Mother of dead Canadian jihadi launches de-radicalization effort

When Christianne Boudreau couldn't persuade other families of Canadian jihadis to come forward and speak with her about the horror they share, she vowed to go anywhere in the world to find just one person who understood. She not only found that person, she found purpose, writes Adrienne Arsenault.

'I can't just let Damian die in vain,' says Christianne Boudreau

Mother of dead Canadian jihadi speaks out

9 years ago
Duration 14:03
The mother of Damian Clairmont, a Calgary man who in January died fighting with ISIS in Syria, travels to France to meet the mother of another young jihadi with a similar story.

The mother of Damian Clairmont, a Calgary man who in January died fighting with ISIS in Syria, says she's tired of waiting for Canada to take action on de-radicalization. She is starting her own program for families of Canadian jihadis so other mothers don't lose their sons to the clutches of extremism.

"It's a lot to take on, but I don't know what else to do," Christianne Boudreau said.

"I have no choice at this point, because I can't just let Damian die in vain and that's the end of it, and just walk away from it and let it happen to another family ... I can't."

In her Calgary basement office, Boudreau's computer fights for space on her small desk with copies of letters that were sent over the past year and rarely answered; to the Prime Minister, to the chief of the Calgary police, to the head of CSIS.

Live Chat

Chat online with Adrienne Arsenault about homegrown extremism Tuesday Sept. 9 at 5:30 p.m. ET. Share your thoughts and ask questions about Canadian extremism and anti-radicalization. (Link becomes a replay after the chat.)

Her questions were broad and pained; How is it that even though CSIS was apparently watching and worrying about her son’s growing extremism, no one informed her until it was too late and he was already in Syria?

In one letter she asks, “If my son was under surveillance for two years in respect to the suspicion of his participation in a potential terrorist organization, how was he able to obtain a passport two months prior to his leaving Canada?”

She has also been desperate for emotional support for both herself and her other children, who are still trying to fathom how their big brother Damian could transform so profoundly and become a fighter with ISIS.

Not much help has been forthcoming.

“I had no one to reach out to, there was nobody who understood what I was going through," Boudreau says. "It was like I was in a bad movie and I couldn’t make it stop.”

Seeking answers

Boudreau tried connecting with other parents in Canada, looking for just one person she could talk with about the horrible guilt and fear and questions that swirl around her constantly: “What did I do wrong? How could the child I raised be hurting or killing people?”

Christianne Boudreau, mother of Calgary's Damian Clairmont who died in January in Syria fighting with ISIS, has been searching for programs that could help Canadian families of radicalized youths. (Adrienne Arsenault/CBC)

She knows she’s not alone in this. There are dozens of family members of other Canadian jihadis out there who are just as mystified and horrified. But almost all are staying silent, coping far away from the public spotlight.

With no-one in the government or her community answering Boudreau’s calls for help, this summer she went searching in Europe for programs to bring home to Canada. She also found someone who understood her angst, a woman named Domnique Bons in Toulouse, France.

Like Boudreau, Bons’ politically astute son Nicholas converted to Islam and started changing fundamentally. He became obsessed with the plight of the Syrians and vowed to act, not just talk.

By early 2012 he was talking of feeling uncomfortable living amongst non-Muslims in France, and soon after that he was in Syria, along with his younger half-brother Jean Daniel. Both ended up joining ISIS. And both died - Nicholas as a suicide bomber.

Like Boudreau, Bons took the bold and lonely step of speaking out publicly. And like Boudreau, she found that few families were willing to connect with her.


Now, the two women have a plan.

After sitting for hours and sharing lovingly built photo albums of their sons as little boys, parsing their lives and deaths and constantly replaying the questions about signs they saw or missed, they got to work.

Canadian-born Muslim convert Damian Clairmont left Calgary in 2012 for Syria, where he was killed while fighting with ISIS.

The pair decided to form an international mothers group, determined that there must be a way to intervene and stop the radicalization process before it’s too late. They are sharing best practices as they find them and are both poking at their respective governments to step up.

Boudreau has also set her sights on establishing the Canadian chapter of a German group called Hayat. That means "life" in Arabic, and its aim is to work with families to help de-radicalize young men and women.

Hayat is an offshoot of a German organization called "Exit," which has had good success in deprogramming neo-Nazis as if plucking them from a cult. Hayat adopts similar methodology and applies it to dealing with militant Islamists.

After meeting with its organizers in Berlin, Boudreau came away convinced that with the right funding and staff, a Hayat chapter could make a difference in Canada.

"It's a sense of reining them [radicals] back in so they are closer to the family again," she said. "They work with them closely after they've taken a step back and decided 'maybe this is not for me,' and help them get reintegrated within the community, finding a job, so they focus on the normalities."

Boudreau wasn’t the only one intrigued by Hayat. CBC News has learned that Canadian law enforcement officials visited the group a few months ago. And sources also tell CBC that a Canadian enforcement agency has been studying programs in a number of countries, including The Netherlands and Denmark, that use returning and reformed jihadists to help turn people off the path to radicalization.

Christianne Boudreau met Dominique Bons, whose son also died fighting with ISIS, in Toulouse, France. The pair are forming an international mothers group to help families intervene and stop the radicalization process. (CBC)

Additionally, the RCMP are in contact with British police who, besides wielding a heavy legislative stick, employ splashy public outreach campaigns to steer young men and women away from extremism.

All this is leading towards a strategy the RCMP will reportedly soon unveil. But for Boudreau, “soon” is too slow, so she and Bons are forging ahead with their own plans.

Germany’s Hayat is giving Boudreau logistical support to set up her group, which would be called Hayat Foundation Canada.

Her task may be huge, but she is starting at the grassroots level, building ties with her Calgary community. She has already been speaking with youth workers and mosques to offer herself as a resource to families struggling with this issue. 

And the community is also reaching out to her. This Thursday she will be speaking at Own It, a four-day conference in Calgary that brings together police, community leaders and families to discuss ways to stop radicalization.

There are signs others are taking notice as well. In the middle of a recent CBC interview, Boudreau received a phone call from an Ontario woman who is keen to join forces with her to seek federal grant money.

Boudreau has a long way to go to heal the pain of losing her son to radicalism, but vows that she and others like her will no longer have to go it alone.


Adrienne Arsenault

Senior Correspondent

Emmy Award-winning journalist Adrienne Arsenault co-hosts The National. Her investigative work on security has seen her cross Canada and pursue stories across the globe. Since joining CBC in 1991, her postings have included Vancouver, Washington, Jerusalem and London.