What if Canada stopped PVE/CVE – would it make a difference?

This piece appeared in The Hill Times on February 11, 2019.

We in Canada have terrorism on the brain.  On any given day there is at least one, and unfortunately usually far more than one, terrorist act somewhere  on this planet.  Death and destruction executed by idiots who see the use of violence as God’s will or a legitimate way to effect change in favour of one cause or another will always be with us.

When it comes to Canada, however, there is a disproportionate fear of terrorism here at home.  Statistics do not support this fear: far from it actually.  And yet the conviction that terrorism is a larger threat than it really is can and does affect Canadians’ views on matters ranging from immigration to foreign policy.  One other area is the creation of a national program to prevent the radicalisation to violence that is the sine qua non of terrorism.

My challenge is: do we need to spend this money on a problem that is far smaller than perceived?  In at least one case, a centre that seeks to prevent radicalisation (more often called PVE – preventing violent extremism – or CVE -countering violent extremism) is unsure whether some of its funding will continue (the CPRMV in Montreal is the one I am thinking of: for the record I have visited the centre on several occasions and I like their work).  Would we miss it if these programs disappeared?

Allow me to explain.  

According to StatsCan, in 2017 there were 163 gang-related murders in Canada (out of a total of 660 total homicides or a little less than one quarter). To combat gangs and help prevent youth from joining, the National Crime Prevention Centre at Public Safety Canada (PSC) spent a little under $31 million over an unspecified five-year period.

Strikingly, PSC is allotting slightly more money ($35 million) over an identical time period for CVE.  So, how many people were killed by violent extremists (i.e. terrorists) in Canada in 2017? How many? Zero. Or six if you want to label the shooting at a mosque in Quebec City a terrorist act (or at minimum an act of hate which I will accept may be an example of violent extremism, unlike garden variety murder). How many terrorism-related deaths in 2016? Zero (vs. 141 gang-related). How many in 2015? Zero (vs. 98 gang-related). Do you see the pattern here? Sure we can add in the so-called ‘foreign fighters’ but the numbers are still minimal.

I submit to you that if the Canadian government were to stop ALL funding for CVE tomorrow not only would Canadians not notice anything but it is far from clear that the sudden lack of research and prevention would lead to a single successful radicalisation to violence process and possible terrorism. Yes, a small number of Canadians will always adopt violent extremist ideas and an even smaller number will go on to commit an act of terrorism here or outside Canada. Some (most?) attacks will be stopped thanks to the efforts of CSIS, the RCMP and their partners by the way.

I am starting to think that the money and focus on violent radicalisation and its prevention is unnecessary, in part because the problem is too small to warrant special attention. No, I do not deny the impact of successful attacks: in fact the belief that we needed to do something and do it now stemmed to a large extent from the events of October 2014 when two home-grown Islamist terrorists (Martin Couture-Rouleau and Michael Zehaf-Bibeau) killed two military officers two days apart just outside Montreal and right in the centre of Ottawa. There is nothing like having a gunman firing wildly down the hall from where the Prime Minister (Stephen Harper at the time) was at a caucus meeting in Centre Block to get governments to develop new programs.

It is also far from clear that any of the programs will make any difference in large part because measuring the effectiveness of such efforts is devilishly difficult. I concede that they are most likely not making matters worse but it is next to impossible to determine that any one program is preventing any one person from thinking terrorism is a good idea.

Please note that I am not advocating ignoring this issue, as tiny as it is. The way I see it, our response in Canada should be two-fold. At one end, it is the job of CSIS and the RCMP to identify, investigate and neutralise those seeking to plan and execute attacks. At the other end I am confident that already existing programs in school and civil society that seek to turn people away from gangs and other dangerous anti-social acts can be easily tweaked to deal with the rare cases of violent radicalisation. This does not need special, tailor-made funding or resources. In countries where this scourge is several orders of magnitude larger (such as the UK, France and Belgium) there probably is a need for a special effort.

I am fairly certain that my position will make me enemies, especially among those parties with vested interests in CVE funding. But as a taxpayer I want my government to be involved where it needs to be and not try to be all things to all people. Developing expensive programs for all but non-existent problems makes little sense to me.

Phil Gurski is a former strategic analyst at CSIS and the author of An End to the War on Terrorism.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

Leave a Reply