The federal government has to do more to counter the threat of ideologically motivated violent extremism in Canada, including strengthening terrorist financing laws to counter it, the House of Commons public safety committee has recommended.
In a report tabled before the House of Commons rose for the summer, the committee also recommended the federal government work with provinces to prevent what it described as a rising threat in Canada and to take steps to hold online companies more accountable for extremist or hateful content circulating on their platforms.
However, the committee also acknowledged that there are issues surrounding any move to limit free speech.
"Each member of this committee is sensitive to the charter issues that are implicated in responding to the threat of [ideologically motivated violent extremism], IMVE," the committee wrote. "Any limitations on freedom of expression must be reasonable and justified in a free and democratic society."
The committee report comes after Canada saw a number of ideologically motivated violent extremist attacks in recent years — a phenomenon that experts told the committee was on the rise and fuelled by pandemic lockdowns that prompted people to spend more time online.
It also coincides with cases that have come to light in recent years of members of the Armed Forces sympathizing with extremist groups.
In the report's 32 wide-ranging recommendations, the committee said Canada needs a national, multi-pronged strategy to address this type of violence.
It recommends that the government fund research to dig into how extremist organizations were trying to recruit members of the military and police forces. It also called on the government to strengthen the ability of the Canadian Armed Forces and federal law enforcement "in order to hold personnel of these agencies accountable when they are found to be supporting violent extremist movements."
Extremist content and digital platforms
Many of the experts who appeared before the committee warned of the role of digital platforms in allowing extremist content to spread; several of the committee's recommendations address that problem.
The committee recommended the government "study the feasibility of a regulatory structure to hold platforms accountable for enforcing their terms of service," adding that could include the creation of a federal digital safety commissioner.
The committee also recommended the government go after bots — and improve the transparency of the algorithms used by social media platforms.
"The Government of Canada [should] work with domestic and international partners to identify and remove online bots amplifying extremist content and encourage online platforms to provide contributor and content authentication mechanisms … that enable users to filter content on that basis," the committee wrote.
It said the government should also work with platforms "to encourage algorithmic transparency and phraseology for better content moderation decisions."
The report also recommends the government "both acknowledge and protect against the threats posed by violent extremism, including grievance-driven violent extremism, to Canada's critical infrastructure. It called for the government to ensure that police and prosecutors have the resources to investigate and prosecute attacks on critical infrastructure and personnel — and that it also adequately fund and modernize the powers of Canada's security intelligence community.
The report calls for more government money for different groups, including front-line organizations that serve communities, and for research and training.
However, it also called for several steps to choke off the flow of funds to violent extremist groups, recommending the government "invest in its capacity to prosecute the financing of [violent extremism], while ensuring that terrorist financing laws are properly adapted to capture this threat."
The committee also called for the government to conduct research on the role crowdfunding platforms and cryptocurrencies play in financing violent extremism, while ensuring that Canada's terrorist and money laundering watchdog, the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada (FINTRAC) has the power and resources it needs to monitor suspicious transactions on crowdfunding and cryptocurrency platforms.
Several of the witnesses outlined the threats faced by Jewish and Muslim communities.
The report also recommended the government appoint a special envoy on Islamophobia and expand the mandate of the existing envoy on Preserving Holocaust Remembrance and Combatting Antisemitism's mandate "to include more educational awareness on the Holocaust."
The committee was also blunt when it came to Israel, recommending the government "thoroughly reject the demonization and delegitimization of the State of Israel, and condemn all attempts by Canadian organizations, groups or individuals, including university campus associations, to promote these views, both at home and abroad."
In the end, the committee pointed out that countering hate and extremism was a shared jurisdiction and the federal government needs to work with the provinces and territories on developing best practices, training and hold a summit with them on how to improve the ability of mental health and social services to intervene in the early stages.