Muslim student in Ottawa 'weirded out' by unexpected CSIS meeting

Biftu Hulo still remembers the day — not long after she became head of the Carleton University Muslim Students Association — that her phone rang.

Former CSIS analyst said calls are about building relationships

Biftu Hulo, the former head of the Carleton University Muslim Students Association, said she had just taken the position when Canada's spy agency got in touch. (Carelton University Muslim Students Assocation)

Biftu Hulo still remembers the day — not long after she became head of the Carleton University Muslim Students Association — that her phone rang.

When she picked up, she couldn't believe who was on the line: a representative from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, or CSIS. 

"Honestly, my first thought was, how did they get my number?" Hulo recently told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning.

The call led to a lunch meeting with someone from the agency. At first, she said, the conversation was casual. 

Then, Hulo said, it took a turn. 

'Feel kind of obliged to talk'

"They started bringing up the John McGuire case from [the University of Ottawa] and the [Awso] Peshdary case from [Algonquin College], where these students go off to fight with ISIS and they had links with Muslim student associations in Ottawa," she said.

She was encouraged to notify CSIS if she saw anything suspicious on campus, if she felt like someone might harm her or if she knew about hate crimes, she said.

"You kind of feel kind of obliged to talk to them. If you say no, then they are going to keep a watch on you," she said.

While Hulo said her overall experience with CSIS was positive, she did feel a bit "weirded out" by the whole thing.

And Hulo isn't alone.

Support hotline created in Toronto

Surprise visits or phone calls from Canada's spy agency or law enforcement are an increasingly familiar experience at various university campuses across the country, with Muslim students often on the receiving end.

So much so that a student support hotline was recently set up at the University of Toronto's Institute of Islamic Studies.

In an emailed statement, CSIS spokesperson John Townsend wrote that as the agency "builds relationships with individuals to collect information and advise our government about threats to national security," it lets people know discussions are voluntary, and "that CSIS respects the confidentiality, discretion, and the privacy rights of those with whom we interact.

"In fulfilling our mandate, there may be instances in which CSIS' lawfully authorized investigations come into contact with individuals associated with Canadian fundamental institutions such as religious institutions and academia," the statement continued.

"Any investigation by CSIS that comes into contact with a Canadian fundamental institution is subject to additional safeguards and requirements, including review by the National Security Intelligence Review Agency (NSIRA) formerly SIRC."

'Responding to the threat'

While it may seem like CSIS is disproportionately focusing on Muslim students, a former senior strategic analyst for the agency told Ottawa Morning it could be that they're the only ones reporting the encounters.

"The fact that we haven't heard from other community groups isn't surprising," Jessica Davis said.

"I think it's reasonable that a lot of people wouldn't want to report that they had been approached by CSIS."

A woman smiles at the camera in a photo taken outdoors.
Former CSIS analyst Jessica Davis believes many Canadians struggle with understanding the agency's mandate. (

Still, she said, one of the main threats facing Canada has been terrorism committed or inspired by al-Qaeda and ISIS.

"Unfortunately, the reality of the situation is that those two terrorist organizations have attracted young Muslims from Canada, so CSIS is responding to the threat on that issue."

Calls from CSIS are about building relationships with communities, Davis said, and are made in an effort to identify people who may have information relevant to ongoing investigations.

However, she believes the agency could be more transparent about what groups they are approaching and what segments of the population they are trying to communicate with.

"It would potentially help students who have been approached feel less targeted or singled out," said Davis.

With files from Shanifa Nasser and CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning