Mar 25, 2016

Where should we put Canada’s counter-radicalisation programme?

First of all kudos to the Trudeau government for its recent announcement on funding for counter radicalisation and community engagement.  $35 million over five years is an excellent start and, although details are wanting, the government sees the new “Office of the Community Outreach and Counter Radicalisation Coordinator” as a leadership post for Canada’s efforts.

This move represents a significant shift in Canada’s CVE (Countering Violent Extremism) approach from the purely hardline emphasis of the Harper government to a more inclusive and more comprehensive one under the new regime (note that the previous government did have a soft CVE aspect, and one in which I worked, but did not fund it adequately and actually undermined it with stupid comments by public officials).  As I have said before, we will always need the hardline tool, but we need to do more in early intervention and counter radicalisation.

One question remains: where should this new office reside?  When I still worked for the federal government it was housed within Public Safety Canada, split between the National Security Policy branch and Citizen Engagement.  In some ways, it should stay there if for no other reason that that department has experienced and capable staff who were part of the amazing success of the shortened efforts under Harper.

But in other, more important ways, it should be moved to another department.  Let me try to explain why.

Aside from getting a brand new start and being able to put the unfortunate mistakes of the previous government behind us, the biggest drawback to leaving Canada’s CVE strategy with Public Safety lies with the very nature of that ministry.  Public Safety Canada is the umbrella department for CSIS, the RCMP, Correctional Services Canada and the Canadian Border Services Agency.  All of these are staffed by dedicated and professional people but they have one underlying commonality: they are all enforcement/punitive agencies.  CVE needs to be seen as an opportunity to occur before people engage in activities that are the remit of CSIS and the RCMP in order to work.  We have seen in other places like the UK with its PREVENT programme that communities associate CVE with intelligence gathering and enforcement, whether or not that is what is happening.  Having a ministry responsible for the national spy and law enforcement agencies run CVE creates a stigma that can hamper even the best efforts.  If communities do not feel comfortable and have issues of trust with certain partners, they will not want to participate.

What if the government put the new office under the Heritage portfolio?  CVE is all about providing communities with the tools to foster Canadian citizenship and reject the empty and violent promises of groups like Islamic State. It is about being or becoming Canadian.  Another aspect is the debate over narratives.   I have long argued that we need to move away from “counter narratives” to “alternative narratives”.  Alternative narratives are an important part of CVE – what better place to locate them than within Heritage, the department that helps foster the Canadian narrative?  Our narrative is so superior to that of IS that if this were a boxing match the referee would have called the fight years ago.

Of course, those with lots of experience in CVE, especially the RCMP which has a longstanding and robust outreach programme, would be asked to lend its assistance and best practices.  Other partners could also contribute.  Canada is – or rather was – a world leader in CVE and many countries look to us for models on what to do.  We don’t need to reinvent it, we just need to tweak it to make it better.

At the end of the day it really doesn’t matter where the government decides to put CVE.  The important thing is that it cultivate good relations with the communities it hopes to work with, for the best answers to violent radicalisation and extremism are to be found there, not in a government policy brief.