by Amanda Connolly in Ottawa
Among the Liberal campaign promises that are facing closer scrutiny now that the party is forming a government, the party’s vow to “prioritize community outreach and counter-radicalization, by creating the Office of the Community Outreach and Counter-Radicalization Coordinator,” is raising questions among experts who want to know how the position would work on the ground.
The challenges, say security and radicalization experts, will lie in defining exactly how the office would work with regional actors: namely, whether it will act as a bridge or a driver.
“Is this going to be driven top-down by government or will it be government supporting more grassroots initiatives?” asked Michael Zekulin, a terrorism researcher at the University of Calgary. “I think most people would agree that it cannot be government-driven because part of the narrative is that government is part of the problem.”
During committee hearings on C-51, the Conservatives’ controversial anti-terrorism legislation, the critique given most often by terrorism researchers was that the bill ignored the need to nip radicalization in the bud, before individuals become inspired to commit violence.
Yet nothing in the legislation provided any kind of a plan for doing that.
The RCMP also promised to launch their own $3.1.-million program — initially called the Countering Violent Extremism Program but later changed to the Terrorism Prevention Program — which then-Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney admitted had no designated timeline and relies on “leveraging existing resources the RCMP already has in place, including frontline police officers, Integrated National Security Enforcement Team members and outreach coordinators.”
Coordinating various nationwide initiatives
At this point, there are few details available about what the Liberals would plan to do differently or how a national coordinator would work with existing programs already being implemented by regional bodies.
There are various initiatives being launched by police agencies and local governments across Canada, said Lorne Dawson, co-director of the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society.
In September, the City of Montreal was the only Canadian city out of 23 from across the globe that signed on to the Strong Cities Network, a forum for leaders to share best practices and community-based approaches for tackling violent extremism, while the Edmonton and Ottawa police departments are rumoured to be planning their own counter-extremism initiatives.
The York Regional Police are also in the process of hiring a “Counter Violent Extremism Subject Matter Expert” and just two months ago the Calgary Police Service launched ReDirect, which aims to prevent youth from becoming radicalized after several high-profile instances of local youth leaving the country to join ISIS.
One of those young men was Damian Clairmont, who died in January 2014 after going to Syria to fight with ISIS.
His mother, Christianne Boudreau, became an active proponent for stronger initiatives to prevent youth from becoming radicalized and in addition to launching her own family counselling network, Hayat Canada, also helped launch the Extreme Dialogue video campaign earlier this year.
Boudreau says it’s essential to have someone who can coordinate efforts nationally and help integrate global best practices into domestic, community-based approaches. But she cautions that any coordinator will face the added challenge of having to earn the trust of organizations who may be skeptical of working with the government.
“I think the biggest difficulty is the diversity of the various organizations and helping them connect — there’s inter-faith, there’s the authorities and everybody else involved, and right now [there’s] the trust factor with the authorities, with the government,” she said, noting that any national coordinator should also be prepared to work with international partners as well as domestic ones to learn and adapt best practices.
“It’s integral to help bring the groups together to help cross those barriers, to help foster the diversity that’s there and help everybody get along.”
Deciding focus of the office
One of the other challenges will be defining exactly what the program would focus on: would it dedicate the bulk of its resources towards the hot topic of Islamist-inspired extremism or spread resources more evenly across the spectrum to include domestic right-wing and left-wing extremism as well.
“The radicalization of different groups all have different answers and solutions — they’re not the same,” said Kyle Matthews, senior deputy director of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies at Concordia University, who also runs the #No2DigitalExtremism project. “A counter-radicalization person would have to go through the numbers and point out what is the real issue the government must give priority to.”
Zekulin agreed, saying each community will have specific challenges and approaches for dealing with violent extremism that will need to be taken into account by any national coordinator.
Above all, he stressed the role won’t be a solution for the problem but rather could act as an amplifier and bridge for the initiatives communities are already launching on their own.
“Dealing with this challenge is going to require the efforts of multiple stakeholders at multiple levels,” he said. “This probably has to be more grassroots than government driven.”
Published in partnership with iPolitics.ca.