New Canadian Media
Tuesday, 27 June 2017 08:59

Embers of Sikh Extremism

Commentary by: Phil Gurski in Ottawa

Parliament Hill in Ottawa is one of those treasures found only in liberal democracies.  Anyone can show up and lobby, protest, shout his lungs out or carry a placard peacefully and silently, no matter what the cause.  It is also a great place to watch the fireworks on Canada Day as long as enjoying the sights and sounds with 50,000 strangers does not bother you.

Sometimes, the ‘Hill’ is the site of demonstrations by groups that are not entirely acceptable.  At times, even listed terrorist entities have marched back and forth: a good example was the 2009 mass turnout by Tamil Canadians over the civil war in Sri Lanka at which Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) flags were seen. The LTTE is a banned terrorist organisation in this country.

On June 11, approximately 200 Sikhs gathered on Parliament Hill to commemorate the anniversary of the 1984 attack by Indian forces on the Sikhs’ holiest site, the Golden Temple or Darbar Sahib.  Demonstrators chanted ‘Long live Khalistan’ and demanded that India allow a referendum on the creation of an independent Sikh state in the Punjab.

Khalistan is of course their word for this homeland and the 1984 siege led to the 1985 bombing of Air India flight 182 which killed 329 people off the coast of Ireland: the bomb was placed on the aircraft by Canadian Sikh extremists and was the single largest terrorist attack in history prior to 9/11.

It is important to distinguish the desire for a national homeland from the desire to obtain that homeland through violence or terrorism.

We don’t hear a lot about Sikh extremism these days, which could lead some to believe that it is no longer an issue.  It is fairly certain that Sikh extremist activity is at a nadir, the recent protest in Ottawa notwithstanding.  As I have written before, however, it would be a mistake to assume that the movement is dead.

India for one does not think it is. During an April visit to his native Punjab province, Canadian Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan was accused by a high-ranking Indian official of being a ‘Khalistani’.  That official, Amarinder Singh, said there were other ‘Khalistanis’  in the Trudeau cabinet and that he would refuse to meet with any of them.

This gets complicated as Minister Sajjan’s father was a senior official in the World Sikh Organisation the purpose of which was the pursuit of an independent Sikh state. It is not as if the Minister has not had enough problems of late, ranging from his exaggerated claim to have been the mastermind of a 2006 Canadian military operation in Afghanistan (codenamed "Medusa") to what he knew or didn’t know about the transfer of Afghan detainees to local authorities.

It is important to distinguish the desire for a national homeland from the desire to obtain that homeland through violence or terrorism.  I know of no link between the Minister and banned terrorist organisations and, as a Sikh, he has every right to favour independence for his people through peaceful means.

There may very well be vestiges of Sikh extremism in Canada: the long-awaited "Khalistan" never materialised and no doubt some are not willing to allow the political process to unfold gradually. Yet, we also have to take into consideration the nature of the current Indian government.  Whatever you think of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, you cannot deny he has ushered in a wave of xenophobic and hateful Hindu nationalism that has been responsible for some very violent acts in India. 

It would not surprise me if some of these extremists were a little oversensitive to any whiff of Sikh independence. 

We must be vigilant in Canada to the possibility that we harbour individuals willing to create a "Khalistan" at all costs.  But we must be equally vigilant in subjecting accusations in this direction to careful scrutiny.

Phil Gurski is a 30-year intelligence veteran and the author of the forthcoming The Lesser Jihads: Bringing Islamist extremism to the world. 

Published in Commentary

By Janice Dickson in Ottawa

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer introduced a handful of new policy ideas during the nine month long leadership race, but Tory strategists suggest they likely won’t be part of the Tories 2019 election platform.

Scheer has vowed to take away federal funding from universities that don’t defend free speech. He’s proposed displaying the flags of countries that export oil to Canada on gas pumps. Scheer, who sends his own children to a faith-based school, has proposed a tax break for parents who home-school their children or send them to independent schools. He also suggested in an interview with a community newspaper that he would axe CBC’s news division.

Conservative strategist and vice chair of Summa Strategies Tim Powers said he would be surprised if more than 20 per cent of Scheer’s ideas became a part of the Conservative party’s 2019 platform.

Powers said Scheer’s proposal to de-fund universities that don’t protect free speech could be an election promise — because that idea has appealed to more than just Conservatives — but he called the flags on gas pumps idea “gimmicky.”

Powers said he thinks that Scheer’s tax credit for home-schooled families and for families who send their children to faith-based schools likely would present problems for him because his opponents will say he’s beholden to certain faith groups.

Keith Beardsley, a longtime Conservative strategist and former deputy chief of staff to Stephen Harper, said Scheer’s policies are easy to implement, but … “Stickers on gas pumps? I doubt many motorists will give a damn. Raise the prices and you have a problem.”

Beardsley said a tax credit for homeschooling or faith-based schools could be opening up a can of worms. “Which faiths? How much will it cost the government when Scheer promises to balance the books?”

Beardsley said that while attacking the CBC is popular among Conservatives and makes for good rhetoric, it’s not practical.

“[Scheer] said he wasn’t going to present anything in 2017 that he wouldn’t run on in 2019,” said Nancy Bishay, a spokesperson for Scheer.

“There are many interesting proposals he put forward and he’ll work together with the caucus, and also through the grassroots conservative policy process, to put together a platform to present to Canadians in 2019,” said Bishay.

Scheer’s ideas will have to be taken under consideration at the Conservative party’s policy conference in Halifax next year. But since he has championed a few very specific policies, delegates likely will support his wishes, said Susan Elliott, a Conservative strategist and partner at Strategy Portal.

But Elliott, who favoured Michael Chong for the leadership, suggested that the Conservative party is still going to have a hard time appealing to millennials in the 2019 election — by which time, she said, they will have become the largest single voting bloc, surpassing the baby boomers.

“I personally don’t think millennials will find those issues motivating. I just don’t think they are high on their top issues of concern,” said Elliott of Scheer’s ideas, specifically tax credits for home-school or faith-based schooling, and taking funding away from universities that don’t protect free speech.

“Millennials will want a credible climate change plan. A revenue-neutral carbon tax – also eliminating cumbersome regulations and directives – is the most cost-effective and conservative way to achieve that, but both party members and the new leader rejected that proposal.”

Powers said Scheer likely will “beg, borrow and steal” ideas from other candidates — but that Chong’s carbon pricing idea won’t be one of them.

Elliott said millennials don’t want to reopen debates on social issues like women’s reproductive rights and equal rights for LGBTQ citizens. In fact, said Elliott, “they don’t even understand why those are debates.”

She said political hostility towards people of diverse backgrounds and contrary points of view is a foreign concept to most millennials — but it was front and centre during the CPC leadership race “in a way that would not attract millennials to our party.”

“We must trust Andrew Scheer, now that he has been chosen to lead, to understand these truths about the current electorate. I believe he is a smart man,” she said.

Elliott said she thinks Scheer will show wisdom in adopting “millennial-friendly policies” and convincing the party and caucus to come along.

“What did Trudeau campaign on in his leadership race in 2013 that became Liberal policy?” said Powers. “It’s hard to recall because it’s not often policy that determines who wins leadership races.”


 By arrangement with iPolitics.ca 

Published in Politics

Commentary by Phil Gurski in Ottawa

Here we go again.  I have lost track of how many articles I have read over the last few days, all written in an accusatory tone that when you distill comes down to a very simple claim: British intelligence should have known that Salman Abedi was a terrorist and should have stopped him before he acted. Here is one such article.

The premise goes like this. MI5 was aware of Mr. Abedi’s extremist ideology. Concerned Muslims called authorities on several occasions to register their fears. The government did not act and hence 22 people, including many teen and tween girls, are dead.  Hence the government blew it and we have yet another example of ‘intelligence failure’. 

What is surprising, at least to me (even if I am biased) is that few if any of those casting the stone of blame have any background in intelligence or terrorism. Think about that for a moment. By analogy, political scientists should blame doctors for losing patients and soccer moms decry generals for losing wars. Make sense? I didn’t think so.

I have long complained that much of the commentary on what to do about terrorism is written or spoken by people with little firsthand or frontline experience on the subject, so I won’t repeat that here. What I will do, however, is attempt to provide an accurate picture of what really happens on the ground and put that into the context of the U.K. 

At any given time, intelligence and law enforcement agencies are engaged in a number of investigations (for our purposes we will limit the discussion to terrorism cases). These investigations are driven by what they know and a need to learn quickly what they don’t in order to assess risk. Not all cases are equally important and not every subject poses a serious threat, but you don’t know the answer to either problem until you carry out the investigation. 

There is no model or paradigm to tell you where to focus your efforts because of the high degree of variability and idiosyncrasy. 

So no, Manchester was not an ‘intelligence failure’.  It was a tragedy and a horrible act of terrorism.

On top of this, these organisations have finite resources and are unlikely to get substantially more soon (the heyday of the post 9/11 period where money and staff were limitless are long gone). In this light, you have to make decisions on the fly. Most of your decisions are good ones as evidenced by the fact that the vast majority of terrorist plots are thwarted (well above 95% I would guess).  Some are not; attacks are carried out and people die or are injured. 

So here is a simple way to explain Manchester. Mr. Abedi was ‘known’to MI5 (the U.K. equivalent of CSIS). That puts him among anywhere between 3,000 and 23,000 similar people (I have seen a wide range of estimates in open source). 

'Known’ does not necessarily mean ‘investigated’. MI5 has approximately 4,000 staff. That figure is a total number: not all 4,000 are investigators/intelligence officers (I would be surprised if the percentage of those running cases topped 1,000).  It takes anywhere from 20 - 40 people to investigate/follow one subject of interest.  Do the math. 

Even at the low end of radicalised people, you need between 60 and 120,000 officers to investigate them all. MI5, one of the best, if not the best, domestic security services in the world, is hard pressed to carry out 40 investigations at a given time.  Remember that terrorists do not always advertise their intent and that risk assessment models are tools, some better than others, not predictors. 

That, dear New Canadian Media readers. is the reality. Intelligence services like MI5 are going flat out 24/7, 365 days a year to keep U.K. citizens safe in a very challenging environment.  And as for those tips from the community – a great thing by the way – in 2016, the U.K. Channel program, a government counter-terrorism strategy, received almost 4,000 referrals.  Do the math there too please.  These numbers speak to a serious problem in U.K. society, one that goes way beyond MI5.

So, no, Manchester was not an ‘intelligence failure’.  It was a tragedy and a horrible act of terrorism. It was not MI5’s fault. It was not the U.K. government’s fault or the fault of British foreign policy.  It was not the community’s fault.  It was not Islam’s fault.  It was Mr.Abedi’s fault (plus those who aided, radicalised or inspired him).

We need to stop pointing fingers in the aftermath of attacks.  And the peanut gallery really needs to do one of two things: a) become more knowledgeable about terrorism and the challenge of preventing it, or b) shut the hell up.  The choice is yours.  Choose wisely. 

Phil Gurski worked for more than  three decades in Canadian intelligence, including 15 at Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), and is the author of the Threat from Within and Western Foreign Fighters (Rowan and Littlefield). He blogs at http://www.borealisthreatandrisk.com/blog/

 
Published in Commentary

Commentary by Phil Gurski in Ottawa

My late mother had a lot of great advice for me, much of which I followed and much of which has helped me immensely in life.  One maxim that she shared with me has been ignored however.  That would be the time she said it is a good idea never to engage in conversation on religion or politics, as both topics tend to lead to argument and acrimony.

Sorry mom, that one I have ignored in my career as an intelligence analyst and my post civil service activities as an author and public speaker.

Religion is obviously a sensitive issue and one that many people take seriously to heart.  As a matter of faith and not fact, it is hard to speak objectively and dispassionately about religion and easy to offend and insult the deeply-held feelings of believers and practitioners.  Furthermore, there are often significant differences within a given creed: how can we expect to gain agreement as holders of different religions when those who on the surface subscribe to the same fundamental convictions cannot?

The 'true' interpretation of Islam

One thing is certain: there is no monopoly on what is the 'true' interpretation of Islam.  There are several reasons for this.  First, it should surprise no one that a faith that is over 1,400 years old has spawned different views.  Second, as a global religion Islam has been and is practiced by billions of people from different cultures, histories, language families and experiences.  Furthermore, over a millennium and a half a few dominant sects have arisen: the majority Sunnis, the minority Shia, and a few others (Sufis, Ahmadis, Ibadis, etc.), each of which with their own traditions.

When it comes to the link between religion and terrorism no faith dominates the headlines like Islam.  Opinions on the role Islam plays in violent extremism range widely from 'Islam is a religion of peace' to 'Islam is inherently violent'.  As with most things in life the truth is somewhere between the extremes.

At the risk of gross oversimplification one particular brand of Islam has become very problematic.  That brand goes by several names – Salafi, Wahhabi (the latter is a subset of the former) – and one state in particular has been very active over the past few decades in exporting this ultraconservative, intolerant and hateful version around the world: Saudi Arabia.  Countries with long moderate traditions – Bosnia, India, West African nations, and Indonesia among others – have seen their citizens enveloped by a faith that is foreign to their lands.  There is a very real connection between Salafist Islam and violent extremism: no, one cannot be reduced to the other but there is a link.

Making a change

Thankfully, at least one nation is hitting back. The youth wing of the Indonesian group Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the largest Islamic mass movement on the planet, is seeking to re-interpret Muslim laws and practices from the Middle Ages to have them better conform to the 21st century.  This move should be welcomed and supported.

NU has a tough road ahead of it. The Saudis and their allies have a decades'-long head start and oodles of cash.  Nevertheless, this is indeed good news. 

There is a battle for the soul of Islam and we should all hope and pray that the majority moderates (i.e. normative Islam) comes out on top.  The further marginalisation of Salafi jihadism will suck some (but not all) of the oxygen from the terrorists and perhaps lead to better relations between Muslims and non-Muslims.  Besides, I think we can all agree that seeing less of the self-styled yet clownish preachers of hate like the UK's Anjem Choudhury on our screens and tablets will be a very nice change indeed.

I wish the Indonesian efforts every success.  The world certainly needs less hate.

Phil Gurski worked for more than  three decades in Canadian intelligence, including 15 at Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), and is the author of the Threat from Within and Western Foreign Fighters (Rowan and Littlefield). He blogs at http://www.borealisthreatandrisk.com/blog/ 

Published in Commentary

In partnership with Apathy is Boring, New Canadian Media will be posting first-person accounts from the 150 Years Young Project, a campaign that highlights the positive impact youth are making throughout their communities.

Stephane Mukunzi, PACE Magazine

“It all comes back to the idea of bringing communities together. The spoken word collectives, the singers, the artists, the painters… they are all present in Ottawa. We just don’t have centralized spaces where people can go to see Ottawa artists and critical thinkers. And that’s what we are trying to achieve with PACE”.

As a twenty-three year-old videographer and photographer, Stephane Mukunzi was fed up with receiving the same old rejection letter after submitting work. After realizing there was no community of young artists in Ottawa’s art scene, Stephane decided to create one himself. He gathered together a group of young creatives and they developed PACE Magazine, a place where young artists and critically minded people could express themselves. Inspired by London’s DIY magazine culture, Mukunzi and his team wanted to maintain the classic element of print media while combining it with innovation and online presence. PACE aims to dismantle the hierarchical nature of art and ensure the representation of indigenous artists, black artists, artists of colour, women artists, immigrant artists, and anyone who may have turned away by the fine arts community.

The PACE team decided to give voice to those who haven’t had a chance to speak to Ottawa, and within the first year of launching, it is clear they have found voices that Ottawa is eager to hear. The magazine has published two print editions, created a website for creative content, and held two successful launch events that featured local photography, spoken word, and art pieces. After this continued foray into Ottawa culture, Stephane fully rejects the idea of Ottawa as a boring city and believes that the many creative scenes, are there to fill cultural needs if you are ready to integrate yourself into them. Looking for that first step? Check out the latest issue of PACE at http://www.pacemagazine.ca/

Khoebe Magsaysay, Artist/Filmmaker/Animator

“It’s really important to embrace and accept your disappointments and failures because they make a strong foundation for your future endeavours.”

Filipino-born Khoebe Magsaysay immigrated to Ontario when she was ten years old. After high school, she enrolled in the Honours Bachelor of Animation program at Sheridan College, and began a time of huge personal growth. At university, she learned to persevere through challenging times, cultivate her talent, and refine her skills as a filmmaker, animator, and artist.

Khoebe landed an internship in New York City for the summer between years three and four of her undergrad at Gameloft, a notable gaming company. Following her internship, Khoebe produced a short film, and the process of making it was very stressful and complex. The film, titled “NIHIL”, is about Adina, a character who is the epitome of perfection. Through a series of events, she comes to question her reality. The success of the film won Khoebe the Via Rail Award for Best Canadian Student Film at the Ottawa International Animation Festival (OIAF), which is considered one of the most prestigious international animation film festivals in the world. Khoebe has continued to excel in her field, working in Toronto at ToonBox Entertainment.


The 150 Years Young Project: In celebration of Canada's 150th birthday, Apathy is Boring is teaming up with community organizers and city ambassadors to recognize positive contributions by youth. Follow the hashtag #150yy for more!

Published in Arts & Culture
Sunday, 12 March 2017 20:25

Creeping Hopelessness in Terror Fight

Commentary by Phil Gurski

We seem to be having a hard time figuring out what to call our struggle with terrorism. Leaving aside the belief, held by me and others, that framing counter terrorism in terms of war is a bad idea, it is clear that we keep changing our minds about what we are really involved in. 

After the clumsy misstep by U.S. President George W. Bush to label it a “Crusade”, we moved from the ‘war on terrorism’ to the ‘long war’ to the ‘global struggle against violent extremism (GSAVE) to ‘countering violent extremism’.  The latest iteration, which I read today in a New York Times op-ed, has me worried, as much for its pessimistic tone as its psychological effect on all of us.

According to Brian Castner, a formal explosives disposal specialist in the U.S. Army, some in that country’s military have begun to refer to the fight against terrorism as the ‘Forever War’.  This is not a good development.

War imagery

Let’s think about this phrase for a moment.  Forever.  That’s a long time.  And, what is worse, is that forever has no end.  In other words, we will be fighting terrorism and terrorists in a war with no termination.  No victory.  No truce.  No surrender.  No resolution.  Just war, interminable war.

In some ways we should have known this from the start.  Wars against abstract or common nouns don’t end because these nouns don’t reflect tangible entities.  Terrorism is no more a defined object than are drugs, poverty and cancer.  These ‘things’ are either tactics (terrorism), social ills (drugs, poverty) or natural phenomena (cancer).  They don’t have armies – yes Islamic State has a pseudo army with quasi soldiers – or uniforms or well-delineated structures.  You might as well declare war on mist. Yet we frame all kinds of social causes as war.

Don’t get me wrong, I do see a role for the military in counter terrorism measures, even if I disagree with the war metaphor.  But that role has to be constrained and carefully deployed.  Against IS or Boko Haram in northern Nigeria there is space for the army.  After all, however, this fight is for security intelligence and law enforcement agencies on the one hand and civil society on the other.  The former are tasked with taking care of those who wish to do us harm, while the latter look after addressing the conditions under which people turn to terrorism so that, in the end, fewer make that decision.

Accepting death and destruction

We must stop using war imagery when we talk about terrorism.  Aside from the reasons just cited, if those in the armed services are seeing this as the ‘forever war’ what does this mean?  If means that a hopelessness has entered into the minds of those we send to confront terrorists. 

Hopelessness not only breeds depression but it serves as an obstacle to other possibilities. If we convince ourselves that this war is eternal and that we will have to keep killing terrorists, iteration after iteration (Al Qaeda, IS in Iraq, IS, Al Shabaab, AQAP …) we consign ourselves to a non-solution.  I can think of little more futile than accepting death and destruction as the only way forward. There has to be a better way – I think a lot of people are involved in alternative approaches already – and we have to find it and implement it now.

The First World War was once called the ‘war to end all wars’.  We all know how that phrase ended up.  We need to get smart about terrorism before the Forever War becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

For our own sakes as well as those of future generations.


Phil Gurski worked for more than three decades in Canadian intelligence, including 15 at Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), and is the author of the Threat from Within and Western Foreign Fighters (Rowan and Littlefield).

Published in Commentary

Commentary by Phil Gurski

On rare occasions I pick up a copy of the National Enquirer or World Weekly News when I shop for groceries.  It's not that I am particularly a fan, but they are strategically located at the checkout counter with their flashy, outrageous headlines.  Some are truly unbelievable. I think my all-time favourite was 'Titanic survivor found on ice floe, vows never to eat fish again.'

These periodicals deal in what we now call fake news, albeit with a difference: the stories were never intended to be taken seriously and it is hard to believe that anyone could be influenced by their stark departure from the truth.

We are now living in a very different time where outright lies are taken seriously and they do affect the views and opinions of some people on very serious issues. The claim that crime is up (when it is down in many places) has led to calls for 'law and order' campaigns.  The belief that vaccinations lead to autism (this was debunked years ago and the scientist making the claim shown to be a fraud) has made some parents eschew life-saving vaccines, causing outbreaks of diseases we thought we had beaten, like measles.

In Canada, there is another onslaught of fake news that centres on our Muslim communities and supposed links to terrorism and clandestine efforts to take over our country.  Several Canadian cities have seen demonstrations that appear to have coincided with a motion by a Liberal backbencher to call on the government to look into and report on Islamophobia and other forms of hate.  Among the allegations made by some of those demonstrating in Canadian streets are:

  • M103 (the Liberal MP's motion) is an attack on free speech
  • there is a secret campaign to bring Sharia law to Canada
  • legitimate dissent is in danger in Canada

Reasonable limits

One of the great things about living in this country is that we are all free to express our views and opinions to a tremendous degree.  There are limits, though, and these limits are both legitimate and necessary.  If someone calls for violence, whether against a specific group or in general, that constitutes a crime (we'll leave aside the difficulties in prosecuting these offences).  Incitement to beat another person to a pulp should not be ignored and I am confident that all Canadians would agree with this.

No, M103 is not a blanket on free speech, it is a reasonable call for looking into a worrisome rise in hatred online and on certain radio shows.  Neither is it focussed solely on Islamophobia, although the highlighting of this particular form of potential hatred is not surprising in the wake of the awful massacre at a Quebec Islamic Centre a few weeks ago.  The State has both a right and a duty to investigate individuals and groups who, through their actions or their language, can reasonably be seen as urging others (or themselves) to use violence against anyone. To ignore these actions would constitute State negligence.

Persistent myths

While I support the fundamental right of the Islamophobes and the anti-immigrant lobby (thankfully small) in this country to voice their opinions, I also feel it necessary to address the 'alternative facts' they use to make their arguments. I will limit my comments to three here:

a) no, immigrants are not a drain on the system, commit more crimes than native-born and they do not steal 'Canadian' jobs.  Study after study after study has shown that immigrants are a net bonus to their adoptive societies and that most integrate within a generation. Those that veer towards criminal acts will be dealt with by the same authorities that deal with all others who engage in crime.

b) no, there is no 'creeping Sharia' campaign in Canada. The last time a government (the Ontario Liberals back in 2004) considered allowing limited Sharia for some family issues, the greatest opponents were Muslim women. In the end the McGuinty government changed its mind and also got rid of other forms of religious arbitration, noting that there  is 'one law for all Canadians'.

c) no, the Muslim Brotherhood is not taking over Canadian mosques and planning a stealth terrorism offensive.  Reports alluding to this are comical at best, bad analysis at worst.

Canada is proudly a land of immigrants and it is those immigrants who have built this country and will continue to do so. The vast majority are just average people looking to better their lives as well as those of their families. Yes, there are bad apples, and we will deal with those.

To conclude, here is a great quote I read in a recent edition of Foreign Affairs.  I could not have said things any better:

"Most people around the world now have the same aspirations as the Western middle classes: they want their children to get good educations, land good jobs, and live happy, productive lives as members of stable, peaceful communities."

Amen to that.


Phil Gurski worked for more than three decades in Canadian intelligence, including 15 at Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), and is the author of the Threat from Within and Western Foreign Fighters (Rowan and Littlefield).

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

Published in Commentary

By Jeremy J. Nuttall for TheTyee.ca

Residents of a small town in southern Quebec gathered Sunday to try and make sense of their hot spot status in Donald Trump’s new world order.

Hemmingford, Quebec is one of the few places in Canada on the front lines of an influx of refugees coming from the United States.

Representatives for police, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and a group that helps refugees in nearby Montreal sat in front of a packed rec centre gym at an event organized by a local United church.

The town is near an increasingly popular place for refugee-status seekers to enter Canada without using a designated crossing. Doing so is illegal under the Customs Act. But if they were to cross into Canada at a legal crossing, they would be sent back under the Safe Third Country Agreement, which requires refugees to seek status in their first safe country of entry.

Some who arrive at Hemmingford are reported to have wanted to live in the U.S. but were denied status there. Others intended to end up in Canada, but entered the U.S. first because there they could obtain a visa more easily.

In Hemmingford last month, a photo was taken of a Mountie smiling as he held up a young child making her way into Canada with her family. Around the same time, other photos showed handcuffed refugees detained by Canadian police. Some are calling Hemmingford, population 808, a terminus in a new underground railroad.

As their home becomes known as a back door into Canada, Hemmingford residents Sunday displayed a relaxed attitude toward the situation, and many were at the meeting hoping to find out how they can help.

Happy to have them

Hélène Gravel lives at the end of one of the first driveways refugees pass after they cross the rusty gate and ditch near a white marker signifying the international boundary between Canada and the U.S.

The crossing sits at Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle, about 10 kilometres from Hemmingford, where Roxham Road crosses into the U.S. near Champlain, N.Y.

There’s no Statue of Liberty here, not even a plaque, just trees and members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police sitting in their vehicles waiting to arrest those crossing for breaching the Customs Act.

Gravel said it’s nothing new to see people crossing — she’s watched it happen for 20 years — but never like this.

“There were only a few people every year, but now it’s a lot every day,” she said.

Recently the Canadian government told journalists about 2,500 people crossed into Canada via Quebec, Manitoba and B.C. illegally in 2016, and since the beginning of this year alone there have been about 430 in those regions combined.

Almost 300 of those were in Quebec. Quebec borders have seen a 230 per cent increase in “irregular” border crossings over last January.

It used to be mostly young, single men who would cross, Gravel said. If they happened to see her they would ask if they had arrived in Canada. Now, she said, it’s families she sees being picked up by police and driven past her property.

She reckons many of them are leaving the United States fearing the Donald Trump administration as the president targets immigrants and refugees as a place to lay the blame for the nation’s woes.

Last Tuesday, during a speech to congress, Trump invited relatives of people killed by undocumented immigrants as guests of the address and launched a website listing “victims of immigrant crime,” despite research showing immigrants commit crimes at lower rates than native-born citizens.

On Monday, Trump announced tweaks to his travel ban after it was rejected by a judge last month.

But despite such moves by Trump and his loyalists, Gravel isn’t afraid of living metres from where these refugees come into the country. She’s actually tired of journalists knocking on her door asking her if she’s scared of them.

It is a bit too busy now though, Gravel said, stressing she’s happy to have the refugees come to Canada. She’s already lost one neighbour who no longer comes to his vacation property because the idling police vehicles and crossing refugees have become too much of an intrusion.

“It’s just a quiet place, we are not used to so many people,” she said, explaining she hopes Canada doesn’t establish any permanent processing centre at the crossing. “I live there because it’s quiet.”

Outpost for world’s troubles

It is indeed quiet.

Driving into Hemmingford is like entering a village arranged by a devoted collector of Lilliput Lane housing figurines.

Tall — but not too tall — hardwood trees hug the gutters of the road, giving way to gently sloped grass fields and carefully manicured properties.

A public outdoor skating rink slowly succumbs to the unseasonably warm March temperatures on the cusp of town. Residents stop reluctantly at the town’s lone blinking stoplight at its busiest intersection.

This is rural Quebec; a place for cows, apple cider and comfortable fall fashions. It’s not supposed to be a place where frightened refugees trudge their children across snow in biting cold fleeing a country threatening to send them back to places filled with violence and poverty.

Now Hemmingford has become connected to the world’s troubles as millions of people from places like Somalia and Syria roam outside their countries looking for help.

At Sunday’s rec centre meeting, experts explained why people are coming to Canada, more specifically, why they are coming to this tiny nook of the world.

It’s a matter of geography, RCMP Const. Marcel Pelletier told the crowd at the Hemmingford rec centre. Pelletier said it’s an easy place to cross, but most people using it are bound for places like Toronto, which is obstructed by the Great Lakes.

So, refugees make their way to Roxham Road instead, he said.

More coming

There is concern more people could make the trip as the weather warms and how Canada would handle a major influx, and what it would do with the people arrested after crossing.

Canada does hold some refugees, even refugee children, in detention centres, a practice Amnesty International has asked Ottawa to end.

Back at the rec centre, about 150 people who live along the road and in the area were more concerned about helping the refugees than keeping them out of the country or locking them up.

One asks Pelletier if it’s legal for her to feed or shelter people who have crossed illegally. He replies that he’d rather she call the police first.

Others are there to help in a joint letter writing exercise to Canada’s Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen, asking him to rescind the U.S.’s designation as a safe third country.

That would mean refugees wouldn’t have to cross a ditch and rusty gate to enter Canada. They could ask for protection at a legal border crossing and not risk braving the elements to cross in places like Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle.

Among the audience on Sunday, knitting a scarf in the third row as she listens, is Jeanine Floyd, who immigrated to Canada herself from the United Kingdom years ago.

She remembers when crossing into the U.S. at the end of Roxham was child’s play for local kids.

“They would go down to the end of the road on their bicycles and they would dare each other to cross,” Floyd said. “This was the most exciting thing that would happen on Roxham, actually crossing the border to America.”

Now the border marker represents something other than fun and games as residents in the area worry about the suffering of those making the journey to the Canadian border.

They want to offer more than meaningless gestures to these people, Floyd says, suggesting that’s why people came together in Hemmingford Sunday.

“I think it’s just that pressure of wanting to fix it,” she says. Her tone goes dour. “We can’t fix it.” 

Republished with permission from TheTyee.ca. Jeremy J. Nuttall is The Tyee’s reader-funded Parliament Hill reporter in Ottawa. Find his previous stories here.

Published in Top Stories

Commentary by Fred Maroun in Ottawa

Kellie Leitch is one of the candidates seeking the leadership of Canada’s Conservative party, and she attracted much attention with her proposal for “screening immigrants, refugees, and visitors, for anti-Canadian values”. There are two parts to Leitch’s proposal.

First, there is the concept of Canadian values then there is the screening.

Leitch is simply advancing widely accepted principles. She lists six values, which belong in three categories:

·         Nice-sounding but unenforceable character traits: “helping others”, “hard work”, and “generosity”.

·         “Freedom and tolerance”, which she elaborates to mean “equality of men and women, freedom of religion, and equality of all under the law”. These values are already covered in further details in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which is part of our constitution.

·         “Equal opportunity”, less a moral value than a political belief because it affects the functioning of government rather than the actions of individuals.

Canadian values are not a Conservative or even a Liberal idea even though we owe our charter to former Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. The term “Canadian values” is not widely used, yet the values are widely accepted by Canadians and even enshrined in our constitution.

On this basis, Leitch’s proposal should not be controversial, but it has become a lightning rod because there is the suspicion that it targets Muslims.

Are Canadian Values Islamophobic?

If Canadian values are seen to be hostile to Islam, it is because they are, at least when it comes to Islam as practised today by the vast majority of Muslim-majority countries. Those countries have no democratic freedoms, lesser rights for women and some ethnic groups, limited freedom of religion, and limited legal rights for non-citizens.

Islam is often used as justification for terrorism and other forms of violence in many parts of the world.

It is natural to be concerned about whether Muslims who come to Canada will negatively affect our values in the long term by adopting some of the same practices used in their countries of origin. This fear exists among much of the population of the Western world, including Canada, yet few mainstream politicians dare raise it or, even less, propose solutions.

Charter principles

Although Leitch does not state it, it is clear that her proposal is a way of addressing the fear of Islam. Her refusal to make the connection may be an attempt to avoid being labelled anti-Muslim. Leitch insists that her proposal is not anti-Muslim, and she is correct. Leitch is addressing legitimate fears of Islam in a positive way, by promoting Canadian values, which are consistent with the values of many individual Muslims, and not in a negative way, which would be to single out Islam as U.S. President Donald Trump has done through his recent executive order.

Our charter contradicts some of the widely practised Muslim principles, but it also contradicts some Christian and Jewish principles. For example, some Christian and Jewish denominations do not support gender equality.

If our Charter, and by extension our Canadian values, were anti-Muslim then they would also have to be considered anti-Christian and anti-Jewish, which is not the case. The Canadian Charter explicitly protects freedom of religion, while it expects Canadians to abide by our Canadian values. This is a recognition that individuals can think for themselves and can believe in a faith without blindly applying each of its stated principles.

Highly Desirable Policy

In this light, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who is Pierre Trudeau’s son, should be even moral vocal than Leitch in promoting Canadian values, but instead, he is choosing to support a motion that condemns “Islamophobia”. Muslims and all other minorities must be protected against discrimination and violence, but politicians are hypocritical when they pretend that Islam is not a legitimate concern for many Canadians.

Canadian values should be a source of pride, not a source of partisan debate. If newcomers to Canada can be screened to protect our values, such a policy should be welcomed by everyone, including by Muslims who are here to escape the tyrannical regimes of their countries of origin.

Leitch’s proposal is still at a very early stage, and there are valid questions on how it would be implemented to avoid discrimination on the basis of religion. It is on such practical aspects that the debate should center. It may turn out that her proposal is not feasible, but it does not necessarily follow that this is a needless debate.

Fred Maroun is a Canadian of Arab origin. He lived in Lebanon until 1984, including during 10 years of civil war. He regularly blogs for the Jerusalem Post and The Times of Israel.

Published in Commentary
Saturday, 04 February 2017 13:56

Privileging Diversity in Canadian Newsrooms

Commentary by George Abraham in Ottawa

IN the summer of 2015, a roomful of Ottawa folks got together at the National Arts Centre, eager to gain insights into the question, “What Stories Swing Votes?” The next federal election – the one that eventually ended Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s decade in power – were just around the corner, and up on the stage at this Canadian Journalism Foundation event were some of Canada’s best political pundits – Susan Delacourt, Frank Graves, Adam Radwanski, David Herle and Tom Clark.

I don’t recall much of what was said, except one particular expression Radwanski used. It has stayed with me ever since. He spoke of a “subterranean campaign” that would be waged in immigrant communities across Canada – presumably in foreign languages and in a vernacular that would be very different from appeals to the rest of Canada. He was predicting a different playbook in select ridings – a playbook that Radwanski assumed would be beyond his understanding.

Looking back, I suspect he was right: there indeed was a playbook that enabled the Liberals to win immigrant-rich ridings. It is widely believed that part of the Liberals’ victory in October 2015 came from immigrant communities switching their votes away from the Conservatives. The Liberals won the so-called “ethnic vote.”

However, Radwanski’s choice of expression has intrigued me ever since. The respected columnist writes for the Globe and Mail – a paper that I have consistently read ever since I set foot in Canada in 2002.

I know the paper to be resourceful, financially well-endowed and world class. As a reader, I see that it invests in its journalists, giving them generous travel budgets to report at great length from hotspots on every continent, but also giving its columnists lots of latitude. It is a great Canadian institution.

And so I was fascinated by the concept that a campaign could be “subterranean” when it dealt with massive, well-established communities, served by hundreds of ethnic media publications. Why did the Globe not already have a cadre of journalistic talent that would have helped it cover these “subterranean” communities just as it did all the other ridings in Canada? Why not use translators, when necessary, to make inroads into these sorts of communities?

Radwanski’s telling observation begged a larger question: Why is our journalism not as multicultural as the rest of society?

In the period since the October 2015 election, I have reframed my question to ask, Why are our journalists not as representative as our federal cabinet?

I would love to have been a fly on the wall as Prime Minister-Elect Justin Trudeau shared with the head of his transition team, Peter Harder, his thoughts on how he wanted to go about selecting cabinet ministers. Together they produced a masterpiece of Canadian diversity. How did they get it so right, without really inviting a backlash from those who have got so used to a monochromatic hegemony in all the levers of power?

More than one year on, I still have trouble reconciling to the fact that a turbaned Sikh immigrant is Canada’s Defence Minister.

I am not the first journalist in Canada to shine a light on the lack of diversity in Canadian journalism. A few years after I set up New Canadian Media, I had the honour of meeting John Miller, a former chair of Ryerson’s journalism school, somebody who made it his life’s mission to make newsrooms more representative, more reflective of their readership and viewership. Miller has researched the issue and written extensively on the topic, to little avail.

There are still spaces in Canada that media don’t understand and have made barely an effort to try to understand. The less charitable side of me thinks they’d simply label these spaces as “ghettos” and be done with them. I suspect there are newsroom managers who argue that these newcomer enclaves don’t see themselves as Canadian.

It is incumbent on our media to do better: our journalism must enable all Canadians to feel equally included.

Given that one in five Canadians born in another country and an equal number are the children of first-generation Canadians, the “immigrant” ethos is writ large. We’ve been adding 1 million new Canadians every four years. And, generally speaking, their ethnic profile tends to be different from that of earlier settlers – for the last three decades, the majority of our newcomers have come from Asia, nations such as China, India, Pakistan and the Philippines. Canada is changing right before our eyes.

In 2012, I took a tentative step toward blending my experience as a journalist in Asia into the Canadian milieu. By then, I was convinced that most newcomers and their children share a sense of dislocation, having moved to North America from regions that are racially and socio-politically very different from the origins of earlier arrivals. They have different mores, a different worldview and a different “lived experience.” They consume news differently and view the world through a different lens.

Interestingly, Canada has had a robust ethnic media sector for a very long time. Visit any grocery store in the suburbs outside the major cities and you will encounter scores of publications stacked in neat piles. A local radio station will play music from “back home,” and the newspapers will say very little about happenings in Canada.

This anecdote may be apocryphal, but a respected ethnic journalist recently told me about a Vancouver radio station that launches its broadcast with the words, “Good morning, Vancouver! The weather in Chandigarh is …”

Each of these publications covers a particular immigrant community, in a specific geographic region, often in a foreign language. Most ethnic media continue to be narrowly focused on issues concerning their communities.

They are staffed mainly by the hundreds of journalists who arrived in Canada wanting to continue in their profession, but find it hard to gain a foothold. About 200 of them have worked with New Canadian Media or participated in our training sessions. They possess experience and language skills that could perhaps help the mainstream media demystify their communities, but nobody has quite figured out a way to marry their talents with the current needs of newsrooms.

I would be the first to admit that not all journalists are created equal. Having lived in five countries, I know first hand that every nation has its own ways of doing journalism. I also know that ethnic and “mainstream” could not be further apart in their professional standards. It would be the rare ethnic journalist who has had the luxury of paying for a journalism degree in Canada.

Working for multicultural media is very different from working for, say, the Globe. The reporters often double up as advertising salespeople. Ethnic publishers roll from one financial crisis to another; scores of them go under every year, while others sprout in their place. The line between editorial and advertising is blurred.

These publications, though, remain a vibrant part of Canada’s media ecosystem and play a critical role in informing and welcoming new immigrants. They fulfill a vital democratic function – albeit an insufficient one.

We in the media need to do a better job of speaking for Canadians and being a mirror to society. This is a cliché, but readers, viewers and listeners want to see and hear themselves reflected in our newsrooms. They want to hear foreign-sounding accents and even a mangled English or French sentence once in a while.

Journalism is about reflecting the lives and times of all Canadians – in all their diversity, colour and socio-political complexity. Newcomers invariably do not fit into the preconceived notions of today’s mainstream media editors.

That’s why it is very important for newsroom managers to specifically empower journalists in our newsrooms from diverse backgrounds to speak up, not to be cowed by those who perhaps unwittingly crowd out more timid voices and offbeat perspectives. In short, let’s privilege diversity, rather than conformity.

As we imagine a new media landscape for future generations, I suggest a “third way” that enables Canada to become the first nation in the world to marry ethnic and mainstream – a true reflection of our unique demographics. Let’s recognize that our highly corporatized media organizations have lost touch and are excluding large segments of our population by continuing to hire candidates who could not possibly do justice to the worldviews or lived experiences of many communities, including immigrants.

I realize it will take more than a generation to achieve in the media what Trudeau has done with his cabinet. It will take more than resolve and window dressing. In the meanwhile, let’s find ways for the two media silos to work together, discover common ground, and, in the process, improve the coverage of communities that feel left out.

This commentary was first published in Policy Options and part of a special feature The Future of Canadian Journalism.

Published in Arts & Culture
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