For more than a decade, Canada’s top spy agency has been cold-calling Muslim students at the University of Regina and the University of Saskatchewan.
“Since 2006 there’s been reports of different students being contacted and asked to meet with various agents who say they’re with CSIS,” said Dr. Joel Schindel, a Muslim chaplain with the Canadian Muslim Chaplain’s Organization’s Saskatoon branch.
According to Usaid Siddiqui, the president of the UR Muslim Student Association, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) has reached out to some of their members within the past six months.
Schindel said the officials make no attempt to disguise their position, often asking students they’ve never met to have an in-person chat.
“This is obviously something to take seriously. When you’re going about your normal day and you get a call from CSIS that’s not something you take lightly,” Siddiqui said.
According to Schindel, these calls frequently leave students confused, vulnerable and concerned for their safety.
“They don’t know what to do. They’re feeling ‘do we risk something that they’re not aware of by not talking? Is it something they should be talking about then? OK, I’ve been talked to by CSIS and what does that mean?’” Schindel said.
The talks are not compulsory, and Schindel said the CSIS officials ensure the students know they don’t need to take part in them, but he feels the calls are an added stressor on a vulnerable group.
“I believe these students are in a vulnerable situation. Already there’s a concern from these students of safety. Recently there were threats and harassment that took place in September,” Schindel said.
Schindel said the students who chose to meet with CSIS officials said they were questioned about recent activities and people in the Muslim community.
Students have also been approached by RCMP.
In the spring of 2015, Schindel said a man showed up unannounced to a University of Saskatchewan Muslim Students Association meeting.
“I did end up taking a picture of the individual and he was questioning me about Omar Baghdadi, and ISIS. It was totally random and almost staged,” Schindel said.
The man, who eventually left, later told Schindel he was with the RCMP and added that he was not there for an investigation, but was attempting to reach out to the organization.
Like the CSIS officials, Schindel said it’s the lack of clarity that adds to the community’s fears.
“That’s part of the problem. There’s not even the clarity to know why they’ve chosen to speak to me,” he said.
For those contacted, and the community around them, the calls and surprise appearances feel like attacks.
“I would be more open to an approach where it’s more personal, rather than having a call. When you’re face to face with a person you can connect with them,” Ahmad said.
It’s that kind of approach that the RCMP is now attempting to make.
For the past year, the RCMP’s National Security Enforcement Section (NSES) has employed an engagement officer in both Saskatoon and Regina. Their job is to build bridges with religious and cultural groups as well as with industry leaders and government officials.
“Their main role is really to build bridges between the communities. We’re trying to reach out to all communities to make sure they understand what our role is and we want to also understand what’s going on with their communities,” said Cpl. Rob King, RCMP ‘F’ Division spokesperson.
According to the RCMP, the NSES Community Outreach program and its officers, they are separate from the investigative division – which focuses on religious or ideological terrorism, domestic terrorism, threats to VIP’s and state-sponsored activity.
Already this year ‘F’ Division NSES Community Outreach has conducted counter-terrorism workshops with police forces across the province and held law enforcement orientation talks in Regina – in both English and Arabic – with people new to the province.
“So many of these groups may be coming from different parts of the world where policing is viewed very differently,” King said.
“We want to educate them on what the role of police is here in Canada, we want to educate them on what their rights are. The reaching out is just a form of building bridges, establishing open communication and with communication and knowledge comes understanding.”
It’s an approach that the UR Muslim Student Association is open to.
“National security is a matter we take seriously. If I was ever contacted by someone who identified themselves as RCMP and told me what it is that he wanted to know and wasn’t trying to bait me into controversial topics, that’s fine. I’m willing to help out,” Siddiqui said.
Others are still cautious.
If they’re trying to improve it, okay, but you can’t forget the past,” Schindel said.
Schindel said he would rather see the RCMP give the unit more publicity, “letting it known that you’re there and allowing the people to come to you.”
RCMP said they couldn’t confirm CSIS’s line of questioning, although they did say their new engagement officers would never question individuals about their faith.
When asked about CSIS officials questioning students Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said “Our police and security agencies engage with a broad cross-section of Canadians all the time.”
“The conversations that they have when they go to people and ask for assistance or information or conversations, those must always be voluntary, they must also be ethical and proportionate and necessary,” Goodale said.
Goodale said he has spoken with CSIS over the past “number of months” and that the intelligence service is looking into a wide variety of threats, notably those “the new ultra-right-wing phenomenon that you’ve seen generally across the western world.”