The radicalization of young Canadians is most often a local problem that requires programs tailored to specific cities, towns or even neighbourhoods.
That’s one the preliminary findings by the Canada Centre for Community Engagement and Prevention of Violence.
The federal government set aside $35 million over five years for the centre, which was announced in August 2016. It works within the Department of Public Safety to provide training, support research and provide national leadership on counter-radicalization strategies for provinces, territories and municipalities.
“There’s a whole number of risk factors, and that’s the challenge — there’s no agreement on what the best assessment tool is or what all the risk factors are,” Ritu Banerjee, executive director of the centre, told CBC News.
People may be exposed to an assortment of extreme views, from Islamism to neo-Nazism, online, through their family, at their place of worship or school or in all these areas.
“So what you do out in Calgary might not necessarily work in Montreal or may not necessarily work in Moncton. So you have to be conscious of the local realities and the local needs,” said Banerjee.
More than a year after the creation of Canada Centre, the government has yet to fill the top job of special adviser, who would formally shape and oversee the centre‘s work.
A senior government source with knowledge of the file told CBC News the government had tentatively filled the job earlier this year but the candidate backed out. The search has been renewed and the department said it expects to fill the job by the end of the year.
Social workers on front lines
Meanwhile, Banerjee and her staff have approved funding for several projects through the agency’s community resilience fund. One initiative in Montreal trains front-line social workers who deal with vulnerable youth but likely were never educated about terrorism and national security threats.
“They’re familiar with gang-related violence, they may be familiar with drugs, mental health issues, but the minute you start talking about terrorism, people get scared or people get nervous. So they need specialized support and training,” Banerjee said.
Another of Canada Centre’s early takeaways is that governments are not well placed to debate extremist ideologies.
“We recognize that it’s very difficult for a government to do that because we don’t have the credibility to do that and it would be perceived as propaganda,” Banerjee explained.
“Counter-arguments to a stated proposition have to be very much tailored to a specific audience. You have to be very careful and thoughtful about the approach you use, whether it’s face-to-face, whether it’s online and if you’re doing it online, what platforms you use. And then, who is actually delivering the message.”
Banerjee says research suggests intervening early to teach children how to think critically and be digitally literate is key to building community resilience to extremism.
Other programs being run in Toronto, Calgary and nationally by the RCMP will be evaluated by the University of Alberta and Ryerson University. Their findings will be shared with the public.