Politics

Mounties worried about anti-immigrant backlash after terrorism arrests: documents

The RCMP were concerned about anti-immigrant sentiments in the wake of the thwarted Kingston terrorist plot, new internal documents show.

Police detained, then released, a man of Syrian descent during Project Salento last January

Police officers carry evidence after raiding a house in Kingston, Ontario, on Jan. 24, 2019. (Lars Hagberg/Canadian Press)

The RCMP was worried about anti-immigrant backlash in the wake of an alleged Kingston terrorist plot and raised concerns about a rise in protests due to "the government's position on immigration," new internal documents show.

Last January, the national police force charged a minor following a series of raids at two homes in Kingston after getting a tip from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation — an operation dubbed "Project Salento."

Police also arrested an adult male in connection with an alleged plan to detonate explosives at an undisclosed location, but later released him. He was from Syria originally and came to Canada with his family in 2017 through a private refugee sponsorship program after living in Kuwait for 10 years.

On the day of the arrests, the RCMP, with the Kingston Police, drafted a public engagement strategy, a copy of which was obtained through an access to information request.

"The arrest of a Syrian refugee may cause some negative reaction on the Syrian population and immigrant population due to current anti-immigration sentiments," the strategy document reads.

"Families and communities are deeply affected when police take enforcement action during a national security investigation due to the stigma attached to 'terrorism'."

A spokesperson for the force said such strategies represent a recent shift for the RCMP, which has long been criticized over its treatment of minorities in Canada. In recent days the RCMP has come under attack after a report surfaced saying police were prepared to use snipers on Wet'suwet'en Nation protesters blockading a natural gas pipeline in northern B.C.

"Given the anti-immigration protests in Canada following the government's position on immigration, it was important to provide support to this affected community of Kingston," said Cpl. Caroline Duval.

"Historically, efforts for safeguarding Canada's national security used to be primarily focused on enforcement and disruption. Public engagement strategies are now undertaken with communities that are impacted by arrests of this nature. They are not necessarily common and the level of engagement and support to a community is determined on a case-by case basis."

In the hours after the arrests, police organized a town hall with Islamic community groups, mental health workers and counsellors in the Kingston area.

Duval said the RCMP did not receive any reports of hate-related activities targeting Kingston's Syrian community following the arrests.

"This being said, the RCMP must remain vigilant for potential threats to the safety and security of Canadians and take active measures to continue fulfilling this commitment," she said.

"Particularly during sensitive times — as in the aftermath of Project Salento — the RCMP public engagement unit members meet with community representatives to apprise them of developments and to respond to any questions or concerns around the investigation and its potential impact."

Heated political debate on immigration 

Project Salento played out during a particularly heated political conversation about immigration in Canada, when many were expressing concerns about a rise in asylum seekers at the Canada-U.S. border.

As the story of the alleged Kingston attack gained traction in the news, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, who has long called for tighter security at the border, attempted to assign some blame for the developments to the Liberal government.

"It is also clear that Canada's refugee screening process needs to be seriously examined," he said in a statement at the time, citing a 2017 audit of the Canada Border Services Agency which found gaps in the security screening of some Syrian refugees.

Ralph Goodale, then the public safety minister, called Scheer's comments on bolstering the security of the refugee screening system premature.

The teen's lawyer has said he hopes to proceed with a preliminary inquiry on the terrorism charges early this year.

With files from Kathleen Harris

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