MONTREAL — In the wake of the arrest of 10 young Montrealers suspected of wanting to join jihadist groups overseas, experts say more needs to be done to educate and counter the extremist rhetoric some Canadian youth have been eager to embrace.
The 10 were detained last weekend at Montreal’s Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport and released without charge after having their passports seized.
Reports in mid-January that six young people from the Montreal area had left to join jihadist groups in the Middle East were followed by terrorism-related arrests in the city as well as authorities successfully getting other people to sign peace bonds that restrict their activities.
One expert says it’s too soon to say if the arrests in Quebec this year mean the province is a more fertile hotbed for jihad recruiting than other Canadian jurisdictions.
“We’ve had people leave for jihad from other provinces,” said Stephane Leman-Langlois, a criminologist and co-director of a group that studies radicalization and violent extremism.
“Last year we would have spoken about Ontario… so I’m not sure there’s a long-term phenomenon where Quebec is going to stand out.”
Leman-Langlois, a professor at Universite Laval in Quebec City, says what is particular about Quebec is the increased surveillance by authorities since two terror attacks last fall with ties to the province.
Another factor may be what he calls an anti-Muslim sentiment in the province.
“The one thing that stands out is the way the Muslim community is becoming more and more ostracized in Quebec — in the political discourse, in (some) media,” Leman-Langlois said.
“That really doesn’t help and a lot of young Muslims in Quebec are feeling less and less at home here and more like they belong somewhere else.”
Late on Wednesday, College de Maisonneuve, a junior college attended by some of those who vanished in January, confirmed that four of the 10 arrested were students at their institution.
The school said in a statement it has been dealing with the indoctrination of students, but that it doesn’t have any say on what happens outside its walls. In particular, it believes it’s increasingly clear that recruiting takes place primarily through social media.
The RCMP has not provided any details about the arrests, saying its investigation is ongoing and that relatives and friends of the 10 were caught off guard by news of the impending departures.
That shock is one Christianne Boudreau encounters often in her fight against extremism and the radicalization of Canadian youth.
“I’m not surprised, you’re going to see more and more of it unless we start taking care of what we need to take care of on our own doorstep,” said the Calgary-based Boudreau, whose 22-year-old son Damian Clairmont died fighting for the Islamic State in Syria last winter.
“And it rips my heart apart to see that many more families are going to have to go through it — yes they’re still alive, yes they’re still here, but it doesn’t make it any easier.”
Boudreau said she has lobbied the federal government for more prevention and education resources and is dismayed by a federal strategy focused more on sweeping anti-terror laws like Bill C-51 and military action she suggests only emboldens jihad recruiters.
In Quebec City, Premier Philippe Couillard said provincial legislation aimed at combating extremism would be tabled soon.
“We always are concerned about this, given the fact that it seems to be our youth, born here, in our learning institutions,” he said.
“That is why we will come very soon with a policy which is going to be broad, that will also include prevention, detection and also other measures from the legislative point of view.”
Educating youth is one key, but so is a clear strategy to fight Islamic State online propaganda, says a Concordia University religion professor.
“The best way is to provide a different narrative,” said Andre Gagne, who speaks on religious extremism. “We need as a society to give to hope to people, to help them find their meaning and their way.”
Gagne says groups like Islamic State are prolific on social media and manage to latch on to kids who feel alienated or disenfranchised or are simply looking to fight injustice.
“What these kids are looking for, in a sense, is a thrill, having a meaningful live, contributing to something worthwhile,” Gagne said.
“But they haven’t developed, in many cases, critical thinking skills to be able to sift out extreme views or extremist perspectives on either religion or political situations.”