Toronto couple desperate for help to deradicalize son involved with white supremacist groups

A Toronto couple is desperate to get help for their son, who they say has been radicalized by white supremacist groups, but have been told there's little that can be done.

Parents told little can be done unless their son poses an imminent threat to himself or others

A Toronto couple, whose identity CBC News has agreed to conceal, say they are desperate to find help for their son, a young adult they say has become deeply involved with white supremacist groups. (Radio-Canada)

A Toronto couple is desperate to get help for their son, who they say has been radicalized by white supremacist groups, but have been told there's little that can be done.

The family, whose identity CBC News has agreed to conceal, describe their son as a "relatively high functioning" young man on the autism scale. They say he has become involved with extremist groups in the Greater Toronto Area and elsewhere in Canada and the U.S. and has grown increasingly withdrawn in recent years.

"He is continuing to fall further away into a direction and into a place where he will become more radicalized and violent," the man's father told Radio-Canada.

The family say they reached out to a Quebec government-funded deradicalization centre in Montreal, where 10 per cent of the calls come from outside the province, mostly the Toronto area, but say they were told the centre's mandate was to help those in its jurisdiction.

Their struggle highlights the absence of deradicalization help available in Ontario, where to date there are no programs specifically designed to help young people in their son's situation.

That may soon be changing. In April, the Canadian Council of Imams announced it is working to launch two to three deradicalization clinics starting this fall. 

The clinics would take a "holistic" approach to supporting at-risk youth involving an intake system to determine whether psychological counselling, social services or religious approaches, among others, would be best suited to a given individual.

Isolated and hateful

But the family say they feel stuck. Their ordeal began about 10 years ago when their son, whom they describe as "highly intelligent," started spending hours on end interacting with white supremacist groups online. Over the years, his behaviour began to change; he grew socially isolated and began spewing hateful rhetoric, the family say.

It's a transformation that Prince George, B.C.-based Daniel Gallant has lived first-hand. A former neo-Nazi, Gallant now combines his experience in white supremacist circles with his counselling psychology background to help young people make their exit from extremist groups.

Gallant first shared his story on a national scale as part of "Extreme Dialogue," a federally funded program by Public Safety Canada that aims to "reduce the appeal of extremism among young people." But, he says, the resources for those engaged in the effort against extremism are severely lacking.

"We have ongoing recruitment of youth both with the right-wing narrative and within the ISIS narrative and others … and the longer that we wait for these resources to be developed, the worse the problem is going to get," Gallant said.

"As it is right now, things are fragmented. There are very few practitioners that are around that are receiving funding and resources."

'A whole new ball game' 

The Toronto parents said they took their concerns to local police, but were told little can be done unless their son posed an imminent threat to others or himself.

"It seemed like all they wanted to do was to create a file to use for him in the event that it ever becomes a criminal matter," the mother said.

"We spill our guts to them saying we need help.… As a family we're talking about getting some support for our son, and all [they] care about is records."

Former CSIS analyst Phil Gurski  has been helping to train law enforcement agencies to better equip them to help before radicalized youth take a criminal turn.

He says the lack of help provided to families in the "pre-criminal space" comes from "a lack of training and a lack of awareness" among police officers.

Former CSIS analyst Phil Gurski has been helping to train law enforcement agencies to better equip them to help before radicalized youth take a criminal turn. (Phil Gurski)

"These are wonderful people and they're very dedicated officers, but this isn't their strength. When you're a law enforcement officer, generally speaking, you're being taught to deal with criminal activity. This is a whole new ball game," Gurski said.

But for the Toronto man's family, that lack of help underscores a much larger problem.

'Treated as a criminal matter'

"The problem with radicalization in this country is it's treated as a criminal matter. It's not being treated as a social matter.… The problem is that there are social inequities and social problems with people as to why they're becoming disillusioned and isolated," the man's father said.

There are few like Gallant who have lived a life of violent extremism themselves and who can help young people understand its dangers.

"We can't bring those voices to him.… He needs to hear from people who have been where he is and can tell him what these groups are all about," the man's father said.

That's something Gurski says could be a promising new frontier for deradicalization work, provided those involved are sufficiently deradicalized themselves and are the right fit to assist others.

"I think it's a great possibility and I hope we do it, but we're going to have to it carefully, we're going to have to offer these people protection in some cases, and we're going to have to vet them to see if they're the best representatives."

For now, the federal government has earmarked $35 million in the budget to create a counter-radicalization co-ordinator next year, promising an additional $10 million for the initiative each subsequent year.

The federal government has earmarked $35 million to create a counter-radicalization co-ordinator next year. 'This office will be a useful tool to contact our kids and youth in the field,' parliamentary secretary to the minister of public safety Michel Picard told Radio-Canada. (Radio-Canada)

"This office will be a useful tool to contact our kids and youth on the field.… We are at the point where we have to contact, consult and talk … to stakeholders to have the best practices possible," Ministry of Public Safety parliamentary secretary Michel Picard told Radio-Canada.

'One day, when it's too late'

But Gurski warns that funding alone isn't enough.

"The challenge is to determine which grassroots organizations and people are best placed to do this.… There are a lot of questions that need to be answered around who gets the money, how they use the money, what is the government involvement and what's the evaluation metric," he said.

In the meantime, the Toronto parents say they are still searching for help, reaching out to community groups beyond their own for assistance.

"We've had better involvement from religious groups outside our religion than those from inside," the man's father said.

They've heard about the government's $35-million promise but are afraid of what could happen to their son in the meantime.

"[It'll be ] one day, when it's too late for parents and people like us."

With files from Raphael Bouvier Auclair and Radio-Canada