Stephanie Carvin is an assistant professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University.
A devastating report by the Quebec Coroner's Office into the death of violent extremist Martin Couture-Rouleau highlights how the mental health resources in that province failed to recognize and assist the young man suffering from a series of complex mental health, addiction and social issues. The report lays out in detail how his father desperately sought help for his radicalized son, but that the system was unable to cope with an individual suffering from these issues while also holding an extremist mindset. Tragically, Mr. Couture-Rouleau went on to kill Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent on Oct. 20, 2014.
In its 2015 election platform, the Liberal government promised to take steps to develop resources for countering violent extremism (CVE) of the kind influencing Mr. Couture-Rouleau. On Friday, in a federal report on last year's National Security Consultation, prevention was highlighted as an important issue, with the government identified as playing a funding and co-ordination role.
But creating a truly successful, world-leading CVE program requires far more than these small bureaucratic steps. Done correctly, a properly executed CVE initiative is expensive, resource-intensive and requires high levels of co-ordinated effort across different sectors and levels of government. While there is broad political support for a CVE program, the enormity of this project and the demands it will place on already heavily taxed resources has been largely ignored.
With a 2016-17 startup budget of $3-million, Ottawa has said there is an average of $8-million per year for programming until 2021. There is a vague promise of $10-million to follow annually, but no certainty as to the funding commitment.
But it is when the numbers are broken down that the challenges begin to show. In particular, it suggests that without local and/or provincial funding, this amount can only support a few programs across the country at most. For example, a smaller-scale program in Montreal (funded by provincial and municipal levels of government) costs approximately $1-million per year. And while this program is an important resource in that community, it is preliminary and missing many of the features that would be required for a national, co-ordinated CVE program. From this, the best-case scenario is that the government is running the risk of missing an opportunity to establish a world-class initiative. The worst-case scenario is that it may be setting itself up to fail on a key pillar of its national security strategy.
But why is CVE so expensive? Among researchers, there is a consensus that radicalization, let alone CVE, is an extremely difficult topic to study. Despite much progress over the last decade, studies continue to be based on relatively small numbers of highly variable, context-specific cases which typically involve the coming together of different types of risks (personal, peer, family, socio-political, and online media consumption). A properly structured national CVE program would be among the most ambitious co-ordination efforts undertaken by government in recent years.
Beyond this, it will be necessary to evaluate if this expensive CVE program is working – but this, too, is a challenge. It requires developing new validation tools so researchers and analysts can assess the ways the program is (or is not) having an impact. Further, it will be necessary to monitor the progress of individuals over time, as well as the impact on communities in which they live.
But whether we have the capacity to do the kind of analysis required to support and assess the CVE program is unclear. Even a limited study, that focuses on a few aspects of the CVE problem, costs a few hundred thousand dollars. Scaling this to a nation-wide program will be expensive.
If the above elements were not already complicated and expensive enough, this does not include the government having to navigate the challenging issues related to surveillance, data-sharing and restrictions on hate-speech that are already contentious in the wake of Bill C-51's legislative changes. Such issues will be impossible to avoid in the development and implementation of a CVE program – and will be of paramount concern to the communities that already feel that they are under surveillance.
Under the Harper government's Kanishka Project, Canada became a leader in funding research aimed at understanding the processes associated with radicalization to violence as well as preliminary studies into understanding how those at risk could be assisted to disengage from pathways that could lead to violence.
Today, CVE is realistically only one of a competing number of national security priorities the government is grappling with. Nevertheless, Canada only has one chance to get CVE right – programs seen as heavy-handed, or that fail to evaluate their impact, risk having no outcome at best, and actively alienating the communities they are intended to serve at worst. Getting the balance will require adequate funding but also attention, time and flexibility that is rare in government programming. Despite these challenges, the government has every incentive to try to get this right – and Canada will be safer for it.