When CSIS comes knocking: Amid reports of Muslim students contacted by spy agency, hotline aims to help

When Ramz Aziz received a nervous phone call from his mother-in-law two years ago, it wasn’t to check in on his new baby. Instead, two men were at her door, looking for him.

The pair identified themselves as public safety officers, and asked to speak with Aziz. She dialled him and handed one of them the phone.

“You’re a hard man to find,” Aziz recalled the one man saying, suggesting they meet for coffee.

Aziz was puzzled. A simple Google search would have shown he was a University of Toronto law student, he thought. Why show up at his in-laws’ place out of the blue?

Now 29, Aziz remembered thinking he didn’t know his rights, and didn’t know what to do. “You feel like you’re a criminal, even though you haven’t done anything wrong.”

Aziz isn’t alone.

Surprise visits or phone calls from Canada’s spy agency or law enforcement are an increasingly familiar experience at various university campuses across the country, with Muslim students often on the receiving end.

It’s a hidden problem that few are willing to speak out about because of the stigma, according to University of Toronto law professor Anver Emon and criminal lawyer Nader Hasan.

The interactions can leave students shaken, wondering if they’ve done something wrong and what the consequences might be if they don’t cooperate, they say.

“One of the reasons we don’t have data on this is there’s just not an incentive to report,” said Emon. “There’s a certain degree of shame or anxiety around it.”

Hasan and Emon are behind a new student support hotline at the University of Toronto’s Institute of Islamic Studies in partnership with the Canadian Muslim Lawyers Association and the National Council of Canadian Muslims.

The project offers pro bono legal support to students at the university who have been approached by Canadian intelligence or the RCMP, in order to make sure they know their rights before deciding whether or not to meet with an agent.

‘Like they were trying to get information on anything’

Just how many students have had interactions with the agencies is unclear. Hasan said he’s come across more than 10 such cases in the last 18 months.

Aziz’s story began in 2012.

It started with an anonymous phone call — the person on the other end claimed to be a CSIS agent. Aziz was 20 at the time, an undergrad at Dalhousie University and president of its Muslim Student Association.

At first, he thought it had to be a prank. But he said that with the help of Halifax police, he confirmed it was indeed CSIS — and they wanted to talk.

With nothing to hide, he agreed to meet.

“We wanted to inform you of the services that we provide,” Aziz recalled the agent telling him. When he asked for specifics, few were given.

“‘Let’s say your parents get kidnapped in Pakistan and somebody makes you do something here that you might not want to. At least now you know that we’re here,” he said the agent told him.

Aziz was speechless.

“That’s so outside the realm of my existence,” he told CBC. “It seemed like they were trying to get information on anything, really.”

‘A certain degree of shame’

That kind of vague questioning is typical of the agency’s interactions with students, Emon and Hasan said.

“These interviews are not well defined, and in many cases are little more than fishing expeditions,” the committee behind the project said in a report.

“It’s not really clear what got them on CSIS’s radar, in many instances,” said Hasan. “The commonality being that they are Muslim. They do generally share similar stories about having been approached by CSIS shortly after leaving campus, invitations to go to a coffee shop to chat.”

In some of the more “disturbing” cases, said Hasan, students have even been discouraged from seeking legal advice.

Agents have sometimes told students, “If you get a lawyer, it just makes you look guilty,” Hasan said.

In a statement, CSIS spokesperson Tahera Mufti said the agency “builds relationships with individuals to collect information and advise our government about threats to national security.”

“When CSIS seeks cooperation or assistance from Canadians, we emphasize that discussions are voluntary,” the statement said, adding the agency ensures its approach is lawful and protects privacy.

CSIS told CBC that it is against its policy to dissuade anyone from getting legal counsel.

An ‘additional microscope’

Nevertheless, many students who are approached under the banner of outreach feel targeted.

One former executive of the University of Toronto’s Muslim Student Association told CBC that in her time as exec, the group was approached at least four times by either CSIS or the RCMP.

CBC has agreed not to identify her, because of concerns it will affect her professionally. In one case in 2015, she said, a uniformed RCMP officer showed up at the MSA to say the force was looking to increase community cooperation.

“The question is why,” she said. “We were never given a reason as to why, as students, we are put under that additional microscope.”

University of Regina MSA President Usaid Siddiqui told CBC approximately five students have contacted him to discuss their interactions with CSIS.

“Personally, I never thought this was a problem until I myself was contacted last summer by them,” Siddiqui said.

At the University of Saskatchewan, chaplain Dr. Joel Schindel said he has heard from approximately 10 students in the past year with similar accounts — some active with the Muslim student group, others not.

The National Council of Canadian Muslims said it has also received such reports from University of Alberta students.

In many cases, the interactions have led executives or members to leave the organization over concerns about repercussions for their future careers, the students who spoke with CBC said.

The University of Toronto said members of its senior staff have met with Muslim Student Association members about their concerns, and that it recognizes the benefit of the hotline.

Agencies aim to build ‘trust’

Jasmine Zine, a professor of sociology and religion at Wilfrid Laurier University, spent six years researching Muslim youth in Canada, interviewing 135 young people and youth workers. Zine told CBC that MSAs are “targeted because they are assumed to be places where disaffected youth may be ‘radicalized,’ which is far from the truth.”

Zine points to cases such as the so-called Toronto 18, many of whom were university students, and former University of Waterloo student Kevin Omar Mohamed, who pleaded guilty in 2017 to travelling to Syria to join a terror group.

“None of these youth were known to be involved in the MSA,” she said. “These groups have repeatedly stated they would be the first to report suspicious persons to the authorities.”

“Nonetheless, they continue to be the subject of scrutiny and surveillance,” said Zine, adding her own son was contacted by CSIS the morning after he was elected MSA president.

In a statement, RCMP spokesperson Caroline Duval said the force’s outreach personnel engage with communities to “build a relation of trust and educate them on different forms of criminality,” including “radicalization signs and behaviours.”

“The RCMP does not target any individual or group based solely on their racial, gender, ethnic or religious background.”

Asked for its response, Scott Bardsley, a spokesperson for Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale’s office, maintained police and security agencies do not discriminate based on religion. Additionally, both CSIS and the RCMP are overseen by external review bodies meant to safeguard Canadians’ rights, Bardsley said.

RCMP investigations are also governed by a ministerial directive requiring “special care” for investigations that impact, or appear to impact, sensitive sectors such as academia, the media and religion, he said.

‘Eyes wide open’

While the decision to engage with an agent might be a voluntary one, both speaking with and not speaking with an agent can come with its own pitfalls, said Hasan and Emon.

Hasan explains CSIS’ mandate — to gather intelligence before a national security threat, rather than after one — means the agency can “engage in threat reduction measures which can be invasive and can involve violation of your constitutional rights and privacy,” provided it has the necessary warrant.

Those measures can include eavesdropping, accessing electronic communications, sharing information with other domestic or foreign agencies, preventing students from obtaining jobs requiring security clearances and putting students on the so-called no-fly list, among others.

“We don’t know exactly what all the costs will be. However, we do know that CSIS can do all manner of things to make your life more difficult,” said Hasan. “People need to know that, and they need to go into such interactions with eyes wide open.”

Some argue that there’s nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide. Schindel had this to say:

“OK, then give me your email, give me your password. If you have nothing to hide, let me just look,” said Schindel. So that’s not really a counterargument … It’s not about something to hide, it’s about equal and fair treatment.”

‘Not the Canada I grew up in’

As for Aziz, he never did call the agent back. And with two children of his own now, he worries about when the next run-in might be.

Still, he wanted to tell his story, hoping that putting a human face to the issue will help change the way the agencies operate.

“I think the reason why this has gone on so long is because of this faceless terrorist threat,” he said.

Aziz says he has no problem speaking with the authorities, but that if the phone calls and visits are really about outreach, they’re having the opposite effect.

“If you’re genuinely interested in getting to know us, building a relationship with us, this is not how you do it …The people that I’ve spoken with feel less trust for the government. They feel less inclined that ‘This is my home,'” he said.

“That’s not the Canada I grew up in.”

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