Sunday, October 17

Edmonton’s Deradicalization Program Still Solving Tough Issues Two Years After Launching

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


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Last week, the Organization for the Prevention of Violence (OPV) released a report on its Evolve program, which provides free support to people seeking to leave extremist groups and ideologies. The show has 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 may seem novel, similar organizations exist around the world.

“I think there is a tendency to look at this problem and see it as an extraordinary problem,” he said of violent extremism. “And in a way, it certainly is, because the possible outcomes of this problem … may be an act of violence.”

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


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

In 2019, OPV investigators released a report that identified violent extremist movements in Alberta and concluded that several were overrepresented 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 a group of people for their own problems, collecting hateful paraphernalia and media, and believing that society is about to collapse.


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The organization started the Evolve program that same year. It offers a variety of services, including counseling, tutoring, addiction support, help navigating the court system, and basic needs such as employment, food, and housing.

In its first two years, the program accepted 29 cases. Sixteen of them were direct participants in extremist groups, while the remaining 13 were family members. His current case count is 37.

Of the 16 participants, 14 were men. Their average age was 33. Most embraced what researchers call ideologically-motivated violent extremism, followed by religiously-motivated violent extremism. The rest were advocates of conspiracy theories linked to violence, like QAnon.


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The OPV's Evolve program, which aims to help people emerge from violent extremist movements, is turning two years old.  The program has worked with 16 participants and 13 family members in the Edmonton area who are seeking to disconnect from hate groups.
The OPV’s Evolve program, which aims to help people emerge from violent extremist movements, is turning two years old. The program has worked with 16 participants and 13 family members in the Edmonton area who are seeking to disconnect from hate groups. Photo by David Bloom. /David Bloom / Postmedia

McCoy said that most of the participants come to the program for some kind of counseling.

“Some people have mental health problems, they have unprocessed trauma, they have deep-seated problems at the family level,” he said. “Others want mentoring, they want to talk to someone who has been there, has experienced this problem, and has come out successfully.”

While the vast majority of the 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 “surprising.” They include relatives of far-right supporters and supporters of QAnon, as well as a client with loved ones detained in northern Syria for alleged links to the so-called Islamic State.


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Similar programs exist across the country, but McCoy said there is no agreement on the correct model. Some, like the one in Calgary Redirect program, are integrated within the police services. Others are run by governments, while others, like the OPV, are run by academics at a distance from the state.

Most Evolve clients are referred by another program or are self-referred. About a third, however, were referred by the police or prison authorities, which, according to McCoy, raises ethical issues around “not-so-voluntary” participation in what should be a voluntary program.

The report says: “We made it clear to participants that the Evolve program is not an extension of the court system and that our team does not enforce the conditions set by the police or probation orders.”

‘A growing social problem’

There is also a debate within the OPV on how to address QAnon groups and involuntary celibates (Incels), which do not fit perfectly within the mandate of the OPV.

“There are no really specialized programs for these people,” McCoy said. “This is a growing social problem, especially in the context of COVID and what is happening politically in the United States. And these people are experiencing the same kind of processes that you would see when it comes to violent extremism, the same family is divided. “

For now, “we feel the 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 the creation of materials on violent extremism to distribute in schools.



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