Thursday, 27 October 2016 20:11

Do Returning IS fighters Deserve an Amnesty?

Commentary by Phil Gurski in Ottawa

Historically, amnesties have been offered to former combatants in an attempt to stop the violence and allow a country the chance to rebuild itself. 

A really good example where an amnesty seemed to work would be in South Africa where it was part of that nation's Truth and Reconciliation Commission post-Apartheid.  On the other hand, amnesty for fighters was rejected in the recent Colombian referendum on ending the half century war with the FARC.

Amnesties can be hard to sell.  Conflicts where hundreds or thousands of people have been killed by insurgencies or guerrilla movements or terrorists can result in acrimony and long memories where populations are unwilling to let those responsible for the violence get off lightly.  This is what appears to have happened in the narrow defeat of the Colombian referendum.

A question that is being asked by some is whether we should consider offering an amnesty to returning foreign fighters with Islamic State.  One such proposal was published recently by David Wells (full disclosure: Wells is an acquaintance and, like me, a former intelligence analyst).  He wrote that by offering a "plea bargain" to those who are coming home disillusioned, security intelligence and law enforcement agencies could focus their limited resources on those who pose a real threat to their homelands upon return.

Brutality and inhumanity

Wells does offer a few cautionary statements about the difficulties of carrying out such an amnesty and I want to build on those (NB: more in my forthcoming book Western Foreign Fighters: the threat to homeland and international security).

To my mind, the single greatest obstacle to social acceptance of any form of amnesty for those who joined IS is the sheer brutality and inhumanity of the group's actions.  Whether we are talking about beheadings, immolations, throwing people off roofs, raping girls or selling women into slavery, the depravity so rampant among IS members puts them in a special level of hell. 

No one will want to see these animals get any break on the punishment they so richly deserve.

Compounding this problem is determining who did what in theatre. Aside from the really stupid ones who posted videos online boasting of their lust for violence and those even more stupid to return home – assuming they have not been Hellfired into oblivion (the best case scenario really) – we will probably not be able to determine who the worst actors are.

Gathering evidence

States will want to prosecute those guilty of war crimes, but unless we have posted videos as evidence, this will be very difficult.  Gathering such evidence in a conflict zone like Syria is unquestionably a challenge and it is not as if we can rely on Syrian authorities for help (besides, given recent cases of Syrian-Canadian "collaboration" in several alleged torture incidents, Syrian assistance would be politically impossible even if it were offered).

Furthermore, what do we do with the confessions/denials of some returnees? While it is probable that there are legitimate instances of those who are disgusted with what they saw and may not have actually contributed to the horror, how do we make that determination?  Whom do we believe?

In the end, the fact that these individuals have left Canada (or many other countries) to join IS (or other groups) is a criminal offence and it is in the interest of the state to pursue legal action where the evidence is available.  Each case will have to be judged on its merits and there may be ones where an amnesty – or the decision not to take to trial – can be considered.

"Forgiving" populations

We do have one instance of this already in Canada when the Crown chose not to charge three young women from the Toronto area after they unsuccessfully tried to travel to Syria to join IS (they were interdicted in Egypt thanks to excellent police work on this end).

We also have to bear in mind that some of these ex-combatants will still pose a threat to our societies. We have already seen attacks carried out by returnees and we will see more.  It is not unreasonable to predict that over the next five years or so our security intelligence and law enforcement agencies will be very busy trying to stop future attacks by returning terrorists.

I suppose that amnesties are feasible where there are at least some people on both sides of the conflict who can see the perspective and justification of violence from the other's point of view.  And, yet, it is impossible to imagine a scenario where anyone views the actions of IS this way. 

There are also significant differences in the nature of conflict where amnesties appear to have had a positive effect – say South Africa – versus ones where the "forgiving" population has not been beset by direct warfare in their own backyards.  If you are not from Syria or Iraq, you have not witnessed the daily carnage caused by IS and are thus less willing to take a chance to end it by offering amnesty.

I fear that anyone who proposes forgiving returning terrorists will have a very tough job ahead of them.  And, I am not sure that this is a good idea in the first place.

Phil Gurski worked for more than  three decades in Canadian intelligence, including 15 at Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), and is the author of the Threat from Within and the forthcoming Western Foreign Fighters (Rowan and Littlefield). He blogs at

Published in Commentary
Thursday, 06 October 2016 19:19

Consulting Citizens on Anti-Terrorism Policy

Commentary by Phil Gurski  

Should governments seek public approval on counter terrorism policy?

By now, I am sure that you are aware of the fact that a referendum carried out by the Colombian government on a peace deal with the FARC guerrillas was narrowly defeated.  The difference between those in favour and those opposed was razor-thin, something like 50.2-49.8%  In other words, the vote could have gone either way.  My reading is that the low turnout was due in part due to bad weather and perhaps some complacency since everyone had predicted a comfortable margin of victory for the yes side (again showing that you can’t always rely on polls).

In a previous blog I argued in favour of a peace accord but also recognized that there were many valid reasons why some Colombians had a hard time accepting an agreement under which terrorists would walk away relatively scot-free after decades of human rights violations.  In the end, those opposed won the day, and while both the government and the rebels have said that they will honour an existing ceasefire, the lack of a way forward does not bode well as many want the conditions for amnesty toughened.

Fundamental question

But, I think there is a more fundamental question that needs to be asked: should the government have gone with a referendum in the first place?  Should Colombians have had a say in the matter?  More broadly, should governments consult their electorates on counter-terrorism policy?

My late father-in-law once told me something very profound.  He had made the acquaintance of the Speaker of (Canadian) Parliament who was an MP from my father-in-law's home riding. The speaker and my father-in-law were once talking about how often governments should ask the opinion of voters on a variety of issues. 

My father-in-law replied, very wisely I thought, that governments do exactly that – every four years.  This consultation is called an election.  Parties put out their platforms and voters cast their ballots, in part, on whether they like what they hear.  We then trust, perhaps naively, in those politicians to do what they said they would. 

In other words, they don’t have to ask us for our views on every little matter.  My father-in-law believed it to be a huge waste of money for our officials to spend on asking us what we think: he felt that they were being paid to make decisions.  He may have been a foreman at Stelco (a steel company in Hamilton) but he had a lot of wisdom to impart.

Nothing gained

What does any of this have to do with terrorism? A lot, actually. Governments seem to think that they need to run counter-terrorism policies by their citizenry before implementing them. This may be admirable, but it is neither efficient nor helpful.  With all due respect to my fellow Canadians, they are not experts in terrorism, nor should they be.  After all, were the government to plan a new strategy to fight cancer, would it ask its citizens to comment on the technical merit of the science involved?

There are opportunities for input aside from elections every four years.  Experts can be brought in to voice their opinions and this is exactly what is done both in parliamentary or Senate hearings and within departments.  Canadians with something to say have ample time to do so.

The fact is that our security intelligence and law enforcement agencies are competent and know how to tackle the terrorism problem. They are constrained in what they do by both laws and policies and there are mechanisms (maybe there should be more parliamentary oversight) to register complaints.

I am not sure what is gained by seeking public approval for counter-terrorism strategy, a position adopted by the Trudeau government with its green paper on national security.  Nor am I certain why the Colombian government opted for a referendum on the peace process with the FARC.

I am not trying to be elitist.  It’s just that we elect governments to do a job and if we don’t like the job they do we kick the bums out of office.  That is how democracy works.  Perhaps, we should leave counter-terrorism strategies to the professionals: those who disagree with how it is being done can always try to sign up and effect change from within.

Phil Gurski worked for more than  three decades in Canadian intelligence, including 15 at Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), and is the author of the Threat from Within and the forthcoming Western Foreign Fighters (Rowan and Littlefield). He blogs at

Published in Policy

by Aurora Tejeida (@Aurobots) in Vancouver

As the New Year kicks off there is a lot to keep abreast of within the Latin American diaspora. Here’s a look at some of the headlines that made the most waves in recent weeks within the Latin American media.

New Canadian Migration Rules May Lead to Fraud and Racism

One of the purposes of Canada’s new migration rules, specifically the Express Entry system, is to hand out more permanent residencies and to reduce the time applicants need to wait. The country is expected to admit 285,000 permanent residents this year, as opposed to last year’s 265,000.

While some may laud the Conservative government’s policies – which favour those who have job offers or are already working – others think the new model can easily lead to racism and fraud, since they consider it gives all the power to Canadian companies.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]The news portal La Portada (a site for Hispanics living in Canada) says that the new policies will benefit professional migrants by helping them land a job... but the downside might be greater, as the site claims the biggest losers of the new system are refugees, families, men and women over the age of 35 and those that don’t speak English or French fluently.[/quote]

The news portal La Portada (a site for Hispanics living in Canada) says that the new policies will benefit professional migrants by helping them land a job – statistics show that the unemployment rate for professional migrants is 50 per cent higher than that of native Canadians.

But the downside might be greater, as the site claims the biggest losers of the new system are refugees, families, men and women over the age of 35 and those that don’t speak English or French fluently. The new point-based system will benefit those who are younger, single, educated and fluent in English or French, leaving out many migrants from economically developing countries, many of which are in Latin America.

New policies have also diminished health care for refugee claimants and made it harder for migrants to bring their parents to Canada. Some critics say racism is an issue and point to the strict finance checks required for citizens of “poorer” countries – who must prove they are “wealthy enough” even if they just want to visit Canada as tourists.Ayotzinapa protest in Vancouver. Photo Credit: Ivan Calderon

Rallying for Student Murders in Mexico

This past fall, members of the Mexican communities in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver organized demonstrations and sit-ins to denounce the Mexican government and demand the safe return of 43 rural students who went missing at the hands of police last September. Most of the demonstrations, which were attended by students, activists and members of several Latin American countries, were staged outside Mexican consulates during the months of October and November. 

On September 26, following a confrontation between local police and student demonstrators outside of the Raul Isidro Burgos Rural Teachers’ College of Ayotzinapa, six students were killed and 43 were taken by police. The officers were allegedly following an order from the mayor of the town of Iguala in the southern state of Guerrero. According to Mexican federal authorities, the police then handed the students over to a local drug cartel. During the search for their bodies, mass graves were found. Current police investigations point to a nearby dumpster where it appears a large number of bodies had been incinerated, but so far the government hasn’t been able to prove whether the bodies are those of the missing students.

Less than two per cent of crimes are prosecuted in Mexico, where violence has increased dramatically since Felipe Calderón’s presidency. Eighty thousand people have been murdered and more than 22,000 have gone missing since 2006.

Footage from one of the rallies held in Vancouver.


Latin America Soccer Cup Comes to Toronto

Eglinton Flats hosted the first Latin American soccer cup held in Toronto after eight consulates –Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, México, Uruguay and Brazil – decided to organize the sporting event as one of the activities for the Latin American health week.

The tournament, geared toward men over 18, took place in August, and proceeds went to help promote health among Toronto’s Latin American community. The purpose of Latin American health week is to offer free medical consults in Spanish, as well as services that aren’t usually offered by Ontario’s provincial health system.

Mexicans Migrating to Canada: Safety Over Economics

Mexico’s rise of violence and criminal activity is pushing young, educated residents and middle class families out of the country. For years the stereotypical image of the Mexican migrants was that of men and women who often risked their lives to move to the U.S. and Canada to help support their families back home, even though their migration status often meant that job offers were reduced to construction, agriculture and domestic services.

But Mexico is starting to breed a different type of migrant, one that isn’t leaving the country for economic reasons. According to La Portada, the Mexican government is refusing to release hard data, but studies done by Mexico’s National Autonomous University (UNAM) show that northern states are the most affected by this new trend, which unfortunately for Mexico is mostly made up of highly qualified and educated young men and women.

Canada currently asks Mexican nationals for a visa, even if they’re just visiting the country. The Latin American country is considered safe by the Canada Border Services Agency, which means it’s virtually impossible for a Mexican to be granted refugee status, even though the country is suffering from extreme violence and travel warnings to certain states are not rare. 

Diplomatic Relations Between Canada and Colombia at All-Time Best

Colombia’s president Juan Manuel Santos and the Governor General of Canada, David Johnston, held a meeting in Colombia to broaden cooperation and strengthen the relationship between both countries.

President Santos assured journalists that diplomatic relations between both countries are at their best moment in history and mentioned specific areas they hope to work on.

The areas President Santos spoke of were education and technology, whereas Governor General Johnston spoke about natural resources in Colombia and more educational opportunities for Colombian nationals in Canada.

Other subjects that were discussed include culture, mining investments, energy and oil. For over 40 years, Canada has invested more than $137 million in Colombia; most of the money is destined to protect children, create better access to education and to protect human rights, among other things.

When it comes to education, Johnston also spoke about expanding scholarship offers to Colombian students through a young-leaders-of-America program. 

Aurora Tejeida is a Vancouver-based multimedia journalist who's originally from Mexico. She has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of British Columbia and she's written stories for The Tyee, Vice and The Toronto Star, among other publications. When she’s not writing about culture, the environment or migration, she’s wandering around the city trying to find a decent place for tacos. 


{module NCM Blurb}

Published in Latin America
Sunday, 31 August 2014 17:29

Pulse: Latin America (July - Aug. 2014)

by Aurora Tejeida (@AuroBots) in Vancouver

The following is a compilation of the most important news stories reported by Latin American media in Canada, during July and August.

A columnist for La Portada believes Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker program is going wind down soon

According to Angélica González Blanco, a columnist for La Portada, the recent changes made by Citizenship and Immigration Canada represent a threat to the Temporary Foreign Workers program, which she believes is soon going to soon become extinct.

She also believes the new regulations will have a negative impact on Canada’s economy, as companies won’t be able to obtain the labour force they need through the “rigorous” new process that is aimed at making things harder for temporary foreign workers. She goes on to say that the new regulations reflect the way the current administration has created a hostile environment for immigrants through xenophobic agendas.

González Blanco stressed that some of the new “drastic” regulations included raising the application fees companies have to pay from $275 to $1,000.

Mexican union leader who fled charges of corruption is now a Canadian citizen

Napoleón Gómez Urrutia, the former leader of Mexico's 280,000-member Los Mineros union, has lived in Vancouver since 2006, the year he fled Mexico to avoid charges of corruption for bilking $61 million from the miner’s union trust. Mexican media is reporting that there is an arrest warrant for him that's pending deportation, and that the charges won’t change now that Gómez is a Canadian citizen.

Many controversies surround this case. The Mexican Justice Department has stated that there is an international warrant for Gómez from Interpol, while Gómez has maintained that the charges are false and politically motivated. Vancouver media has tended to side with the former union leader, claiming there is no Interpol warrant for his arrest and that he is being wrongfully charged because he protected mine workers which made him an enemy of the Fox administration.  

Gómez’s lawyer recently stated that the Mexican government doesn’t have grounds to extradite him, and that his whereabouts have always been known. On the other hand, the current leader of the miner’s union says Gómez should prove his innocence in Mexico by handing himself in to Mexican authorities.

Undocumented migrants targeted in ‘vehicle safety blitz’ in Toronto

Canada’s border enforcement agency has arrested 21 people on immigration violations during a joint “commercial vehicle safety blitz” with other government authorities. Most of the men that were taken into custody are originally from Latin America. According to several sources, the men were gathering for their morning pickups to job sites.

La Portada reported that the detained were deported less than 48 hours after their arrests. Among the people who were deported is a man who is leaving behind his wife and two children. According to La Portada, one of his children has Down's syndrome and requires special care that would not be available in their country of origin. The man refused to disclose his family’s location in fear they might be deported too. Both parents had an outstanding deportation order after they failed their refugee claim hearing.

According to witnesses, officials with Canada Border Services Agency began the raids in the early hours. Some were detained after they failed to provide appropriate ID’s when the vehicles they were riding in were stopped by unmarked SUV's for what appeared to be routine vehicle inspection. Others said they were arrested at the parking lots of coffee shops in the vicinity. Most of them were construction workers.

In a statement, No One is Illegal denounced the raid claiming it had been a deliberate attack on Hispanic immigrants. As such, one of the lawyers that represented two now deported detainees petitioned Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne to take a stance against raids of this nature.

Toronto City Hall grants $1.7 million to its Latin American community for Pan American Games inspired community projects

The Hispanic Canadian Heritage Council (HCHC) of Toronto commended City Hall for their approval of the “Community Projects for the 2015 Pan American Games Initiative.” The HCHC-lobbied project is going to receive $1.7 million that will be destined for Pan American Games inspired community projects. Both parties hope that the funding will provide opportunities for further integration of the Hispanic community into the sporting event that is to be held in the city of Toronto in July of next year.

According to Latinos Magazine, The funding is part of Toronto’s “Showcase” program for the Pan American Games and is supposed to be split into three different areas: activities and projects inspired by the Pan American Games anywhere in the city of Toronto, projects that provide long-term economical or structural benefits for the Latino, South American and Caribean community, and lastly, the money is supposed to be used to support arts and culture during the games.

Canadian Companies participated in 36 per cent of oil and gas projects in Colombia

The Canadian Minister for International Trade, Ed Fast, announced that Canadian Companies participated in 36 per cent of oil and gas projects in Colombia last year. During a visit in Bogota, he also expressed Canada's growing interest in the oil, gas and precious metals industries of the South American country.

According to CBN Noticias, Fast pointed out that Canada promotes sustainable practices when it comes to resource extraction in all of the countries where they have ongoing operations. The meeting Fast attended in Bogota was part of a six-day tour that included Colombia and Peru.

Canada has had a strong presence in the oil, gas and mining sectors of Colombia since a Free Trade Agreement was signed between the two countries in 2011. Over 51 Canadian companies are currently operating in the South American country.

Published in Top Stories
Wednesday, 18 June 2014 14:29

In Conversation with Naheed Nenshi

by Abbas Somji (@abbassomji) in Calgary

Naheed Nenshi’s meteoric rise – from relative obscurity to being the new face of Western Canada – was fodder for international media when he first became Calgary’s mayor in 2010. Since then, he has orchestrated the city out of last year’s devastating flood, winning him accolades, trending hashtags, and a second term in office.

Yet four years ago, political pundits wondered: how could Canada’s arguably most conservative city elect a non-white Muslim mayor?

Nenshi – a former Harvard-educated academic – says Calgarians didn’t care much about his background or his skin colour. In fact, they bristled at anyone who did.

“The issue of my faith came up exactly twice [in Calgary], and both times there was a huge backlash against people even talking about it,” says Nenshi, his first term evidenced from the multiplying grey hairs in his messy mop of trademark curls.

“People would phone the newsrooms and say, ‘Why do I care? I want to know what he wants to do about transit. It was only after I was elected – immediately after I was elected, within hours – that I suddenly found myself being very famous. And people from outside of Calgary wanted to know about this Muslim mayor.”

Nenshi says he was reluctant to discuss his heritage at first, deeming it irrelevant to his work as the city’s mayor. Today, he admits it’s “an incredibly important part of my identity and the way I see the world.”

See snippets of the interview with Mayor Nenshi here:
[youtube height="315" width="560"][/youtube]

Personal story

His story is not unlike that of countless other Canadians, who left their home countries in search of brighter prospects. For the Nenshi family, it meant leaving their native Tanzania in the early 1970s while the mayor’s mother was still pregnant with him.

He says he grew up wondering why his family had “big fancy citizenship certificates” and all he had was a “lousy birth certificate,” realizing later in life those pieces of paper were deeply meaningful. It was a sentiment that snowballed and soon morphed into a profound sense of appreciation for what makes Canada a beacon for immigrants.

“As minority communities, we often focus on things that could be better, such as the discrimination or lack of equal opportunity,” says Nenshi.

“We need to focus on the extraordinary place in which we live,” insisting that every child, regardless of where they come from or what they look like, has the opportunity to realize their Great Canadian dream.

“I believe I’m one of five non-white city council members ever, in history,” acknowledging his own Great Canadian dream realized.

Nenshi wants to see other newcomers looking to fulfill their own ambitions – not just for their children. In order for that to happen, he says, more groundwork needs to be done, be it through offering incentives to quit their jobs and return to school, improve their English skills or acquire accreditation in the professions for which they’ve already been trained.

“People have to be able to understand that it’s possible here and it isn’t possible everywhere,” says Nenshi. “For many of us, it isn’t possible in the countries we came from.”

Success stories

He rattles off some success stories with a deftness that hints he’d told them many times before: a man who immigrated from Colombia after being mayor in his own hometown, and found work in Calgary as a house painter, only to quit his job, enroll in college and take on an internship in city hall, which would soon lead to work in Mayor Nenshi’s office.

Nenshi then recalls meeting a woman from India who worked as an assistant manager at McDonald’s, who was able to put her son and daughter through college, yet still continued working at the restaurant for 27 years simply because she liked working there and wanted to ensure other newcomers who came after her could have the same experience.

The stories – albeit uplifting – may perhaps be a way to offset the negative publicity some of the country’s immigration programs have garnered. Chiefly, the Temporary Foreign Worker program which continues to get mired in controversy. The TFW program was designed to be a two-way street: an avenue for foreigners seeking work and a pathway to eventual Canadian citizenship, all while filling a void in the country’s labour market. Today, Nenshi says, the public perception of the program has changed.

“Now what you have is people saying Temporary Foreign Workers are not well treated, that we’ve created a second class of Canadians – people who don’t have the right to stay here,” says Nenshi.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]“Now what you have is people saying Temporary Foreign Workers are not well treated, that we’ve created a second class of Canadians – people who don’t have the right to stay here,” says Nenshi.[/quote]

“Those are very deep moral issues that we have to talk about.”

He says the success of Canada’s immigration system hinges on three levels: policy, programs and people.

“The [federal] government has to get the policy right – how many people do we let in? What kinds of people do we let in?” he says, adding the other two facets are even more important than getting policy right.

Settling in

Newcomers can’t walk that road alone. Nenshi says non-profit agencies, government, and immigrant-serving agencies all have a role to play in offering programs to assist immigrants settle in, from accessing language training to getting a foreign degree accredited.

Nenshi admits he may not be politically correct, but integration entails “fluency in English, reducing accents, [and] being able to get more in the workplace.” He says confronting that issue can mean wiping out other social problems that arise from it, such as generational poverty.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Nenshi admits he may not be politically correct, but integration entails “fluency in English, reducing accents, [and] being able to get more in the workplace.” He says confronting that issue can mean wiping out other social problems that arise from it, such as generational poverty.[/quote]

Yet, at the heart of it all, people can make all the difference in assisting newcomers and prove to be the most vital element.

“It really is about those human linkages and human beings helping one another think about better ideas,” he adds.

He says he’s “very optimistic” the community will tap into its full potential and continue to welcome immigrants, in spite of “little strains of xenophobia that have crept into the conversation.”

Case in point: Quebec’s controversial Charter of Values, a bill that was famously proposed by the former Premier Pauline Marois in 2013, which restricted government employees from wearing religious symbols, such as turbans and hijabs.

“The fact that the ‘Charter of Racism’ (as I call it) was voted down soundly in Quebec says a lot about who we are as a community,” says Nenshi. “It’s because people fought against it and stood up and said, ‘That’s not right. That’s not the Quebec we live in, that’s not the Canada we live in, that’s not the world we want for our kids.’”

“We have to keep doing it every single day or we risk sliding backwards,” he adds.

Nenshi says he’s heartened by the strides made in Calgary, suggesting the city may truly be colour blind – or at least partially.

“Those of us who are minorities learn to live with it and we learn to overcome it,” he says, citing his own Member of Legislative Assembly, Manmeet Bhullar. “[Bhullar] is a large man with a beard and a turban, and nonetheless is the Minister of Human Services.”

“I think that speaks incredibly well of our ability to move forward.”

{module NCM Blurb}
Published in Top Stories

New Canadian Media provides nonpartisan news and views representing all Canadian immigrant communities. As part of this endeavour, we re-publish aggregated content from various ethnic media publishers in Canada in an effort to raise the profile of news and commentary from an immigrant perspective. New Canadian Media, however, does not guarantee the accuracy of or endorse the views and opinions contained in content from such other sites. The views expressed on this site are those of the individual writers and commentators, and not necessarily those of New Canadian Media. Copyright © 2019 All rights reserved