Canadians are justifiably angry at those among us who spat on our flag, burned their passports and left one of the world’s finest countries to join terrorist groups like Islamic State (IS). Not that the numbers are that high – a few hundred maybe compared with thousands from several European, African and Asian nations – but even a small cohort is too many. Not only did these idiots hook up with a bunch of terrorists that raped, maimed and killed, and bragged about it on social media, but some carried out attacks on innocent civilians (in Iraq, Somalia and Algeria). These people deserve our opprobrium, our disgust, and our rejection. And they must face justice – divine or otherwise.
Nevertheless, we still need to come up with a set of coherent policies on what to do with those who did not do us a favour and get killed in an air or drone strike or at the hands of Iraqi, Syrian or Kurdish forces but instead got captured (as an aside, I imagine that those languishing in custody are seen as cowards by IS: after all, the group proudly advertised that its ‘holy warriors’ – mujahedin – ‘loved death as you love life’ and went under the slogan YODO – you only die once). If they are not executed under Iraqi or Syrian law they will probably become our problem at some point. They remain Canadian, even if they openly abandoned their citizenship, and the government will have to figure out some strategy.
To date, that strategy seems to be to let them rot ‘over there’. I have no qualms with this non-decision, which is the government’s way of ‘ragging the puck’ until the issue either goes away or can be dealt with by the next federal government after the 2019 elections. Some want us to facilitate their return to Canada: we are arrogant to the extreme if we demand that these terrorists must be tried in Canada as their crimes took place after all in sovereign nations with their own laws. In addition I have already talked enough about the evidence challenge and will not repeat those arguments here.
Into this mess walks the Ontario provincial government of Doug Ford. An MPP from Peterborough and the Kawarthas (lovely cottage country by the way!), Dave Smith, intends to table legislation at Queen’s Park called the Terrorist Activities Sanctions Act that will remove many social benefits from returnees through a series of amendments to the Canadian Criminal Code (NB one sanction is to deny returning foreign fighters access to ‘hunting licences’: given what they did to men, women and children in Iraq and Syria this is actually appropriate, in a bizarre kind of way).
But while this move may appease ‘Ford Nation’ it is very, very problematic and will cause more problems than it solves, to wit:
- can a province alter legislation that is federal in nature (maybe it can) and is this a welcome move?
- does this open the door for other provinces and territories to make similar moves? Does Canada need 13 distinct counter terrorism strategies?
- interfering in what I assume to be ongoing investigations by federal agencies such as CSIS and the RCMP, and perhaps at the provincial level by my friends at the OPP’s Anti-Terrorism Section (OPP-PATS), will undermine efforts to gather evidence to lay charges.
- can the Ontario government remove access to social benefits? On what grounds? This road is fraught with lawsuits that would make the federal government’s payouts to terrorists like Omar Khadr look like chump change.
- this is a gross overreaction to a very, very small problem (a few dozen people). Are there not other issues on the Queen’s Park agenda that deserve more attention, the resolution of which will help many more Ontarians?
The reasons why this act is being put forward now are obvious. The Ford government and Ford Nation despise the federal government of Justin Trudeau, which the former feel is ‘soft on terrorism’ (Premier Ford tweeted on Friday “If you leave Canada to go fight for ISIS, you should not be welcomed back with open arms. Since Justin Trudeau doesn’t seem to take this seriously, MPP @DaveSmithPtbo is taking action to send a message that there are consequences for leaving Ontario to commit indefensible crimes,”). This ploy is a popular no-brainer that appeals to the ‘base’. It is a knee-jerk reaction to a complicated problem but it is already a very,very popular move (based on my unscientific survey of Twitter).
At the same time it is an unwanted distraction to our national counter terrorism strategy. We need serious answers to this important – albeit small – issue, not something that, let’s face it, is along the lines of the Ford government’s ‘buck-a-beer’ stunt. This move does absolutely nothing to keep Ontarians and Canadians safe and should be cast on the heap of unwanted legislation.
NB readers interested in a much more detailed discussion on so-called ‘foreign fighters’ will find that discussion in my 2016 book Western Foreign Fighters: the threat to homeland and international security.