Hamilton Muslims reach out to the RCMP

A Hamilton initiave to connect Muslim youth to the RCMP has become a province-wide success.
Young Muslims get ready to learn about federal policing at the Junior Academy at the Mountain Mosque in 2011. (Kamran Bhatti)

In mid-April, members of Hamilton's Muslim community, Kamran Bhatti and Hussein Hamdani, were driving to Toronto, called to an RCMP meeting.

They would be briefed on an upcoming press conference to announce the arrests Raed Jaser and Chiheb Esseghaier. The suspects are accused of plotting to derail a VIA rail train in an al-Qaeda-supported terror plot.

The meeting was not just to alert members of Ontario's Muslim communities, it was also to acknowledge that the key tip leading to these arrests came from an Imam.

"The first part of the meeting was a thank you," Hamdani said. "The RCMP thanked the Muslim community for providing them with this lead."

The RCMP heralded the connection they had with the Muslim community. And it was the same connection that brought Hamdani and Bhatti, both members of the Muslim Association of Hamiton, to this meeting.

Muslim community leader reached out to the RCMP

The first outreach event for a cultural community in Ontario - a Junior police Academy for Muslim youth aged 7 to 12 in late 2011 - happened in Hamilton as a result of their partnership.

"The Muslim community comes from all over the world. We have members from Southern Asia, the Middle East, from Africa. A lot of these countries that people come from, there is a tremendous amount of distrust with security agencies, law enforcement officials and governments, especially," said Bhatti. "What ends up happening is that same baggage comes here to Canada and that gets passed down to the children."

Bhatti wanted to "nip this at the bud" and called Sgt. Derek McDonald, the RCMP's community outreach and counter terrorism officer for Ontario, to initiate a partnership.

The result was a day-long event at the Mountain Mosque, attended by about 140 youth. The kids divided into groups and visited stations with activities led by officers: one with an obstacle course, one where they learned to investigate evidence, another where they could ride in a police car and a mounted unit horse.

The event was over a year ago, but McDonald recalls the smiles on the kid's faces when they could sit in the cruiser and pet the sniffer dog. He hopes those smiles translate to better understanding of federal policing.   "One of the ideals of the program is that they can see that the police can be trusted and that it's an honourable profession," McDonald said. "We hope those students go home and tell their parents."

McDonald isn't sure when he'll see if the program resonates with Muslim youth, but Bhatti saw an immediate effect.

"A lot of these kids said you know what, being an RCMP officer could be a potential career opportunity when I become older," he said. "They went from perhaps thinking that the RCMP is an agency that was out to get them to thinking this is something I could do as a career... these are intangible successes."

Outreach continues

The Junior Academy program has since happened in about 10 communities across the province, connecting with local cultural populations including Muslim, Tamil and Turkish, among others. The understanding of policing that is developed at a young age is what McDonald said will matter in the long run.

"All will learn that police can be trusted hopefully by the end of the day, but [it is] to make them less susceptible to the Jihadi jargon that they will come into contact with though the internet or another source," he said. "So when someone is professing hate or radicalization of violence, these kids can hopefully look back and think, that's not what this country and the police are all about."

Bhatti has continued outreach initiatives in Southern Ontario for Muslim youth, holding conferences geared to 15- to 24-year-olds. Bhatti invites public security agencies like the RCMP, CSIS and the Department of Justice to make small presentations and answer questions. The most recent was in London, Ont. in March.

McDonald said when news events like the arrests happen, he's thankful for their established partnership. That's not lost on the Muslim community either.

"I know we're talking about something terrible, but there are a lot of good news stories that are coming out of this," Hamdani said. "The key good news is that the Muslim community were key partners in making Canada safe and secure."

"It never ends and within our communities we continue to work every day to ensure there is safety, Bhatti said. "Whatever new things we can learn to benefit safety at a federal level, we will certainly do that."