Toronto has a long history of white nationalists using "free speech" as a cover for extremism.
Over the past several years, Toronto has seen a rise in far right organizing—most notably the Soldiers of Odin, PEGIDA, and the Proud Boys. Likewise, university and college campuses have also been experiencing a rise in right-wing politics.
Students in Support of Free Speech (founded at the University of Toronto) has been in the media due to their committed support of Jordan Peterson, professor, high-rolling Patreon fundraiser, and opponent of protections for trans people. This support, and their regular work with the Proud Boys, Rebel Media, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, et al., has cast this burgeoning student group as the training ground for the future far right in the eyes of many.
However, SSFS in the past week has been consumed with responding to a controversy surrounding notable neo-Nazi, Paul Fromm.
Fresh off of a spate of media attention from the white nationalist memorial for lawyer Barbara Kulazska at the Richview Library in Toronto, Fromm spoke at a SSFS rally for the so-called “Halifax Five” (five disgraced military members who, as members of the Proud Boys, decided to disrupt an Indigenous ceremony in Halifax on Canada Day). SSFS members now claim that Fromm should never have been allowed to speak at their event (or, at least use their megaphone), while supporters of Fromm’s attack them online over their false claims of misrepresentation (see these archived statements one and two and their current apology video for SSFS’ changing perspective).
Like SSFS, Fromm is a known advocate for “free speech” having used his organization, the Canadian Association for Free Speech to defend Holocaust deniers and hate-mongers of all sorts. The Southern Poverty Law Centre describes an earlier Fromm appearance on Fox News thusly:
Fromm, who almost always cloaks his extremist beliefs in free speech arguments, was identified by the network simply as a “free speech activist,” despite openly embracing the ideology of white nationalism.
“Free speech” to the far right is—often—a veil held to obscure broader aims. In Fromm’s case, this obscures his white supremacy, but should we take SSFS at their word that nothing lies behind the curtain of their free speech argument? To some, that remains to be seen.
But what if we had a cautionary example for giving campus groups such as this the benefit of the doubt? What if there was an earlier example which might provide some guidance here? Well, we don’t have to look far.
The Edmund Burke Society—a lesson in far right campus organizing
At the University of Toronto in 1967, as the anti-war and student power movements grew on campus, a reactionary counterweight arose at St. Michael’s College. This group, founded by a young Paul Fromm, Don Andrews, and other future notables of groups such as the Western Guard and the Heritage Front, would serve as the training ground for the then-future far right—the Edmund Burke Society.
One of the first mentions of the EBS, in the pages of the campus paper of record, The Varsity, comes from a charming letter published on September 25, 1967 by Paul Fromm, where he lambastes left-wing students and their support of international causes.
Interestingly enough, Fromm and his colleagues would be engaged in outright support of the Apartheid regime in South Africa through the EBS and the Canadian Friends of Rhodesia (another Fromm-fronted group).
At the time, their views on Vietnam were an early flashpoint with other students on campus. However, the Edmund Burke Society and Fromm were not satisfied with simply opposing draft dodging. Just days after the letter, on September 29, Fromm was part of a campus debate in which he argued against the rise of communism, advocated for unrestricted bombing, and for the use of nuclear weapons in Vietnam. The reaction from fellow debaters seems to be disgust, with even Liberal Club member Graeme Mount referring to the EBS as “advocates of genocide.”
The EBS did not take too kindly to their repeated ribbings in the paper, though, as they denied all such labels and portrayed themselves as average conservatives attacked by a politically motivated paper.
In a later article entitled “Vietnik tricks and Violence,” Fromm defended the position of EBS in counter-protesting in favour of the Vietnam War, which reached into two of his later positions:
Just as SSFS defends the Proud Boys and other nascent fascist movements today, Fromm and friends in 1967 defended “American Nazis,” questioned their opponents on the grounds of “free speech,” and engaged in deep anti-communist activism. Interestingly, in an attempt to distance themselves from Fromm this year, SSFS also relied on these same pillars of deflection in their recent statements regarding Fromm, complaining about the actions of others and labelling their opponents as Maoists (who are the same as Nazis, don’t you know). From the SSFS’ now deleted second statement on Fromm, we can draw certain parallels:
While SSFS cries hypocrisy and dishonesty, neither appears to be true. In turn, Fromm in 1967 used many if not all of the same arguments they do to forward their (very similar) broad cause of “free speech.” Citing off-hand “facts” about Mao do little to distract from their convoluted logic applied here to obscure the fact that Fromm was allowed to speak and their membership was receptive. And why would they not be? After all, Fromm himself has always professed views similar to the Proud Boys, SSFS’ chosen allies and object of defence.
Paul Fromm: 1967’s Proud Boy?
The EBS is noted in the January 22, 1968 edition of The Varsity for rallying against the United Nations for its internationalist, “corrupt and anti-Western” role. A familiar perspective to those among the “Western Chauvinist” Proud Boys that SFSS defends. Fromm and company’s arguments, then, are the starting point which lead to where Fromm is now.
By the same token, the EBS is said to have held similar beliefs to the Proud Boys. In a December 8, 1967 letter, Fromm states that the EBS’ politics (which he claimed his opponents rejected) as a “support for law and order, for freedom of the individual, and for a limited government,” which seem to be slightly more direct ways of saying they would “glorify the entrepreneur, cherish free speech, and love our guns”—all mandatory Proud Boy tenets of belief. With such supposedly libertarian veneers, it can be no surprise that Fromm would reach out to support the Halifax Proud Boys.
Yet, as noted earlier, both the SSFS and Proud Boys Canada, in recent days, have condemned Fromm. However SSFS—in planning their recent vigil for the Proud Boys—must have surely known of the above and another commonality between the Proud Boys and Fromm: anti-Indigenous sentiments. With the Proud Boys, one can look to Gavin McInnes’s statements defending the scalping of Mi’kmaq people under Cornwallis and the Halifax counter-protest itself for indication. Interestingly, for comparison, we might note an excerpt from Canadian Security Intelligence Review Committee’s December, 9 1994 Report on The Heritage Front Affair, which reflects on Fromm’s view on Indigenous folks:
On September 24, 1991, Heritage Front members attended the Toronto Mayor’s Committee on Community and Race Relations. At the meeting, Paul Fromm yelled out “scalp them” at an anti-racist leader [Rodney Bobiwash of the Native Canadian Centre], when the latter said that halls should not be rented to racists. Fromm and 15 supporters were ejected.
Just as Fromm would attack Bobiwash in 1991 with this anti-Indigenous reference, McInnes would defend the outright practice. And yet, in spite of these numerous similarities, the Proud Boys and SSFS have disavowed Fromm. But…
Is disavowal enough?
To some, such disavowal should close the case on whether there is some relationship between these groups, but even these denials are suspect on two accounts beyond the many ideological similarities between Fromm’s groups and our more modern subjects.
First, Fromm himself has used such statements in the past to distance himself from critique. According to Nizkor Project, Fromm initially denied knowing of the white supremacist leanings of the Heritage Front. While this would later turn back towards defending the “free speech” of such groups, it should be noted that such tactics have been so employed to obscure connections to the far right.
Second, SSFS members seemed to have a different reaction to Fromm than their leadership does now (now that they understand the damage being associated with Nazis is to their public face). From the SFSS Facebook discussion on the Halifax Five event, Fromm notes:
So, we can clearly see that Fromm embraces their cause and indeed some of their members. He even uses the red ensign, as the Proud Boys and SSFS did, to signal his traditional nationalist intentions. Disavowals here ring hollow.
As noted in another great profile of Fromm in 2000 by NOW Magazine’s Enzo DiMatteo, “Paul Fromm … has made a career of being innocuous,” and of taking up the language of the civil libertarian.
While what I have presented here may not conclusively deem that the Students in Support of Free Speech themselves are nascent fascists, we must caution ourselves with those seemingly innocuous “free speech” activists. Both the Edmund Burke Society and Students in Support of Free Speech have similar ideological bearings and it is clear—whether the SSFS leadership is willing to admit it or not—their members are being exposed to fascist ideals. On the same token, SSFS defends the actions of the Proud Boys in Halifax—endorsing the same “Western Chauvinism” that was a key platform for EBS and a young Paul Fromm.
The University of Toronto has been the breeding ground of the far right before. The shadow cast by the derided Edmund Burke Society is long—forging decades worth of connections among future Canadian white nationalists without which there could have been no Aryan Guard, no Heritage Front. Today, intentionally or not, Students in Support of Free Speech are making space for such voices again—new and old—while defending outright racism. How long will we have to wait for one of their number to take things from a veneer of “free speech” to open fascism? Only time will tell. But, for those who wish to avoid that path perhaps they need to take a long, hard look in the mirror that is Paul Fromm.
O. Berkman, a pseudonym, is a Toronto-based researcher on the turbulent history of the 1960s in Southern Ontario and how this connects to broader historical trends.