The Muslim Students’ Association (MSA) at U of T said that its executives have been receiving surprise visits from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) for at least three years. According to the group, officers have, on occasion, show up unannounced at executives’ homes.
According to current and former MSA executives, officers have visited them on the basis of building community relations, as well as to seek information on a specific member of the group. The officers have always shown up in plainclothes.
The most recent incident occurred over the summer, when an RCMP officer visited the MSA’s offices at 21 Sussex Avenue on the St. George campus.
According to the MSA executive team, no one was there at the time so the officer went to the ULife office next door and left a card. The MSA said that during this visit the RCMP was “[seeking] information on a past member.”
When asked by The Varsity to confirm these visits, RCMP spokesperson Louise Savard responded only by writing, “The RCMP will not confirm or deny if an investigation is taking place. If an investigation is taking place we will only comment if charges are laid.”
The Varsity spoke with a former MSA executive who was visited at his home by CSIS in 2016. The executive, who wished to remain anonymous, described how two plainclothes officers showed up at his doorstep unannounced and went with him to a coffee shop nearby for an hour.
According to the former executive, the officers started asking in a very “cordial” tone about the MSA and what it does, but it soon became clear to him that they were looking for information on radicalized students.
He remembered questions about the number of members who were from the Middle East and what groups the MSA associated with. He also recalled that the officers said that they thought U of T might be a place where students were becoming radicalized, and that they wanted to get to them before that happened.
The Varsity spoke to CSIS Head of Public Affairs John Townsend, who said that while he could not speak to any specific investigations, CSIS’ “mandate is to protect Canadians from threats to national security at home and abroad. In this regard, we engage with Canadians from across our country.”
He added that since CSIS is a civilian intelligence service; their employees are not law enforcement officers and they do not wear uniforms.
“In fulfilling our mandate, there may be instances in which CSIS’ lawfully authorised investigations come into contact with individuals associated with Canadian fundamental institutions such as religious institutions and academia. Any investigation by CSIS that comes into contact with a Canadian fundamental institution is subject to additional safeguards and requirements.”
The former MSA executive said that CSIS’ approach showed “ignorance on how radicalization happens, ignorance on how to deradicalize,” and suggested that law enforcement would have done better by involving community leaders to address the issue.
“I think it’s an absurd way of trying to [keep] tabs,” he said.
Townsend added that, “When CSIS seeks cooperation or assistance from Canadians, we emphasize that discussions are voluntary. CSIS ensures our approach is lawful, ethical, necessary, and proportionate.”
“This is not a joke”: community responses to the visits
In an interview with The Varsity, the current MSA executive team described this pattern of visits as “very shocking.”
“This stuff shouldn’t be seen as normal… We’re talking about the safety and well-being of [U of T] students, particularly students of faith. This is not a joke,” said the executives.
They added that they were worried about how this issue might stop people from getting involved with the MSA. The former executive said that during his tenure, he knew of students who had left the club after hearing about the visits from law enforcement.
“We shouldn’t have to think at the back of our heads about the threat of being surveilled,” said the current executive team.
They also emphasized that they do not want “this incident to be viewed in isolation,” saying that it speaks to a larger problem of Islamophobia.
In an interview with The Varsity, Jasmin Zine, a professor of Sociology and Muslim Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University, said that these types of visits have been happening at MSAs around the country.
Zine has interviewed multiple Canadian MSAs and said that many of them, including the MSA at Laurier, have experienced similar contact from law enforcement. Zine has been in touch with the U of T MSA about their own experience with these visits.
“This is profiling that’s happening. It’s racial and religious profiling,” she said. “I hope that universities will have the courage and the bravery to step up.”
U of T’s Vice-Provost Students Sandy Welsh did confirm that the university is aware of these visits and wrote via email that the university has “been in contact with [the MSA], and are scheduling a time [to] meet. We welcome the opportunity to hear their concerns.”
“Students’ personal information is protected by provincial privacy law and we do not share material about individual [students] and student associations unless legally compelled to do so,” wrote Welsh.
After the off-campus visits, U of T President Meric Gertler sent the MSA a letter of support, which, according to Welsh, “[reinforced] the University’s commitment to a safe and welcoming place for the widest breadth of communities.”
“We want to support our students in the range of activities they are engaged in. Organizations such as the MSA are vital to the social and cultural diversity of the University,” wrote Welsh.
Though the MSA executive believes that the university is “sympathetic” to their problem, they said that they still hope for more support.
“We’re not sure, legally speaking, that U of T can tell RCMP not to come… but what we are going to be pushing for is stronger support from admin,” said the MSA, suggesting that U of T could contact the RCMP and show support for the MSA, as well as explain the work that they do.
As one of the largest clubs on campus, the MSA offers prayer spaces, workshops, and social events, among other programming that is aimed at attending to the social and spiritual needs of Muslims on campus, said the executives.
For instance, the MSA offers a weekly space for Jummah prayers every Friday afternoon, as well as a resource for where to find Halal food around campus.
“[The MSA] has also existed just [to] provide a space for Muslims so they just feel like themselves,” said the executives.
Zine also emphasized the good work that MSAs do across the country and hopes that the U of T MSA will be able to receive more support from the university, especially when they meet to discuss the issue.
“I’m hoping it will not just be a meeting where they get heard but nothing happens afterwards,” said Zine. “I hope that the students will make sure that there‘s some accountability from the university administration.”
Editor’s Note (November 23, 9:29 pm): This article has been updated to include comment from CSIS.