MISSISSAUGA, Ont. — The room fills up slowly. The 20 or so participants hesitate before entering the basement of Anatolia Islamic Centre in Mississauga, west of Toronto. Most of them come to the mosque every day for prayer.
This is the first time they are joined by national security officers from the RCMP.
But the meeting today isn’t “nefarious,” as one officer calls it. Rather, it is the start of six weeks of dialogue between the Mounties and the Muslim community, a small effort to rebuild a relationship that has become strained.
Corp. Steve James starts off the session with a joke. “I want to welcome you and introduce you to the RCMP officers here today,” says James.
“Don’t worry, none of them are here to arrest you.” There is some nervous laughter and a few smiles. This is the first time many here have ever spoken to the police in Canada. Where they are from, police normally don’t have a sense of humour.
All of the attendees, mostly middle-aged Muslim men and a few women of mixed ethnicities, are here to take part in the RCMP citizen’s academy course, a get-to-know-your-local-law-enforcement workshop that will take place over the next few Tuesday evenings and cover such things as Internet safety, immigration and recruitment.
The national security arm of the RCMP created the academy in 2005, a few months before the terror bust and arrest of the Toronto 18, as a way to give Muslim leaders and community members a venue to air counter-terrorism concerns and dispel misconceptions about how the RCMP operates.
The academies have taken place in mosques across the city, graduating dozens of community leaders and activists. But three years and seven graduations later, many of the initial concerns still exist.
“The concerns are pretty much the same,” said Supt. Jamie Jagoe, responsible for national security investigations in Ontario, who came up with the idea for the academy. “But the further we move away from 9/11 … the angst that was there is getting reduced.”
Most people in the community continue to hear stories of aggressive CSIS run-ins and humiliating questioning.
And they still have fears that what happened to Canadian Muslims such as Ottawa engineer Maher Arar, who was tortured in a Syrian prison over false allegations of terrorist involvement, and Montrealer Abousfian Abdelrazik, who was barred earlier this year from returning to Canada from Sudan, could also happen to them.
“I have a lot of questions I want to ask … like why are we always targeted? Why are we always stopped? Is it because we are coloured?” said Mahamed Khan, a Mississauga-based real estate agent attending the academy. “I am going to be diplomatic of course, and hear what they have to say, but I think we all have questions,” said Khan, originally from Guyana.
He will get the answers in session four, when the heads of CSIS and the head of the national security team show up to take questions.
The RCMP’s Jagoe admits it is difficult to assess in definitive terms if the program is actually succeeding. There are some indicators.
During the first academy in the fall of 2005, few community leaders would acknowledge that radicalization among youth was a serious problem, he said. Now community leaders have started initiatives across the city to address that fact.
Also, within the ranks, the number of Muslim RCMP officers is increasing, said recruiter Corp. Kent Langley, after a short recruitment session at the first meeting. Approximately 10 per cent of the force is made up of visible minorities, he said.
And each academy helps to break down barriers, said Genghis Khan, who organized the event at Anatolia after attending one last year in another mosque.