February 11, 2015

Knowing that it can’t fight terrorism alone, the RCMP has reached out to Canada’s diverse communities, participated in Muslim youth forums, attended cultural events and dinners, even held yoga classes for women of different cultural backgrounds. But is any of this feel-good community outreach working?

A report released Tuesday at a public safety conference in Ottawa suggests while the Mounties have made inroads, its outreach initiatives are “piecemeal and disjointed” and suffer from a “lack of a clear overall strategy.”

Some community members remain suspicious when police show up at gatherings, according to the report by researchers at the Royal United Services Institute, a British defence and security think-tank.

Even Mounties are confused as to what the overall aims of community outreach are: is it to project a smiling face and inform people what the RCMP does; or is it to collect hard intelligence? Should success be measured by the number of cultural events attended or the number of leads generated? What’s not helping, one Mountie told the authors, is some CSIS intelligence agents using the RCMP “brand” to gain access to community members, further hindering trust-building efforts.

Lead author Charlie Edwards said the allegation has not been substantiated but was included in the report to reflect the fear among some RCMP members that the “firewall” between community outreach and intelligence gathering may be “difficult to maintain.”

A CSIS spokeswoman said agents do not pass themselves off as RCMP.

“I see no value,” added Ray Boisvert, a former CSIS assistant director. “CSIS officers have developed their own unique narrative to approach and engage people.” An RCMP spokesman said the force was still reviewing the report’s findings and unable to comment.

The study, which received funding from the Canadian government, wasn’t all bad news. The RCMP’s outreach to the Muslim community around the time of the arrests of two men for allegedly plotting to derail a Via passenger train in Ontario was “universally hailed” as a success, the study reported.

Before the arrests were made public in April 2013, the RCMP convened Muslim community leaders from Montreal, where one of the suspects lived, to brief them on the case and answer questions.

“From the RCMP’s point of view, it was seen as a trust-building exercise designed to assure the community that it was the criminal ‘activity’ being targeted rather than the community itself,” the report said.

RCMP outreach officers have also participated in town halls with other public safety officials from CSIS and the Canada Border Services Agency. One of the more “out of the box” ideas the RCMP has tried is holding yoga classes in Toronto to try to engage ethnically diverse women.

According to the RCMP website, the program has attracted women of Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Somali, Indian and Chinese descent.

Sureya Ibrahim, community engagement worker at Toronto’s Centre for Community Learning and Development, said the outreach events have helped to improve relations between new immigrants and public safety officials.

“Most of the time when immigrants arrive they don’t know their rights and responsibilities. We have a lot of Muslims in this neighbourhood,” Ibrahim said. “We never thought we could be asking questions that openly.”

Some community leaders complained the RCMP spends too much time reaching out to religious leaders, while neglecting other voices. They also said the RCMP needs to do more than show up at events and sample “cultural food,” but also work at hiring more minorities.



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