Edmonton de-radicalization program still sorting through tough questions two years after launch

Edmonton Journal, Canada/September 27, 2021

By  Jonny Wakefield

An Edmonton program that aims to help people disconnect from violent extremist movements has seen more than two dozen clients in its first two years, its executive director says.

Last week, the Organization for the Prevention of Violence (OPV) released a report on its Evolve program, which provides free supports to people seeking to leave extremist groups and ideologies. The program is staffed by a forensic psychologist, two social workers, two former members of the far-right movement and an Islamic scholar.

OPV executive director John McCoy said that while such a program might seem novel, similar organizations exist around the world.

“I think there’s a tendency to look at this problem and see it as an extraordinary problem,” he said of violent extremism. “And in some ways, it certainly is, because the potential outcomes of this issue … can be an act of violence.”

However, “if you think about programs like a gang-exit program, or Alcoholics Anonymous, or other services that exist around these social problems, then this seems less unique, less special in a way, because what it’s doing is offering individuals the same kind of supports.”

The OPV is funded by the federal government and REACH Edmonton, a community safety group. It launched in 2016 with a focus on studying, preventing and countering violent extremism in the Edmonton region. It operates at arm’s length from law enforcement, though several current and former police officers sit on its board.

In 2019, OPV researchers released a report which identified violent extremist movements in Alberta and concluded several were over-represented in the province. The group lists a number of warning signs for people who might be radicalizing, including justifying violence to bring about social change, blaming one’s problems on one group of people, collecting hate paraphernalia and media, and believing society is about to collapse.

The organization started the Evolve program that same year. It offers a range of services, including counselling, mentoring, addiction support, help navigating the justice system and basic needs like employment, food and housing.

In its first two years, the program took on 29 cases. Sixteen of those were direct participants in extremist groups, while the remaining 13 were family members. Its current caseload sits at 37.

Of the 16 participants, 14 were men. Their average age was 33. Most espoused what researchers call ideologically motivated violent extremism, followed by religiously motivated violent extremism. The remainder were proponents of conspiracy theories linked to violence, such as QAnon.

McCoy said most participants come to the program for some form of counselling.

“Some people have mental health issues, they have unprocessed trauma, they have deep-seated issues at the family level,” he said. “Others want mentorship — they want to speak to someone who’s been there, experienced this problem, and successfully gotten out.”

While the vast majority of participants assisted by the Evolve program were men, all but one of the 13 family members who received services were women — a finding the report called “striking.” They include family members of far-right supporters and QAnon adherents, as well as a client with loved ones detained in northern Syria for alleged links to the so-called Islamic State.

Similar programs exist across the country, but McCoy said there is no agreement on the right model. Some, like Calgary’s ReDirect program, are embedded within police services. Others are run through governments, while others, like the OPV, are run by academics at arm’s length from the state.

Most of the Evolve program’s clients are referred by another program or are self-referrals. About a third, however, were referred by police or correctional authorities, which McCoy said raises ethical issues around “not so voluntary” participation in what is meant to be a voluntary program.

The report states: “We make it clear to participants that the Evolve program is not an extension of the justice system, and that our team does not execute the conditions set out by police or probation orders.”

‘A growing social problem’

There is also debate within the OPV over how to address groups QAnon and involuntary celibates (Incels), who don’t fit neatly within the OPV’s mandate.

“There are no real specialized programs for these individuals,” said McCoy. “This is a growing social problem, especially in the context of COVID and what’s going on politically in the United States. And these individuals are experiencing the same sort of processes that you would see when it comes to violent extremism, the same family divides.”

For now, “we felt responsibility to work with the population,” he said.

In the future, OPV hopes to expand the Evolve program and create a network of similar organizations in smaller communities. It is also exploring creating materials on violent extremism to distribute in schools.

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