.
The far right in Quebec is on the rise and should not be dismissed as a marginal phenomenon, said Geoffroy.
However, the portrait of Quebec's far-right is distinct from that of English-speaking Canada.
"I think that the anglophone far-right from Canada is much more influenced by the United States, but the far-right in Quebec is a special ecosystem," said Geoffroy, highlighting the influence of far-right movements in France, such as Catholic integralists and royalists.
In a 2023 report shared with CBC, CEFIR details the psycho-social factors that contribute to radicalization, such as extreme religion, trauma, substance abuse, a need for social recognition and an inability to adapt to changes in the social environment.
The report concludes that Quebecers on the far-right generally seek authoritarian structure in their lives with simple, reassuring answers in a world that appears unstable. It also says critical thinking, empathy, social support and mainstream religion all protect against far-right radicalization.
"People on the far-right are not very empathetic, for instance … they're not very empathetic with people that go through Roxham Road," said Geoffroy.
"It shows a bit that far-right ideas are becoming more mainstream because we recently closed Roxham Road and everybody agrees now that Roxham Road should be closed," he said, adding that when the interviews for the study were conducted in 2019, the idea was mainly supported by groups like La Meute and Storm Alliance.