A little more than a year ago, I received the news that no parent should ever have to hear. I was told my child had died.
The death of one so young is impossible to understand. For me, my son's death was particularly incomprehensible. Damian was killed in Syria, fighting for an extremist group, he was just 22. But although he died thousands of miles away from home, the seeds of his radicalization were sown right here in Canada.
Damian became a Muslim when he was 17. Like many young people, he had experienced some difficult issues when growing up, and was trying to discover his own identity. Becoming a Muslim had a calming effect on him. I was happy too, because for the first time in a long while, he seemed content.
Gradually however, I began to notice changes in him. He became quieter and more guarded, only becoming animated when arguing about the treatment of Muslims around the world. Even then I thought it was simply part of a pattern I'd seen before and one that all parents will recognize – a passion for one interest for a while, then moving on to something new when boredom sets in.
Even when Damian said he was going to Egypt to study Arabic I doubted he'd go through with it. But he did leave home in November, 2012, and, from my telephone conversations with him, I had no reason to believe he was not in Egypt until the Canadian Security Intelligence Service told me in January, 2013, that they'd been watching him as part of an investigation into extremist groups. He had crossed into Syria via Turkey.
Sometimes I'd talk to him on the phone as he was running away from the bombs that were being dropped around him. He'd been gone just over a year when he died, killed during a conflict between rival jihadi factions.
I have no doubt that Damian went to Syria committed to helping others. But, somewhere along the line, before he left Canada, extremist ideology had distorted his view of the world.
Reflecting on everything our family has been through, I spent a lot of time asking myself a stream of what-ifs. What if we had been aware of what was happening? What if Damian had seen there was an alternative to the course he believed was the only one open to him? What if there had been support available to help him realize this?
That's why I'm supporting Extreme Dialogue, a program to help build resilience amongst young people aged 14-18 to the propaganda of violent extremists. I know from experience that once young people reach the point where they feel the need to engage in violent radicalized activity, it's almost impossible to reach them. We have a much greater rate of success if we are able to intervene before that, and that is best done through education and awareness.
There are so many outside influences in young people's lives today and we cannot shield them from everything, but it is our responsibility to arm them with the knowledge so they can make informed decisions for themselves.
Greater awareness within our communities will also make us all more vigilant, willing and able to reach out to those we see as being at risk. Too often we're concerned with short-term fixes, not lasting long-term change. Reactive measures are both more expensive and less effective. Outreach work like that of Extreme Dialogue will save time, money and – most important – many lives.
I don't want any other young men to die like my son, or any other families go through what we have experienced. This is hard work and there is a long road ahead. But today's initiative is a first step toward ensuring we confront the challenge head on and give young people the information and skills they need to challenge violent extremist ideology wherever they see it.
Christianne Boudreau, the mother of Damian Clairmont, is currently involved in establishing Hayat Canada, a group that supports families to assist with deradicalization, and helping to form an international mothers' organization for those whose children have fallen prey to violent extremism. She is also supporting Extreme Dialogue, a schools- and community-based program that will provide teachers and youth workers with information and tools to be used to encourage discussion about radical groups, including Islamic and far-right violent extremists.