A member of the Muslim Students’ Association (MSA) at the University of Regina said a friend told him to avoid the club, as it was common for members to be contacted by the national spy agency.
The student, who wishes to remain anonymous, dismissed his friend as paranoid—until the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) called him over the summer, asking to meet up at a coffee shop to chat.
The agent wouldn't tell him why, he said, and when he declined, the agent became frustrated and hung up.
“I was like, what if I say something, or rub him the wrong way? Would that have a detrimental effect on me for the future?” the student wondered.
He said he spent the next week going over “everything I've ever done”—any reason the national spy agency would call his cell phone. He eventually decided he probably wasn't in trouble, but the experience left him shaken.
“Getting a call from Canada's spy agency, that's not something you take lightly,” he said.
The coffee shop invitation is a common tactic used by CSIS, according to Leila Nasr, the communications coordinator for the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM), to get information out of young Muslims on their friends or other MSA members they suspect might be radicalized.
Muslim students are targeted by national law enforcement “all the time,” Nasr said. In the last four years the NCCM has dealt with cases at the University of Toronto, University of Waterloo, York University, Dalhousie University and Carleton University.
As The Varsity originally reported, CSIS and the RCMP have been dropping by the U of T Muslim Students’ Association without warning for the past three years—sometimes to executives’ homes.
Nasr stressed that students never have to talk to law enforcement. Refusing to meet can never be held against them in court, even if they’re not a Canadian citizen.
The trend is “heartbreaking,” Nasr said.
"It's so discouraging to hear that students, many of whom are just visiting Canada to complete their studies, can feel so securitized, so attacked, almost, just for going about their daily life with nothing to hide," she said.
In a statement to VICE, CSIS said it emphasizes that discussions are voluntary and ensures their approach is “lawful, ethical, necessary, and proportionate."
Any CSIS investigation into an academic or religious institution “is subject to additional safeguards and requirements including review by the Security Intelligence Review Committee,” the agency said.
Dr. Joel Schindel, a chaplain with the Canadian Muslim Chaplain Organization who has been working with the MSA at the University of Saskatchewan for the last decade, said about 10 students have come up to him over the years asking for advice after being contacted by CSIS.
So when a middle-aged white man showed up to the group’s weekly study session in the fall of 2016, he decided to chat him up.
"He started asking me what are my thoughts on Sharia law, and what do I think about Abu Omar al-Baghdadi,” he said. "It was … obviously odd, and not sincere."
Wanting to make sure everyone was safe, Schindel followed the man outside, where he said the man turned to him.
“He was like, 'OK, look, I am with the RCMP,’” Schindel said.
The man said he “just wanted to reach out to the community,” according to Schindel. “And I said, well, this is a weird way to reach out.”
The man left without incident, he said.
Saskatchewan RCMP spokesperson Rob King said officers visit all types of religious groups to “build bridges,” but no officer has ever visited the U of S MSA covertly.
The University of Saskatchewan said it was unaware of this incident.
U of S MSA Secretary Iqra Khan said it’s unfortunate how often police target Muslim students when Muslims themselves are often targets of violence in Saskatchewan.
“Muslims are scared too in Saskatoon, in our community. They’re coming after students when they should really be asking us how they can make us feel safer,” she said.
MSAs are “sanctuaries” for Muslim students who face Islamophobia every day, said Dr. Ayesha Chaudhry, an associate professor of Islamic studies at the University of British Columbia—and disrupting them can easily backfire for law enforcement, leading to “precisely the kind of feelings of alienation that might lead to radicalization.”
The effects of discrimination and surveillance can eventually transform how marginalized people view themselves, according to Sabreena Ghaffar-Siddiqui, a researcher on immigration and race at McMaster University who has interviewed dozens of Muslims, many of whom are students.
That pressure can destroy the confidence of young Muslims who are active in their community, creating a leadership gap and magnifying feelings of alienation for the next generation.
If law enforcement wanted to engage effectively with Muslim communities, Chaudhry said, they could start by engaging more with white supremacist organizations.
"If I saw state actors really taking deradicalization seriously and really learning about how it works … then there would be space for me to trust that they have done their homework,” she said.
"But I think the onus is on them to prove that they're trustworthy. And the kind of behaviour that they're engaging in does not create trust for me."
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