It is no coincidence that Canada has, to date, been mostly untouched by Daesh (Islamic State) threats to attack Coalition countries on their home soil. Among the factors are a well-developed immigration system, reasonable gun control, a smaller population and physical distance from today’s sources of terror. Less visible but also important are integration programs that, I argue here, should be understood as an expression of Canada’s effort to create a cohesive society.

The news over the past two years has focused on terrorist threats, attacks and plots. And indeed, there have been more attacks than in the period immediately preceding. Although there have not been as many as in the 1970s when the bloody high-water mark was reached among OECD countries as a result of Marxist, separatist and Palestinian attacks, there has been a dramatic worldwide upswing in terror attacks since Daesh declared its caliphate in 2014. However, outside its epicentre in the Middle East and Africa, the Daesh brand of terrorism has spread unevenly in terms of destruction and the number of local followers.

It is worth stating the obvious: the overwhelming majority of immigrants are not terrorists. However, a tiny minority arrive in their host countries as members of an active or sleeper terror cell. This has always been, and always will be, a risk to be mitigated, not eliminated. From Fenian raiders in the 19th century to Daesh militants posing as refugees, an open society like Canada will always have to live with a certain level of carefully managed risk from new arrivals. Security forces will expend great energy to disrupt the activities of the tiny minority who are terrorists.

Efforts to integrate new Canadians

All immigrants face barriers to integration with their host society. This is why immigrants are central to successfully combating radicalization. Integration increases resiliency among not just new arrivals but all those who feel excluded or aggrieved for any reason. Simply put, integration is one of our most effective tools for combating violent radicalization.

We often talk about terrorism in the context of politicized religion, but individual radicalization is similar to the recruitment process that leads people to join gangs or other criminal organizations. It is not a switch that is turned on and off but a process influenced by a range of factors. While the rise of Daesh has unarguably accelerated this process, not all individuals are prone to radicalization. People are lured by opportunities to acquire money, adventure, prestige, sex or group acceptance. Contextual factors such as lack of economic opportunity and a perception of not belonging are also significant. The more mainstream society makes these benefits difficult to obtain, the more radicalization becomes a natural course.

Canada has a long history of formal programs to integrate immigrants. Following the influx of Vietnamese boat people in the 1970s, the government of Canada provided services targeted at the new arrivals in the context of a broader move toward multiculturalism. As patterns of immigration to Canada have changed, integration programs havve become more complex. Today, in every province except Quebec (where similar services are delivered by the provincial government), the federal government offers comprehensive settlement services to integrate new Canadians into school, work and their communities.

From the boat people onwards, a foundation of integration has been free language training in French or English, helping individuals to access services, improve their job prospects and integrate into their new communities. Labour market supports provide a range of services: résumé and interview coaching; credential recognition for the highly skilled; and improving skills, such as literacy and document comprehension, essential to those with lower education levels. Information and orientation services range from handouts containing useful information on rights and responsibilities and how to file tax returns to settlement agency staff working directly with newcomers to navigate school registration or getting a health card. Programs for children and young people are supplemented by support from provincial school systems. These include school-based settlement workers and after-school and summer leadership training.

These services cost the federal government a total of approximately $1 billion annually, with significant complementary provincial investments. This presents a political challenge: many voters object to money being spent on those who choose or are forced to move to this country – especially as there is often no distinction drawn between services to refugees and to other classes of immigrants. Yet this amount is offset in various ways. Every applicant for permanent residency has to pay a fee.1 Temporary residents and many visitors are required to pay for visas. Moreover, there are long-term benefits derived from the taxes immigrants pay, and from their spending on goods and services. Overall, immigrants make a net contribution to government finances, increase business innovation and are more likely to own businesses.2 Indeed, these services offer further benefits, simply by making immigrants feel welcome.

The international context

Canada is a global model of integration3 and our attitude toward newcomers has formed a strong part of Canada’s official identity since the 1970s – part of the multicultural package every government has embraced, albeit with different levels of enthusiasm. In the 2010 National Settlement Outcomes Survey, most immigrants surveyed expressed satisfaction with their life in Canada and felt they had a solid knowledge of their rights and responsibilities as Canadians. While rated only in sixth place on the Migration Policy Index,4 Canada stands in stark and positive contrast to other OECD countries facing current serious threats of terrorism.

France, for example, scores much lower on the Migration Policy Index than Canada (17th place out of 38) and suffers integration challenges that routinely explode into crime and terrorism. France has had high levels of immigration from North Africa since the 1930s, and these communities have long suffered from disproportionately high levels of unemployment, crime and inadequate housing and education. In 2005 there were a series of high-profile riots across the country that included the burning of buildings and cars.

The 2005 riots are seen as the point at which resentment began to change to revolt. We are all familiar with the rise of radical Islam in France over the last decade, with locally radicalized young people working with recent arrivals, including some who arrived with the flood of refugees from Syria, the broader Middle East and Africa that began in 2014.

Both France and Germany have historically denied full status to some migrants. Until recently Turkish “guest workers” in Germany could not become citizens even if they and their parents, or even their grandparents, were born in Germany. While this exclusion was addressed in the 1990s, its legacy is a norm according to which some people within the country’s borders are regarded as foreigners, even with more open attitudes to integration. In short, the status of migrant becomes a barrier in and of itself.

While there are stark differences between the Syrian refugee picture in Europe and the picture in Canada, we need remember that this story started before the influx – with foreign fighters flowing out of Europe into the conflict zone in vast numbers. Those situations were, at least in part, driven by decades of immigration policy that kept minorities marginalized.

By contrast, in Canada integration is fundamentally a process that immigrants control. They can become citizens relatively rapidly, and there are services to help them become part of Canadian society in a way that suits them within the parameters of the law. Arriving in the country is the starting point in a journey that ends in one’s becoming Canadian. A contributing factor is Canada’s capacity to maintain a managed migration system where most immigrants are selected for their ability to establish themselves in Canada and our system tries to select individuals who have a link to Canada already through family, education, private sponsors or job offers.

The integration picture in Canada is not entirely rosy. Our labour market consistently devalues foreign work experience, we see worryingly high unemployment rates among young male immigrants in particular, and there are many, especially refugees, who have not fully integrated by the time they stop being eligible for federal integration services. We have had ugly moments, with hate crimes against immigrants, Muslims in particular, on the rise and an increase in intolerant discourse such as the fallout from the niqab debate during and after the 2015 election. While most polls show positive views toward immigrants, polls that reveal concern with immigrant integration have become more common.

Overall, our legal system and political culture allow immigrants to become Canadian without having to forfeit their own beliefs and practices, so long as they remain within the limits of Canadian law. The result is that new Canadians are less prone to radicalization. They become citizens who feel like trusted parts of their communities and are willing to engage the police or other state actors if they become aware of suspicious activities or individuals. Because newcomers are allowed to become part of our country and communities as quickly as possible, they become allies in fighting a common threat.

It is natural to seek points of familiarity in a strange environment, so immigrants, on arrival in a new country, will group together. If walls are built around new arrivals those barriers will harden from both sides. Within immigrant communities the absence of exposure to the new country will make it easier to transplant elements from the immigrants’ countries of origin. The more defined the line between immigrant communities and the rest of Canada, whether that line is expressed in communication barriers or cultural practices that appear strange to outsiders, the harder integration becomes.

Maintaining openness and trust

It is of note that a significant proportion of attempted or successful terrorist attacks in Canada had nothing to do with immigrants or their children. In addition, many of those arrested were intercepted because of tips from community members. The community reaction from Muslims after the Via Rail plot was exposed by members of the community demonstrates the importance of integration. “At the end of the day, it’s not how you dress, it’s how you think,” Muhammad Robert Heft, a Muslim community leader in Ontario, told the Toronto Sun in April 2013. “In our community we may look a little different, but in our hearts we love Canada. It’s our country. It’s our tribe. We want safety for all Canadians regardless of their religion.”5

A similar identification with the Canadian community is necessary for families to turn in loved ones they see heading down the path to radicalization. This has happened in multiple cases where youth who tried to leave Canada to become foreign fighters were turned in by their parents. Reporting your own child to the police requires both a high level of trust in Canadian institutions and the knowledge of how to connect with them.

Integration programs view integration as a two-way street. As individuals adapt to the communities they now call home, those communities simultaneously adapt to them. This not only is societally enriching but also gives us a crucial weapon in the fight against international terrorism.

Terrorism is a psychological phenomenon, not only for those recruited to terrorist groups but also for those affected. Part of the challenge is placing the acts in context. Even with the high-profile and deadly attacks in Paris in 2015, the annual death toll from terror in France is under 300, similar in scale to the largest Canadian terrorist attack on record, the Air India bombing of 1985. This is only a little over half the number of annual deaths by drowning in Canada, and one sixth the number of deaths caused by cars. Yet Canadians fear terrorism more than swimming or going for a Sunday drive. As RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson has said, Canada has a zero tolerance attitude toward the risk of terrorism. Terrorism is a fear of the unknown, inflated when those who seem to be the threat are unknowable or different. The threat from terrorist groups is also inflated when their own narrative of who and what they are is accepted at face value.

By including and, more importantly, knowing and integrating diverse newcomers, we will no longer see immigrants as a mass of dangerous outsiders who hate us. We will be reminded every day that terrorists do not represent those they claim to speak for but are, as President Obama put it, a small group of loud losers.

This attitude of informed openness will serve us well if we have a day like those recently endured by the people of Istanbul, Beirut, Nice, Paris and Brussels. We have to remind ourselves that attacks by a small group of people do not jeopardize our existence. Unless we let them.


1 These fees vary by entry class. See Canada, Immigration and Citizenship, Fee List, retrieved here.

2 See OECD, “Is Migration Good for the Economy?”, Migration Policy Debates, May 2014, retrieved from Migration Policy Debates Numero 2.pdf; Peter Dungan, Tony Fang and Morley Gunderson, Macroeconomic Impacts of Canadian Immigration: Results from a Macro-Model (Bonn, Germany: Institute for the Study of Labor, 2012), retrieved from here; Michelle Parkouda, Immigrants as Innovators Boosting Canada’s Global Competitiveness (Ottawa: Conference Board of Canada, 2010), retrieved here; David Green, Huju Liu, Yuri Ostrovsky and Garnett Picot, Immigration, Business Ownership and Employment in Canada (Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 2016), retrieved here.

3 The UN is replicating Canada’s private sponsorship program for refugees.

4 Migrant Integration Policy Index 2015, retrieved here.

5 Cavan Sieczkowski, “Muslims Helped Foil Terror Plot in Canada; Imam Tipped Officials to Plans to Derail Train,” Huffington Post, April 23, 2013, retrieved here.