The number of Canadians who have returned from fighting in foreign conflicts remains “essentially the same” as it was two years ago, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said Thursday even as critics continued calls for the government to say exactly how many have come back from fighting specifically with ISIS.
In response to questions from Conservative members in question period on Thursday, Goodale defended his use of data from 2015 over the past several days, saying that “about 60” foreign fighters have returned to Canada. That number raised eyebrows among national security experts and sparked calls for the government to clarify how it is dealing with individuals who return from having fought with the brutal terrorist group in Iraq and Syria.
Incorrect reporting by some outlets quoted Goodale as saying there are 60 returned ISIS fighters in Canada but that is incorrect — the number refers to the total of returnees who came back from fighting in conflicts around the world, not specifically from fighting with ISIS.
Another 180 are known by the government to still be fighting in conflicts abroad.
But while the Opposition continues to push for the government to answer how many ISIS fighters have returned, Global News has confirmed an upcoming report on the terrorism threat to Canada will say only that the number remains about the same.
“We can only confirm that there are now about 60, which is the same figure as there was when we took office in late 2015. The forthcoming threat report will also use that number, barring any developments between now and its release,” said Scott Bardsley, spokesperson for Goodale, of the 2017 Public Report on the Terrorist Threat to Canada.
Bardsley said the number is not meant to be taken as an exact statistic and that specific figures on returned fighters can’t be shared for operational reasons.
Both Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Goodale have said that all those who need to be under surveillance are being monitored and will be “reintegrated” but the Conservatives argue that’s the wrong approach.
“It is concerning to us that the Liberals have not been upfront with Canadians regarding the return of terrorists who have fought against Canada,” said Conservative public safety critic Pierre Paul-Hus. “Canadians deserve better from Justin Trudeau and the Liberals. The safety of Canadians should be their first priority, not welcoming terrorists back with open arms.”
WATCH ABOVE: Opposition question consequences for ISIS fighters returning to Canada
Since 2015, the government and intelligence community have been consistent in saying “about 60” foreign fighters have returned to Canada after leaving to take part in conflicts abroad.
The 2014 public report on the terrorist threat to Canada said the government was aware of 130 individuals leaving to join terrorism-related activities around the world and noted about 80 of those individuals had returned to Canada.
That number was revised down to 60 in 2015 and the 2016 terrorism threat report also used that number, in addition to noting that the number of individuals who had left to travel to conflicts abroad had increased to 180 as of the end of 2015.
“More than half of those are believed to be in Turkey, Iraq or Syria,” the report noted.
Unlike allies such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, which have actively targeted their own citizens who go to fight for ISIS, the Liberal government has not pursued strikes against Canadians known to be fighting for the group in Iraq and Syria.
Many have still been killed by other means and Amarnath Amarasingham, a post-doctoral fellow who specializes in research on foreign fighters at the University of Waterloo, speculated on Twitter on Tuesday that of the Canadians who have gone to fight in Iraq and Syria, roughly 22 have been killed and likely no more than 10 have returned to Canada.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in the House of Commons that the government takes the issue of returning foreign fighters seriously, and said any who do return are monitored.
“We recognize the return of even one individual [who joined the ISIS group] may have serious national security implications,” Trudeau said, noting the government created the Canada Centre for Community Engagement and Prevention of Violence to help those who work with extremists have the tools they need to help extremists let go of violent ideologies.
“We are going to monitor them. We are also there to help them to let go of that terrorist ideology.”
WATCH BELOW: Andrew Scheer asks what rehabilitation returning ISIS members get
The Canada Centre for Community Engagement and Prevention of Violence was not created to intervene with radicalized individuals, however, and its role is to facilitate and support research into counter-radicalization being done by partner community groups and academics.
As CBC News reported Thursday, that means Public Safety Canada does not have statistics on how many extremists are actually being reached or how effectively experts are able to facilitate access to counter-radicalization services.
The Centre’s Community Resilience Fund allocates funding to select projects that aim to “contribute to intervention programming and research that reflect local realities.”
Budget 2016 set aside $35 million over five years and $10 million each year after that to run both the Canada Centre for Community Engagement and Prevention of Violence and its Community Resilience Fund.
So far, 10 projects have been funded and a call for further proposals seeking funding closed in September.
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