Toronto attack an opportunity to re-evaluate de-radicalization in Canada

The tragedy that unfolded on a busy stretch of Yonge Street last Monday, when a white rental van mounted a curb and killed 10 people, is providing an opportunity to take a fresh look at how Canada addresses violent extremism.

National centre run by government doesn't engage with individuals on the ground

The van used in the attack sits on a sidewalk near Yonge Street and Sheppard Avenue in Toronto. (Warren Toda/EFE/EPA)

One man, one van and a matter of minutes.

The tragedy that unfolded on a busy stretch of Yonge Street last Monday, when a white rental van mounted a curb and killed 10 people, is providing an opportunity to take a fresh look at how Canada addresses violent extremism.

A possible link to a misogynistic movement called 'incel' leaves questions about whether the government is prepared to tackle extremism on this new front, and where those sentiments fit on the radicalization continuum.

A post from the Facebook account of Alek Minassian, the 25-year-old accused driver, shows a connection to incel. 

"Private (Recruit) Minassian Infantry 00010, wishing to speak to Sgt 4chan please. C23249161. The Incel Rebellion has already begun! We will overthrow all the Chads and Stacys. All hail the Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger!" reads the post, made the same day as the attack.

The term incel is short for "involuntarily celibate," and the community that uses the label is typically dominated by men voicing frustration online about their lack of sexual relationships — sometimes blaming women for their failures with the opposite sex.

It's not the first time the incel movement has been linked to violence. Elliot Rodger, who killed six people and then himself in Isla Vista, Calif., in 2014, was also connected to it.

However, much of the de-radicalization work done in Canada is aimed at more widely recognized groups, such as ISIS, or far-right movements. Even then, most of the outreach from the federal government doesn't reach the ground. 

A young boy writes a message at the memorial. (Mark Bochsler/CBC)

National centre not involved on the ground

Public Safety Canada runs the Canada Centre for Community Engagement and Prevention of Violence, a year-old initiative that supports de-radicalization groups — though it doesn't do any intervention of its own.

Instead, the centre provides funding for other groups' research, education and intervention.

They target all forms of radicalization, not necessarily specific ones, a spokesperson for Minister Ralph Goodale said.

"The best way to keep communities safe is to come at this from both ends: having our security and law enforcement agencies use the full toolkit at their disposal, including surveillance and criminal charges, while simultaneously supporting community-based prevention and disengagement programs."

Goodale's office added it's not a matter of pouring resources into looking at a new movement when a violent actor is linked to it.

"Many subject matter experts on hate-motivated groups, including the kinds of groups under focus following the attack in Toronto, continue to inform the work of the Canada Centre," said a statement from Public Safety Canada. The statement did not address questions specifically relating to incel.

The centre is currently holding public consultations online during its development of a national strategy on countering radicalization to violence.

Budget 2016 provided $35 million over five years, and $10 million annually thereafter, to prevent extremism from taking root.

The centre's fund has $1.4 million available for projects in 2018-19.

The violence that took place in Toronto this week remains beyond comprehension. We wanted to understand what happens behind the scenes on Parliament Hill when an attack like this happens and find out whether the federal government is considering doing something in response to this week's tragedy. So we asked Mark Holland, the parliamentary secretary to the Public Safety Minister.

"We're very focused on going after some of the root causes of where extreme behaviour comes from," Mark Holland, parliamentary secretary to the minister of Public Safety, told CBC Radio's The House on Thursday.

"Obviously there are precursors to this kind of behaviour."

But the funding isn't a magic bullet when facing a foe whose definition is constantly evolving.

Holland said the government is looking at talking to auto manufacturers to find ways to prevent vehicle-based attacks in the future. It's also looking at how to better scour social media for signs of extreme views that could lead to violent attacks, and getting social media companies themselves involved in the effort.

With social media, he said, authorities have to watch for the moment when someone goes from offering an opinion to promoting violence.

"That's a very definitive line that cannot be crossed."

He added that his department and the centre are always looking to ramp up prevention efforts. Experts, on the other hand, wonder if Ottawa's approach to de-radicalization is the most effective way to address the ever-changing threat of domestic extremism.

'Decades of mistrust'

Public Safety Canada's job after an incident like the attack in Toronto should be to connect experts with community outreach programs, said Phil Gurski, a former CSIS analyst. If the government tries to get involved on the ground, he said, it would send the wrong message and "go as well as a lead balloon."

Having the national centre housed within Public Safety Canada — which also oversees the RCMP and CSIS — communicates an emphasis on law enforcement intervention, he added.

"You're going to have to work through decades of mistrust," Gurski said.

"This is the problem with putting these services within agencies whose primary mandate is corrective in nature."

However, most current community programs are also connected to local police departments, and experts on lesser-known movements like incel are hard to come by.

Should online misogyny be considered terrorism?

5 years ago
Duration 4:25
Should a growing trend of violent online misogyny be considered terrorism? The CBC’s Wendy Mesley speaks with former national security analyst Stephanie Carvin about the deadly Toronto van attack, which may have been inspired by an online ‘male supremacy’ group called Incels.

Gurski suggested funnelling more money and marketing into de-radicalization programs that actually interact with individuals. Doing that, he said, would help catch potential copycats before ideas breed violence.

Montreal, Toronto and Calgary each have programs with a mandate that includes prevention and intervention work on the ground.

The problem?

"They do a really good job, [but] nobody knows about them," said Gurski.


Elise von Scheel is a provincial affairs reporter with CBC Calgary and the producer of the West of Centre podcast. You can get in touch with her at elise.von.scheel@cbc.ca.