While its official opening date is still up in the air, North America's first center devoted to the prevention of radicalization has already intervened in more than 80 cases, VICE News has learned. Of these, a handful have been transferred to police.
The creation of Info-Radical, or the center for the prevention of radicalization leading to violence, was announced by Montreal mayor Denis Coderre last March. The project was launched following a series of much-publicized cases of radicalized Quebec youth allegedly leaving — or attempting to leave— to join the Islamic State.
Law enforcement is only enlisted when cases present an element of danger to oneself or to others, according to the center's communications adviser Marie-Christine Vanier. The rest of the interventions, led by the center's social workers and mental health professionals, are confidential and deal with "worrisome situations of radicalization."
At the helm is Herman Deparice-Okomba, a longtime civilian member of the Montreal police who advised on issues of race and radicalization. Vanier said that between 12 to 17 employees work (or will work) at the center.
Yet while the organization has been operational since March, the formal launch of the services and website is now more than a month overdue. Vanier said staff have nevertheless been busy visiting local community centers and schools to offer workshops and presentations.
"Radicalization is really a spectrum, and in the media we often only see a sliver of this spectrum," she said, adding that the centre is interested in the entire gamut of radical thought. "What we're concerned about is radicalization that leads to violence. You can be radical in your opinions, but that can be ok."
Vanier said that most of the queries they field are general questions about radicalization. "People call in to get more information on the conflict in Syria, we get questions about right-wing radicalization," she lists off. In total, interventions have been required in about a quarter of the 360 calls the center has fielded since its inception, and cases involving law enforcement represent less than one per cent of calls.
"We're focused mainly on prevention, and we have a team of professionals who go out on the field and share information on radicalisation in general and in all its forms."
The center also gets weekly questions about right-wing radicalisation, a surprising trend she said needs to be addressed.
Some calls, from worried loved ones or relatives, delve into more specific cases. "Parents call us because they have questions, they want to better understand their child, and often that's the only help they need," Vanier said.
In these instances, staff begin their evaluation with a questionnaire to gauge whether the case fits the radicalisation criteria. "You have to distinguish between someone who has simply changed their life habits and someone who has changed their lifestyle to radicalise," Vanier said. "We need to ask questions to better understand what the person is seeing."
When necessary, she said the staff follow up and build a diagnosis, which can lead to the creation of an intervention plan. In less worrisome situations, the center offers support and stays in touch to continue monitoring the case.
In order to respect callers' confidentiality, Vanier said the center operates independently from law enforcement. "We don't give information to anyone, not even police." In the exceptional cases that require police intervention, families are encouraged to contact authorities themselves. "It's a concerted approach that allows us to maintain the population's trust," she said. "And in many cases, it allows us to prevent judicialization."
The main offer, she maintains, is that of support. "We act as a buffer, a filter, as help. We are there to provide resources," she said. "There's nothing worse than [turning someone in] against their will, sometimes that's worse."
Follow Brigitte Noel on Twitter: @Brige_Noel