On February 2, during a town hall at MacEwan University in Edmonton, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seemed to compare Canadians returning home after traveling overseas to engage in extremist activities to Italian and Greek immigrants who came to Canada after WWII.
After an unidentified man in the audience said to Trudeau: "I just want to know how your stance on ISIS is gonna help Canadians in any way. I need to know how you’re going to protect future Canadians like my young daughter, and, you know, ten, fifteen, twenty years from now when you’re letting people in with an ideology that just does not conform to what we’re doing here."
Absolutely. No, I think that's, um, gives me an opportunity to talk about first of all, the fact that one of the reasons Canada is successful as a country is because we have been open to people fleeing persecution, fleeing war zones, looking for [a] better life for themselves and their kids. That's been the story of this country from the time the first European settlers came to be received by indigenous people.
People were fleeing conflict, poverty, difficult situations, and came to Canada to build a better life for themselves, and successive waves of people have in every different time, [and] every different wave.
And when we welcomed in waves of refugees – weather it was the Ismaili refugees in the early seventies; whether it was the Vietnamese boat people in the early eighties; whether it was people fleeing the devastation of the second world war from southern Europe in the fifties and sixties – the Italian communities, the Greek communities, the Portuguese communities, and others – our country is so much the better for it. And there is a sense at one point that, okay, maybe now that's enough. Maybe we have just about all the diversity we can handle and we shouldn't have anymore.
Well, I can tell you, when Italian families settled in Montreal in the post-war years, they faced terrible discrimination and people who pushed back at them and said no, no, no, you don't belong here, you don't speak English or French. Every wave of immigration has faced pushback because of how they dressed, or how they sounded, or what their belief was, what their religion was. And every wave of immigration has led to Canada being a better, stronger, more resilient, richer country. And that, I know, is not changing.
When we welcomed the 40,000 Syrian refugees fleeing war-torn areas, looking for a better life, it wasn't my idea; it wasn't my choice to do that. I didn't bring them over. Canadians brought them over. People opened up their homes; cities like Edmonton showed themselves to be tremendously generous; provinces stepped up; community groups, church groups stepped up. There was a welcoming of people because there was a recognition that yes, these people were fleeing ISIS, trying to get away from terrorism, trying to build a better life for their kids, and that is the story of this country.
Obviously, obviously, as an open and safe country, we have to make sure that we are taking security very seriously, and the security checks that were gone through before people came here, the way they are followed up on if necessary in certain cases, the way we ensure that we are keeping our communities safe happens not through, you know, building walls or thickening borders, metaphorically, it happens through engaging and giving people pathways to success; it comes through integration and language training and skills training; it comes through our wonderful high schools and public education that allows for kids of all different backgrounds to learn from each other, to grow together, and to work together to build stronger communities. That has been the story of Canada, and it is not one that is in contrast with creating a safer community for your daughter, for our neighbors, for anyone.
The safety actually comes through having communities that are resilient and diverse, and that talk to each other and understand each other and look out for each other and are welcoming towards each other. That is how you build a stronger, more successful society. And that is something that I know because I have seen it generation after generation all across Canada.
The man who questioned Trudeau is likely referring to Canada’s response to individuals who left the country, traveled to areas in which the Islamic State was operating, possibly engaged in terrorism-related activities, and are returning, or have already returned, to Canada.
According to a government report:
As of the end of 2015, the Government was aware of approximately 180 individuals with a nexus to Canada who were abroad and who were suspected of engaging in terrorism-related activities. The Government was also aware of a further 60 extremist travelers who had returned to Canada.
In a November interview with CTV’s Evan Solomon, Canadian Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Ralph Goodale claimed the number of individuals who have returned after traveling abroad has "remained static" since that report was issued.
Some of them will have engaged in fighting and been an active part of the terrorist network. Others will have done other things to support the terrorist network in some other way. In any event, those are heinous activities. Some of them may well be dead.
In November, Trudeau engaged in a heated exchange with Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer in the House of Commons:
TRUDEAU: Our national security agencies are combating the phenomenon of Canadians participating in terrorist activities overseas. We use a number of tools to address the threats posed by these individuals, including the Passenger Protect program, canceling, revoking, or refusing passports, and laying criminal charges. Our national security agencies are carefully monitoring these individuals and our law enforcement agencies do the difficult work of collecting evidence required for convictions in Canadian courts.
SCHEER: Mr. Speaker, these are people who got on a plane to fight for ISIS, and watched as our allied soldiers were burned to death in a cage. These are people who got on a plane to go fight for an organization that sells women and girls into slavery. These are people who left Canada to go and fight for a group of people who push homosexuals off of buildings just for being gay. So, can the prime minister explain to the House exactly what kind of a program, [a] reintegration service would look like for the people who would commit these kinds of atrocities?
TRUDEAU: Mr. Speaker, we take very seriously the protection of Canadians and will continue to. We also continue to carefully monitor trends in extremist travel and our national security agencies work together to ensure our response reflects the current threat environment. We recognize the return of even one individual may have serious national security implications. But we have launched the Canada Center for Community Engagement and Prevention of Violence, which helps ensure resources are in place to facilitate disengagement from violent ideologies, in particular children who returned from conflict zones require tailored support.
In a different exchange with Scheer, Trudeau said: "We have enforcement, surveillance, and national security tools that we use to a significant degree. But we also have methods of de-emphasizing or deprogramming people who want to harm our society."