Federal counterterrorism officers are seeking to be allowed into Toronto schools, in hopes of shaping young minds and perceptions of police.
Police officials say they are having discussions about getting Mountie detectives and, possibly, Canadian Security Intelligence Service officers, into schools in Canada’s largest city, so that they can reach out to students.
The idea, they say, is not to recruit sources or launch investigations, but to demystify detective work.
Some school officials have reservations. “Is this to encourage our kids to report things that they see in the community? I would hope not,” said Toronto District School Board trustee Gerri Gershon.
A police effort at outreach can seem “ fine and innocuous but it raises some questions,” she said. “Is it to enhance kids understanding of police and their role in society – or is it more than this?”
Earlier this week, a police official alluded to friction as he revealed that the RCMP are in talks with the Toronto District School Board to hold presentations in unspecified schools.
“The Toronto school board is creating a bit of a challenge to have the RCMP come in and provide a program,” said Toronto Police Inspector Steve Irwin, during an aside in his testimony to the Senate Anti-Terrorism Committee Monday.
Insp. Irwin, who specializes in intelligence issues, said he hopes to use his influence to open school doors to his Mountie colleagues – and to his friends in CSIS.
“I do not know that CSIS needs to come into public schools,” Insp. Irwin told the Senate, “but certainly into the high schools and other communities.”
In Ontario, where the RCMP doesn’t enforce local laws, the Mounties have been working to build their public profile of their work in investigating drugs, organized crime and terrorist activity.
To help do this, the RCMP’s national security branch has been zeroing in on immigrant communities.
Last December, for example, the Mounties brought banners titled “National Security – A Shared Responsibility” when they visited an Islamic elementary school in Hamilton
“I would strongly endorse it,” said Kamran Bhatti, a local Muslim who helped put the event together. “There were kids saying, ‘I want to be part of the RCMP, this is what I want to be when I grow up.’ ”
He said the crash courses in police investigations made a real impression on immigrant children who hailed from Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia.
“Where they come from, the trust level with police services is nil,” Mr. Bhatti said. “You see the RCMP come into schools and impacting their mindset, so that they have a completely different approach toward authority figures.”
One RCMP commander pointed out that Mounties and CSIS have been teaming up for year to give presentations to cultural associations.
“More typical would be that we would do a joint presentation with [CSIS]to an association – a Muslim association, a Pakistani association, or the Jewish Congress,” said Superintendent Doug Best. “So people don't have any misconceptions.”
He said he could see why school officials might have initial misgivings about police outreach efforts.
“I suspect it was a school administrator who asked the legitimate question, ‘Why does the RCMP want to come into my school?’” Supt. Best said. But, “I'm sure once we've had that dialogue there won't be any issue.”
Last month, the head of Canada’s spy service said that between 45 and 60 Canadian citizens have embarked to Somalia, Yemen and the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in hopes of taking paramilitary training from terrorist groups.
“You know, we've had experiences where kids who've been disenfranchised for one reason or another that have been susceptible to influence and taken up causes,” Supt. Best said.
Police outreach, he said, is “a great way to counteract that.”
Editor's Note: Kamran Bhatti's name was spelled incorrectly in a previous version of this story.