Police in Longueuil, Quebec are collecting information on members of the city's Syrian community, an initiative they describe as refugee-outreach but that a local group fears could have ulterior motives.
Longueuil police told VICE News the project in the Montreal suburb is a proactive measure to better welcome the Syrian refugees slated to arrive in Canada by the end of the year.
"We'd like to have a list of people that could help us — interpreters, community members that might be from the same regions — to prepare the social fabric that will help [refugees]," said Longueuil Police spokesperson Benoît Tranchemontagne. "No one has given us a plan, we don't know where these people will be lodged, where they will be going."
But a local community organizer said the police officer who contacted her was asking for much broader information. "He called and asked me for a list of Syrian families in the area," said the woman, who asked to remain anonymous. "He said 'I want the names of those families and their phone numbers'."
"The timing is quite strange, considering they chose to call now, after the Paris attacks," she added. Suspicious of the intentions, she says she refused to provide the officer with any information.
Noureddine Belhocine, director of immigrant settlement organization La Maison Internationale de la Rive-Sud, says he was also contacted last week but that he found the call "normal." He says police reached out to see how they could help with the refugees' arrival, "but no one ever asked me for a list of Syrian people who live here."
Immigration lawyer Stéphane Handfield said that in his 20-plus-year career, he's never heard of this type of police involvement.
"That a local police force would decide on its own initiative to investigate on the Syrian families that are living on its territory, that's a first for me," he said. "It brings up a lot of questions and I find it worrisome."
Handfield said a network of government-recognized groups and associations is already in place to welcome asylum-seekers and help them get settled. "I'm also concerned to hear that a police force could know which family is a refugee family," he said. "When you're a refugee, it's confidential."
According to Handfield, the approach seems like a thinly-veiled surveillance tactic. "I see this as a way to compile information for potential records," he said.
Tranchemontagne insists this is a misconception. "[Surveillance] is not the goal right now, it's to eventually help people when they arrive."
The roots of this alleged Syrian census are unclear. The officer who asked for the list of families told the community organizer the initiative was launched at the request of Longueuil mayor Caroline St-Hilaire.
When asked about this claim, Tranchemontagne — who says the goal is to network with community leaders and organizers — said it was a concerted effort: "Well there was certainly some collaboration with the mayor but I think everyone was called upon to contribute," he said. "Naturally police have a lot of contacts with people from different communities on our territory, so we're maybe the best positioned to establish part of this network."
The Longueuil mayor's office did not respond to a request for comment.
Since the Paris attacks, Canada has seen an uptick in Islamophobic hate speech and acts, which has also led to a wave of anti-refugee sentiment. A Quebec-based petition against Canada's plan to take in 25,000 Syrian refugees has gathered more than 75,000 signatures.
The Longueuil community organizer said the whole situation has left community groups with a bad taste in their mouth.
"It's a weird link, and the fact that this directive was given to police? This is my interpretation, but it feels like profiling."
Follow Brigitte Noël on Twitter: @Brige_Noel