Montreal’s ill-defined ‘anti-radicalization’ centre may threaten civil liberties

A policing approach to extremism threatens to re-victimize a vulnerable minority
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"Now is not the time for the NDP agenda of attacking the police and the security agencies," Harper said during question period last month. "We have serious problems in this country. Now is the time to take on the terrorists and that is what we're doing." – CTV News, Mar. 8

“We’re not freaking out here,” Coderre said, when asked why Montreal is setting up a radicalization prevention centre. “We’re saying (for) many many months we have to work on the ‘live together,’ and the ‘live together’ is to have a balance between openness and vigilance.” – Montreal Gazette, Mar. 10

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At a press conference Monday, Montreal mayor Denis Coderre and police chief Marc Parent announced the establishment of a committee charged with creating a “radicalization prevention” centre.

“It came across like a campaign promise,” said CJAD radio host Dave Kaufman on his show Tuesday. “The hope is that this isn’t a centre for hate, a place where Muslims are targeted. The hope is that it will actually be helpful in combatting radicalism, and that starts with defining what radicalism is.”

In some ways, the concerns raised over this centre mirror those of critics of the federal government’s anti-terror bill C-51. Both exploit public fear of terrorism to provide police and security services with new powers, powers that can invite misuse.

It’s all the rage these days to campaign on apprehending the Muslim menace, but there’s space here to do something meaningful to combat radicalization. That would entail an increase in funding for targeted social services to combat cultural isolation and exclusion, and targeted government programs to combat the well-documented employment discrimination that people with immigrant names, particularly people of colour, face in Quebec.

“It seems that the centre will be about more than policing in the technical sense of the word, but also about intelligence gathering and counter-terrorism.”

That’s what Sameer Zuberi, spokesperson for the Canadian Muslim Forum, told me he would like to see. Likening the fight against radicalization within the Muslim community to the struggle of many Black and Latino communities with gangs, he argues that no one wants to combat radicalization more than the Muslim community, and they must be treated as partners in that effort.

Although Coderre claims to have consulted with the Muslim community, a number of prominent Muslim organizations have said they were first consulted on the centre the day it was announced, if at all. Haroun Bouazzi, co-president of the Association des Musulmans et des Arabes pour Laïcité au Québec, told the Gazette he got a call two hours before the press conference to tell him an announcement was coming.

Most Muslim groups that have spoken out on the proposal to date have opposed it or expressed grave reservations.

‘Do you call if you see a suspicious-looking Muslim?’

“The centre looks improvised, and very premature,” said Valerie Plante, city councillor for the Sainte-Marie district and spokesperson for municipal opposition party Projet Montréal. “We know there will be a committee, but we have no idea how it will function. What’s the budget, who will work on it and what will its mandate cover?”

“The mayor says there will be a phone line for citizens to call. To call for what, we have no idea. Do you call if you see a suspicious-looking Muslim? If a citizen makes a complaint that their Muslim neighbours are acting suspiciously, what will the SPVM [Montreal police] do? Are they trained to handle these situations?”

“The idea that they are in charge of this line, this centre, is very problematic,” concluded Plante.

Many critics worry that the central role of the Montreal police force in the announcement of this loosely defined initiative indicates an emphasis on policing, rather than social services.

“It seems that the centre will be about more than policing in the technical sense of the word, but also about intelligence gathering and counter-terrorism,” Fo Niemi, executive director of the Center for Research-Action on Race Relations, told Ricochet by email.

“Students, union members and social justice and environmental activists who engage in these activities, no matter how peaceful or non-violent, can in practice fall within the definition of ‘radicalization.”

“The presence of the chief of police and the director of the Centre jeunesse de Montréal, both of which are perceived by many racial and ethnic communities as justice institutions of profiling and criminalization, and the absence of community and civic leaders of diverse backgrounds and ages, is a faux pas borne out of haste and cultural insensitivity. It sends a clear message that criminal law and national security will be the principal focus of the centre.”

“If left undefined,” Niemi continued, “this structure can and will focus on any citizen activities on an individual or collective level that are deemed to be threatening to national security, public safety, economic stability and social cohesion. Consequently, students, union members and social justice and environmental activists who engage in these activities, no matter how peaceful or non-violent, can in practice fall within the definition of ‘radicalization.’”

“The centre has the potential to become a point of attraction of public paranoia, hostility and abusive reporting directed at all persons and things Muslim.”

Plante echoes Niemi’s concerns that the centre will not tackle the root causes of radicalization, such as failures of social integration, unemployment and poverty. “A centre almost seems like a band-aid,” she adds.

“We have no idea how the information will be used, against whom, and what the definition of radical will be. It could be a question of religion, political beliefs, environmental conviction, so many things. It’s highly problematic.”

Decider-in-Chief

Coderre, the mayor, is a proudly simple man. He likes hockey and cars, and he plays politics by a rulebook that hasn’t changed in decades. The archetypal populist, he’s known for swift and decisive action, an attribute many Montrealers laud him for, but which carries a cost.

I don’t doubt that Coderre is starting this centre for the same reason he does most things: there are votes to be had. Polls show people are scared, and will reward politicians who take decisive action, even if the details of that action remain largely undefined.

But Niemi’s concerns lead one to wonder if Coderre doesn’t also see a silver lining in a “radicalization” prevention centre run by the police force that is capable of tracking and disrupting activists as easily as other kinds of radicals. In some ways it could pick up from P-6, a bylaw adopted at the height of the 2012 student strike which restricts the right to protest in various ways, including obliging protests to seek prior approval of their route from police.

Earlier this year a judge threw out a series of charges under P-6. His decision was scathing, describing the bylaw as “flawed,” and asserting that hundreds of tickets were issued illegally by police officers who knowingly signed a series of statements of offence for acts they had not witnessed.

The City subsequently cancelled thousands of tickets issued under P-6. Although Coderre argues that the bylaw remains applicable, legal observers have doubts about whether it is enforceable in light of this precedent-setting ruling.

The Enemy Within

More than anything, a policing approach to radicalization re-victimizes a visible minority that is already subject to widespread discrimination and exclusion.

“The focus is on ‘the Enemy Within,’” concluded Niemi. “Because any Muslim or Islamic voice, idea, expression or conviction is now considered suspect. Students of history may see similarities with the treatments of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War, Communists and Jehovah Witnesses during the 1950s, and McCarthyism in particular.”

“We’re worried this will put even more pressure on the Muslim community,” said Plante. “We fear the centre could stigmatize the Muslim community even further, and they don’t need that right now.”

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