Stephanie Carvin is an assistant professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University
Sadly for Canada, this past weekend was one of extremisms. Saturday saw protests by far-right groups at a border crossing in Quebec and on Parliament Hill against refugees and immigration. The Quebec protest was successful in shutting down the Canada-U.S. border crossing for several hours. And of course, Saturday night saw the attack in Edmonton. Abdulahi Hasan Sharif is accused of an alleged attempt to kill a police officer and drive a truck into crowds. The attack is believed to have been inspired by the Islamic State.
It would be incorrect to say Canada has just experienced a Charlottesville moment, but Saturday's far-right demonstrations and the Edmonton attack are unwelcome news during a time of already heated political rhetoric around Islamophobia, terrorism and refugees.
Moreover, in such circumstances, events such as these become something of an ink-blot test – people seeing what they want to see, confirming their own conclusions and ignoring the more complicated and complex nature of violent extremism in Canada. So, as some may scramble to use the events of this weekend as further evidence for their beliefs and opinions, it is useful to address some of the persistent myths and misunderstandings surrounding terrorism and extremism within our borders.
First, there is the persistent idea that terrorism is something that comes from outside of Canada rather than originating within it. Certainly, there are cases of individuals who may have come to Canada with a radicalized mindset, but increasingly violent extremists in Canada are born here or arrived when they were children (typically before the age of 10). Indeed, in recent years the three most serious attacks in Canada inspired by al-Qaeda/Islamic State are Martin Couture-Rouleau, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau and Aaron Driver, all born in Canada. In other words, the radicalization that drove these individuals occurred in Canada – not abroad. This is a homegrown Canadian problem. Furthermore, since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, there have been no cases of a violent extremist in Canada originally having entered the country illegally. (Via Rail plotter Raed Jaser was brought to Canada as a child on a fake passport by his family but they claimed refugee status once they arrived. They were denied refugee status, but allowed to say because they were considered stateless persons.)
A second harmful myth is that immigrants entering into Canada are a threat to our security. Within Canada, few studies explore the relationship between immigration and crime or violence, but a 2009 study by Statistics Canada found that "The higher the proportion of recent immigrants in a neighbourhood, the lower the rates of drug offences, all types of violent crime, mischief and other thefts… high-immigration neighbourhoods generally have lower crime rates." It concluded that "given two neighbourhoods where residents have comparable access to socio-economic resources, the one with a higher proportion of recent immigrants is likely to have a lower crime rate."
The third myth, related to the above two points, is that a ban on Muslim immigration would somehow make us safer. Even ignoring the previous points in this article, it is unlikely that such a ban would work, as it rests on the idea there is some kind of useful profile of a violent extremist authorities could use. Quite frankly, if there was a useful profile, authorities would have adopted it. Instead, extremist violence in Canada is increasingly a diverse phenomenon. As such, the bottom line is that there is no useful demographic trend that could possibly be used to put some kind of effective ban in place.
Finally, it is also worth addressing the idea that terrorism is not a significant threat to Canada. We often hear phrases like "more Canadians are killed in household accidents than by terrorism." Statistically this is irrefutable. But it does, however, take a very narrow view of violent extremism and the impact that it can have on communities. Terrorism is more than killing – it is about intimidation. Extremists siphon funds from religious institutions, target youth and spread hatred. Even when they are not directly involved in violence, they may coach or assist others in doing so. Therefore, to suggest that extremism is not a problem in Canada because there are so few deaths is to take a very narrow view of the problem – and to ignore the very serious impacts that communities feel. Terrorism might not be our greatest problem, but it is a serious, legitimate security concern that Canadian authorities are rightly trying to address.