Winnipeg professor developing tool kit to help teachers spot burgeoning extremism in students

A Winnipeg professor is developing a tool kit to help teachers in the province identify the early stages of extremism in their students so it can be addressed before thoughts and musings turn to violent actions.

Kawser Ahmed, an adjunct professor at the University of Winnipeg who studies extremism, hate and radicalization, received $400,000 from Public Safety Canada and the university to develop the tool kit over the next two years.

Youth are more vulnerable than ever to being radicalized because of connectivity and the presence of digitally savvy people who produce hate-filled conspiracy materials, he said.

“This connectivity, in one side, is a great advantage to connect with others, but on the other, it is very easy to motivate people in these really problematic causes,” Ahmed told CBC News.

“Google will produce 1.8 million results in five seconds, but the top five, 10 or 20 results, how do you know that these are authentic and legitimate? There is no way, and in the world of fake news and conspiracy theories, it is even [more] difficult.”

Kawser Ahmed, an adjunct professor at the University of Winnipeg who studies extremism, hate and radicalization, received $400,000 from Public Safety Canada and the university to develop the tool kit over the next two years. (Submitted by Kawser Ahmed)

In 2019, police reported 1,946 criminal incidents in Canada that were motivated by hate, according to data from Statistics Canada. From 2010 to 2019, 23 per cent of people accused of hate crimes were between the ages of 12 and 17, and 86 per cent were male.

The tool kit will be geared toward educators of students in Grade 8 and up and will contain a lengthy list of problematic images, logos and other things linked to alt-right and terrorist groups that young people might draw or post online.

Youth are sometimes reluctant to speak to their parents, teachers or experts about what they’re seeing online, and they may only engage with people who have the same views — an echo chamber, Ahmed said. That’s where the tool kit will come in, to help teachers address those problematic views.

“Our intention is to get young people engaged in topics and discussions with us one to one — those who are expert in this topic and those who know a little bit more than others,” he said.

‘It starts young,’ expert says

Another expert in the field said there’s a real need for these resources in Canada and around the world.

Evan Balgord, executive director of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, said youth as young as 13 have been recruiters in terrorist plots around the world, posing as older adults and seeking out other children to participate.

Evan Balgord is executive director of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, which is developing its own tool kit for educators to prevent extremism in young people. (Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society)

Interventions are needed earlier, he said.

“We’re seeing very concerning incidents in schools. The kids that are expressing these ideology and beliefs five years ago, seven years ago on those forums end up becoming internationally recognized propagandists and thought leaders in terrorist movements,” he said.

Balgord said he conducted a workshop in the Greater Toronto Area four years ago that led to a number of teachers coming forward to say they had seen far-right ideology creep into students’ school work and social media.

“It’s often a very telling sign when a kid is playing around with these ideologies … it’ll start to leak out a little bit in school work. They’ll start playing with very kind of transgressive ideas that they’re getting from hate movements and getting online,” he said.

These views are only growing in prominence, Balgord added.

The Canadian Anti-Hate Network is developing its own tool kit for educators, working with other groups around the world. It will be released in the coming months, he said.

“It starts young … but a lot of them don’t change. So the earlier you can get in with a tool kit, the less awful incidents are going to happen in schools, and we’re going to have fewer public safety issues and national security issues.”

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