Policy Brief: On the Creation of the Office of the Community Outreach and Counter-Radicalization Coordinator

“I think the point there is that in the effort of community outreach, in order to identify, understand, and effectively intervene in issues related to radicalization, in order to head off violence, and direct people in a more constructive direction, that needs a lot of national coordination and support…..[the office] will be created as a part of my ministry, but it’s going to take shape based on the good work that a great many other groups and agencies and municipalities, and in some cases, provinces are doing across the country.  It’s coordinating the effort.  That word is in the title, community outreach and counter radicalization coordination.”

The Honourable Ralph Goodale, Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness

In November of 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a mandate letter to each of his new Cabinet Ministers. As Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, the Honourable Ralph Goodale was tasked with the responsibility to establish an Office of the Community Outreach and Counter-Radicalization Coordinator. We see the decision of the new government to create this office, and appoint a national coordinator to manage it, as essential for the future national security of Canada. As academics and practitioners with a depth of knowledge and operational experience on issues related to radicalization to violence, community outreach, and the intricacies of inter-sectoral communication and collaboration, we feel that our collective knowledge can help to inform the current discussion around this initiative. Our roles have enabled us to observe the development of a number of promising and principled initiatives in Canada, locally and nationally, but these have yet to crystalize into a cohesive, sustainable program that reaches across the country. While we do not believe that CVE, in itself, can overcome Canada’s national security challenges, it represents an underdeveloped tool that, used in conjunction with other measures, could significantly contribute to the public safety of Canadians.

In this short document, we outline key concerns with Canada’s current approach to countering violent extremism (CVE), and discuss the challenges we believe Canada must consider as it builds a more coherent CVE strategy and the capacity to operationalize it.

The Current State of CVE in Canada: Key Issues

Fragmentation and Inconsistent Program Evaluation: Existing CVE programs and initiatives in Canada are currently more fragmented than they are cohesive: there is no central catalogue nor is there co-ordination of initiatives in place across jurisdictions, in fact, many programs are operating in the absence of fixed, sustainable funding and proper evaluation. Taken together, these issues undermine efforts to identify, highlight and replicate “best practices”. This is, of course, not a uniquely Canadian phenomenon; indeed, the field of CVE evaluation is in its infancy. As such, a national strategy that emphasizes and allocates funding for systematic program evaluation processes would provide Canada with a remarkable opportunity to accelerate the state of CVE evaluation worldwide. Careful program evaluation and monitoring are also important in light of the limited resources that are available for investment in crime prevention and threat reduction programs – thus, the sharing of best practices from careful evaluation of existing programs and interventions is also important from a cost-benefit perspective.

Emphasis on ‘Hard Security’ Approaches: National security strategies in Canada, as elsewhere, are currently heavily weighted toward “hard security” approaches, which include surveillance, investigation, arrest, detention, and incarceration. Comparatively little time, effort and funding have been earmarked for “softer security” approaches, which aim to deter individuals from radicalizing to violence in the first instance, or to “disengage” those who have adopted violent behaviors. Yet the deployment of hard and soft security strategies is not, nor should it be, understood as an either/or decision. In order for CVE strategies to be effective and sustainable, the balance must be shifted such that greater emphasis is placed on preventative and general resilience-building strategies, while also addressing genuine national security threats to Canada. Designating the funds required to accomplish this goals can be justified in light of a large body of criminological research that consistently demonstrates that preemptive, community-based approaches to the prevention of crime and violence can be, from a cost-benefit perspective, more socially and fiscally responsible than heavy-handed, enforcement-based approaches.

Need for Greater ‘Cross-Pollination’: Despite the important strides made through the Kanishka Project, we believe that the Government of Canada should strive for a greater degree of meaningful engagement between policy officials, academics, and practitioners – here in Canada and internationally. This would allow for the dissemination of research findings and “lessons learned” from experiences in Canada and in other countries. Decisions made at or close to the political level should be based on the best available information, drawing on the most current and applicable experiences and data from around the world. Sharing credible best-practices and ensuring thorough, transparent peer scrutiny are particularly important in the area of CVE, a largely novel area populated by a growing number of practitioners of varying degrees of expertise and credibility. Many of these issues could be addressed with the implementation of a committee that would advise the Minister, Public Safety Canada, and the National Counter-Radicalization Coordinator (see below).

Moving Forward: Important First Steps in Establishing a National CVE Strategy

Partnership Approach and the Effective Delineation of Responsibility: CVE is a topic that straddles not just federal departments, but other orders of government as well. Successful CVE likely also depends on robust participation and leadership at the civil society level. Canada has yet to develop a coordinated approach to CVE that allows for effective collaboration across government departments and agencies, and between national and local law enforcement agencies across the country. Nor has it sufficiently invested in building multidisciplinary capacity among front-line service providers in other branches of government and in civil society. Correcting this will require the establishment of “top down, bottom up” working partnerships involving government; policing and national security agencies; corrections; parole; social services agencies; communities and community organizations; and religious leaders.

Advisory Committee: We advocate the establishment of a carefully selected, multi-sector advisory committee – comprised of academics (from various relevant disciplines, including legal scholars that would assist in the development of a framework that addresses human rights issues associated with processes of securitization), representatives of the private sector, and community organizations – that would advise senior government officials on issues of public policy related to community outreach and counter-radicalization. This could be modeled on the Deputy Minister’s Advisory Council of Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada; members of this group have secret-level security clearance, meet quarterly, and are called upon to provide feedback on current policies and outcomes, and discuss policy options for the future. Sensitive issues are frequently raised and meetings are conducted under the Chatham House Rule. We also recommend the creation of an inter-governmental steering committee with representation across ministries/agencies, including provincial representation, in an effort to reduce conflict and minimize duplication across government groups.

Need for Evidence-Based Practice: Ascertaining the capacity requirements and resource allocation required for a national CVE strategy first requires a factually supported understanding of the incidence of radicalization in Canada. Canada’s national strategy should be supported by a major, ongoing program of research that includes two components: an in-house unit (e.g., a renewed Kanishka Project) pursuing knowledge that is necessary to shape government policy and practice; and an independent research system that works collaboratively with government but is also able to offer critical perspectives on policy. (In the interest of full disclosure, 2 of the authors of this piece [Thompson and Hiebert] have been recipients of research funding in this area from government agencies; the views presented here, however, are our own, as experts in the area of CVE.) Together, these components would enable policy officials to build policy-relevant knowledge and keep abreast of international best practices. Note that it is essential that personnel involved in CVE seek to understand the nature of the communities they work with, and to realize that Canadian society is undergoing a set of rapid transformations (technological, economic, demographic, and ethno-cultural).

Further, in order to be effective, CVE programs and policies must be implemented with a solid empirical understanding of the problems they are designed to prevent and control, along with careful and on-going evaluation of their efficacy. The evaluation component of the national strategy should also include the creation of a national inventory that tracks and disseminates program methodologies, input, and outcomes.

Balance between hard and soft security measures: It is imperative that Canadian CVE policy and practice recognize and heed lessons learned from a growing body of research that demonstrates unintended consequences that have arisen from the application of both hard and soft security approaches in allied countries. The Prevent initiative in the United Kingdom, for example, has registered a number of successes but also serves as a reminder that poorly communicated or misunderstood objectives can lead to sustained public criticism and disillusionment among civil society partners. Experience indicates that effective CVE strategies necessitate a sustained program of community engagement, much like the efforts that have evolved over the years in the general framework of community policing. As its title implies, community policing entails that law enforcement personnel work with communities in consultative processes, rather than acting upon them. To be effective, the partnerships necessary for community-based CVE programs must also not be treated as a separate form of engagement, but rather be joined with existing and/or more general outreach initiatives. With this foundation in place, the likelihood that members of the community will cooperate on national security matters is far higher that it would otherwise be. More generally, this will require the creation of a national apparatus that provides structure but that is flexible enough to respect local autonomy and requirements.

Fiscal Responsibility and Fixed, Sustainable Funding: Financial pressures at the municipal policing level mean that current programs, such as community policing initiatives and HUBS (a problem solving approach that draws on the combined expertise of multiple social agencies to identify and attend to situations of “acutely elevated risk” before they become incidents), are operating on limited and highly precarious budgets. The up side is that existing community policing programs and HUBS are intervention models at the ready. The down side is that the proper development, support and evaluation of these programs will require significant investment if Canada is to produce a coordinated approach to CVE. At the same time, there is no one size fits all approach to the prevention of violence and violent radicalization, which necessitates the design and implementation of a host of programs and services that are tailored to local contexts and specific issues (for example, varying stages of the radicalization to violence process, from the ‘pre-criminal’ space through to disengagement from violence/post-prison programming). Doing so will also require front-end investment and sustained long-term funding.

We believe that an effective national strategy that supports and advances locally implemented intervention programs is necessary and achievable. The creation of the Office of the Community Outreach and Counter-Radicalization Coordinator represents a critical moment of opportunity that could help bring about a more coordinated, comprehensive approach to counter-terrorism in Canada, based on a more balanced use of “hard” and “soft” security tools. We believe this will best be achieved through ongoing consultation with stakeholders at all levels, and the development of programs that are supported by a combination of directed and independent research that will propel Canada into an international leader in this rapidly evolving policy field.

Prepared by:

Sara K. Thompson, Ph.D. Daniel Hiebert, Ph.D. Larry Brooks
Department of Criminology Department of Geography CSIS Dir. Gen. (Ret.)
Ryerson University University of British Columbia Fellow, Queen’s Centre for International & Defense Policy
Associate Director, TSAS Co-Director, TSAS
skthompson@ryerson.ca Daniel.hiebert@ubc.ca laurencebrooks14@gmail.com

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