Nearly two-thirds of Canadians say the government should prosecute and lay criminal charges against individuals suspected of being involved with jihadi groups overseas, instead of focusing on rehabilitating them when they return to Canada, according to a new survey.

A Nanos poll found that 62 per cent of respondents support prosecution of Canadians suspected of jihadi involvement abroad, as opposed to 28 per cent who say the government should prioritize rehabilitation and deradicalization; 10 per cent said they were unsure.

The survey raises questions about the Trudeau government's multifaceted approach to dealing with returning suspected jihadis, which includes enforcement, surveillance and deprogramming individuals.

Story continues below advertisement

"I think the message for the Prime Minister should be that, yes, deprogramming should be a priority but that we should not lose sight of the security interests of Canadians, and Canadians wanting to make sure that if someone is suspected of being involved with jihadi groups, that this is primarily a legal matter first and then a rehabilitation matter second," pollster Nik Nanos said.

The poll, commissioned by The Globe and Mail, asked 1,000 respondents how the government should deal with Canadians when they return from overseas and are suspected of being involved with jihadi groups, such as the Islamic State: "Should the government prioritize prosecution and criminal charges against them or focus on rehabilitating and deradicalizing them?"

Lorne Dawson, director of the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society, an independent research organization, took issue with the survey question itself.

"The question suggests 'either or,' when in fact I would say it's both, meaning we should prosecute whenever we can but have to realistically recognize we're not going to be able to prosecute a lot of the time. So if you can't prosecute, wouldn't you like to have some kind of rehabilitation or deradicalization option available?" he said.

Story continues below advertisement

Mr. Dawson said prosecution is very difficult in cases involving Canadians who are suspected of travelling overseas to join a jihadi group.

"Imagine trying to mount a case where all of your evidence is indirect or probably doesn't involve any witness evidence, and if it does, your witnesses are all suspect people," Mr. Dawson said.

"Collecting reliable evidence from fighters in a place thousands of kilometres away under extremely confusing and difficult circumstances is just a nightmare."

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale has acknowledged this problem, saying it is hard to translate intelligence information on suspects into evidence that will stick in court.

Story continues below advertisement

The statistics reflect that challenge. Although the government estimates 180 individuals with a connection to Canada have travelled overseas to join terror groups and about 60 have returned, it says that only two Canadian returnees have been charged with travelling abroad to participate in terrorist activity.

Leaving or attempting to leave Canada to participate in the activity of a terrorist group carries a jail sentence of up to 10 years; leaving or attempting to leave to facilitate terrorist activity, commit an offence for a terrorist group or commit an offence that is considered terrorist activity is punishable by up to 14 years in prison.

The Conservative opposition has criticized the Liberal focus on the reintegration of returning Canadian foreign fighters, rather than using the laws at hand to put individuals behind bars. Justin Trudeau has defended his government's approach, saying it uses "enforcement, surveillance and national-security tools" to a "significant degree," but also has "methods of de-emphasizing or deprogramming people who want to harm our society."

The poll also found that 73 per cent of male respondents prioritize prosecution of Canadians suspected of jihadi involvement, compared with 56 per cent of women surveyed.

Story continues below advertisement

"On a lot of these justice issues, we see divisions like this where respondents who are men are more likely to take a hard-line view … while women are more likely to focus on potential rehabilitation and the individual," Mr. Nanos said.

Regionally speaking, 73 per cent of respondents in the Prairie provinces prioritize prosecution, followed by 63 per cent in Ontario and the Atlantic provinces, 56 per cent in British Columbia and 54 per cent in Quebec.

The Nanos Research random survey, conducted between Dec. 6 and 10 by phone and online, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.