POLITICS

Ottawa's De-Radicalization Focus Much Too Narrow, Reformed Skinhead Says

03/05/2015 12:12 EST | Updated 03/05/2015 12:59 EST
An ex-skinhead, now a counsellor trying to turn around the lives of potential extremists, is warning that Ottawa's plan to fight homegrown terrorism is primed to backfire.

Daniel Gallant, 39, is a reformed neo-Nazi and one of just two people to share his story of a life entangled with extremism in a federally-funded online campaign.

The website, entitled "Extreme Dialogue," is funded by Public Safety Canada and aims to "reduce the appeal of extremism among young people."

It also features the story of Christianne Boudreau, the mother of a radicalized young Canadian who died in Syria in January 2014 while fighting with ISIS.

Gallant is what's called a "former." Thirteen years ago, he left behind a life of extremism after 10 years in B.C.'s neo-Nazi circles.

In a final act of violence, he attacked an aboriginal man with a hatchet, leaving him brutally beaten.

Gallant had felt hate rage inside him many times before — and used axes, shovels and knives to express it. But this was the first time he'd ever felt guilt.

Today, Gallant is a Prince George-based social worker, helping others make their exit from extremist circles.

And while he may be one of the faces of the new federally-funded campaign, he is also raising concerns about what he sees as the government's over-emphasis on Islamic extremism in the rationale for its new anti-terror legislation, Bill C-51, while largely giving other forms of extremism a pass.

"What we're doing is creating a pressure-cooking atmosphere," Gallant says. "It's as if our government is saying, 'let's bring it to a boil, get 'em out there and then nab them'."

In so doing, he says, "we're asking for extremist responses."

Aggressive approaches can backfire

Several legal experts have also raised concerns that Ottawa's proposed anti-terror measures go too far.

Chief among them, the University of Toronto's Dr. Kent Roach, who participated in both the Air India and Maher Arar commissions, and University of Ottawa law professor Craig Forcese.

Both say the proposed measures would go beyond current legal limits and risk compromising freedom of speech.

But Gallant goes further, saying a hardline approach could make the problem of extremism worse. "If we come at them hard and punch them, we are going to entrench them further into extremism," he argues.

In fact, in 2011, a University of Toronto study by researchers Lisa Legault, Jennifer Gutsell, and Michael Inzlicht found that aggressive approaches to changing people's behaviour can backfire.

What's more, Legault says, several decades of research underscore the point.

"Punishment and control do not encourage helpful behaviour, nor do they provide rationale for altruistic values," she says. Instead, she adds, they undermine an individual's sense of personal choice and trust, which psychologists feel can be safeguards against harmful behaviour.

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The RCMP came to a similar conclusion about the terminology used to talk about terror in a 2012 report called "Words make worlds."

Among other things, it concluded that "inflammatory linkages between Islam and terrorism can serve to convince Muslims — both in the West and in the larger Islamic world — that the West is, in fact, their enemy."

A double standard?

In Gallant's view, the problem with the current approach is made worse by the government's failure to label right-wing extremism, which is often motivated by beliefs of racial purity and white power, as terrorism.

He admits to having committed hundreds of crimes as a former white supremacist, but never once faced terrorism charges.

"Why are we so afraid of applying terrorism legislation" to white supremacists, he asks, "when they're clearly engaging in terrorist activity."

There was a recent example of that just last month when a potentially deadly plot in Halifax was thwarted on Valentine's Day.

At the time, Justice Minister Peter MacKay called those behind it "murderous misfits".

"The attack does not appear to have been culturally motivated, therefore not linked to terrorism," he said.

Meanwhile the social media accounts of two of the accused are filled with either Nazi symbolism or Columbine references.

MacKay's response is only a symptom of a much larger problem in Canada, the failure to recognize a culture of right-wing violence that is deeply entrenched here, says Gallant.

"This stuff is everywhere. It is normalized to the point that if a kid draws a swastika in his notebook and white power symbols in his notebooks, people look at him and don't really think much of it," Gallant says.

Fear of being labelled

Aside from ignoring the impact of certain hate groups, there may be another problem with this latest government approach.

As Stephane Pressault of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women points out, the federal government's conflation of Islam and terrorism is having a tangible effect on young Muslims here.

"In fact, this language is discouraging Muslim youth to be civically and socially engaged for fear of being labelled," he says

Summayah Poonah of the Muslim youth helpline, Naseeha, says there's been a significant rise in the number of calls from youth who feel singled out, afraid to wear the hijab or to express their faith outwardly.

"They no longer feel like they're within their rights as a Canadian to express their faith, which I think is really unfortunate because that's not the country or culture that I grew up in — and I grew up here," she says. 

Shanifa Nasser is a journalism fellow at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs, specializing in Islam in the public sphere.