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What to do with suspected Canadian ISIS fighters and their families detained in Syria?

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The Canadian government should have seen this coming, says international security expert Christian Leuprecht.

The Royal Military College professor says Canada could have planned for what to do when its own citizens — ISIS members, their wives and children — were captured or surrendered on the battlefield in Syria.

“For years, governments of both political stripes had the opportunity to anticipate that we were going to find ourselves in this position and instead … just kind of hoped the issue would go away,” said Leuprecht, who also teaches at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.

Now, as a result of the U.S.’s planned withdrawal from Syria, there’s some urgency to the question of what to do with Canadians detained in the war-torn country.

As many as 5,000 alleged ISIS fighters and their families are being held in makeshift prisons in Syria. The number is swelling daily as ISIS loses its final strongholds in eastern Syria.

CBC News has determined that as many as 32 Canadians are currently held by the U.S-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-led group that’s been fighting ISIS.

Some of the Canadians in custody were captured in battle, including Toronto’s Mohammed Abdullah Mohammed, who was taken by the SDF in a firefight last month.

Others include two women believed to be from Ontario and Alberta, who surrendered to the SDF along with their children last week after fleeing one of the last ISIS-controlled villages in Syria.

But the U.S. says it’s pulling out of Syria soon, leaving the SDF to fight on its own. The militia says it can’t protect the thousands of prisoners while also protecting itself.

The U.S. has tried to soften the impact of its departure by supporting the SDF’s call on other countries to repatriate their prisoners.

France is the first Western country to respond. It’s believed to have moved 80 of 130 citizens back to France, all to be prosecuted for joining ISIS.

Public Security Minister Ralph Goodale says the government hasn’t decided what it will do about Canadian citizens detained in Syria. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

“We’ve heard the request,” Federal Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said last week, while insisting Canada won’t be rushed into a decision.

“The fact of the matter remains that is a dangerous and dysfunctional part of the world, and we do not intend to endanger the lives of our consular or diplomatic officials,” he said.

Gathering battlefield evidence

And if suspected militants are returned to Canada, prosecuting them for their actions overseas presents significant challenges.

It is illegal to leave or attempt to leave Canada to help a group to commit terrorism. But prosecutors will still need to prove their case.

Canada has been working with its Five Eyes intelligence partners — the U.S., Britain, New Zealand and Australia — to share available evidence.

Goodale acknowledges that obtaining evidence from the battlefield is difficult.

“We all have the same set of problems in terms of the collection of usable evidence,” he said. “How can we collaborate with each other to make sure that our laws are enforceable and that charges will stick?”

Reintegration or prosecution?

Leuprecht says Canada could have acted sooner, toughening its laws to make it easier to prosecute returning fighters. Australia, for example, made it illegal simply to travel to some places without prior permission from the government.

He also says many of the Canadian mothers and children in custody could be candidates for reintegration, which Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke of in the House of Commons back in 2017.

“We also have methods of de-emphasizing or deprogramming people who want to harm our society, and those are some of the things we have to move forward on,” Trudeau said at the time.

Prof. Christian Leuprecht of the Royal Military College of Canada says the federal government has put off addressing the question of what to do with Canadians captured on the battlefields of Syria for years. (CBC)

But getting them back to Canada wouldn’t be easy.

Syria, after all, is still a war zone.

Leuprecht suspects Canadian Forces are already gaming out how to escort the Canadians out of Syria.

If the government were to go ahead with such a mission, it would face some hard questions from Canadians, he said.  

“They might have even harder questions if the government funds and takes the risk of a mission to extract these folks and the mission goes pear-shaped and Canadian members are wounded or killed.”

A right to a passport

In an email to CBC, Global Affairs Canada spokesperson Richard Walker said Canadian diplomats have established a communication channel with local Kurdish authorities to try to verify the “whereabouts and well-being of Canadian citizens.”

“While every Canadian citizen — no matter how reprehensible — has the legal right to ‘re-enter’ Canada, the Government of Canada has no legal obligation to facilitate their return,” Goodale said in a speech last month.

Immigration lawyer Lorne Waldman believes Canada has a duty to provide any citizen a passport, if they request one.  

“But that doesn’t necessarily mean they have to pay for their ticket and all these other steps that might be necessary to get the people out,” he said.

Unless, he says, a detainee can prove they are in danger if left in a prison camp. 

The federal government insists it has reached no decision yet on bringing anyone back.

Either way, a question that’s been quietly building for years seems to now require an answer.

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List of Tourist Attractions Open Now in Ottawa

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With Ontario now in Step 3 of 2021 three-step plan for reopening, museums and other indoor attractions are allowed to reopen with capacity limited to not exceed 50 per cent capacity indoors and 75 per cent capacity outdoors.

Here is a list of Ottawa attractions you can visit starting July 16th.

Do remember to wear masks and buy tickets in advance.

Parliament Hill

Parliament’s Centre Block and Peace Tower are closed for renovation.

You can join for tours of the Senate of Canada Building (2 Rideau Street), House of Commons at West Block (111 Wellington Street) on Parliament Hill, and East Block at East Block (111 Wellington Street) on Parliament Hill.

When: Grounds open; guided tours of Parliament are suspended through the summer of 2021.
Where: 111 Wellington Street, Downtown Ottawa

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Ottawa performer leapfrogs from gymnastics to Broadway to TV

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A new AppleTV+ series set in a magical town that’s stuck in a neverending 1940s musical includes a pair of Ottawa siblings in the cast. 

Warren Yang and his sister, Ericka Hunter, play two of the singing, dancing residents of the village portrayed in Schmigadoon!, a small-screen series that takes its cues from classic musicals like Brigadoon, Wizard of Oz and Sound of Music, and skewers them with the offbeat comedic mastery of Saturday Night Live. 

In fact, you’ll recognize many of the names from SNL, starting with executive producer Lorne Michaels, creator of the late-night, live-comedy sketch show. Schmigadoon! also stars SNL cast member Cecily Strong and comedian Keegan-Michael Key, who hosted SNL in May. They play a New York couple who get lost on a hike and stumble into a strange town where everyone sings and dances. 

For Yang, a relative newcomer to show-biz, the series marks his television debut. For Hunter, the younger of his two older sisters, it’s the latest in a career path that began with dance lessons as a child more than 30 years ago. She attended Canterbury High School, Ottawa’s arts-focused secondary school. 

“Her dream was always to perform,” said Yang, 34, in an interview. “But that was never the path I thought was an option for me.” 

While his sister studied dance, Yang did gymnastics. He was an elite gymnast throughout his youth, ultimately leaving Merivale High School at 16 to train in Montreal, finishing high school through correspondence courses. He was a member of the Canadian National Team and received a scholarship to study at Penn State, majoring in marketing. 

A few years after graduation, Yang was working at an advertising agency in Toronto when he got a call from a Manhattan number. To his astonishment, they asked if he would be interested in auditioning for a Broadway revival of Miss Saigon.

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COVID-19: uOttawa to require vaccination for students living in residence

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Vaccination will be mandatory for students who want to live in residence at the University of Ottawa this year, with proof of vaccination and at least one dose required before move-in, or within two weeks of doing so if they can’t secure a shot before arriving.

Those who can’t receive a vaccine for “health-related reasons or other grounds protected under the Ontario Human Rights Code” will be able to submit a request for accommodation through the university’s housing portal, according to information on the university’s website.

Students with one dose living in residence will also have to receive their second dose “within the timeframe recommended by Ottawa Public Health.”

People who haven’t been granted an exemption and don’t get vaccinated or submit proof of having done so by the deadlines set out by the school will have their residence agreements terminated, uOttawa warns.

“Medical and health professionals are clear that vaccination is the most (effective) means of protecting people and those around them,” reads a statement provided to this newspaper by uOttawa’s director of strategic communications, Patrick Charette.

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“It is precisely for this reason that the University of Ottawa is requiring all students living in residence for the 2021-2022 academic year to be fully vaccinated. The University recognizes that some students may require accommodations for a variety of reasons and will be treating exceptions appropriately.”

Faculty, staff and students are also strongly encouraged to get vaccinated, the statement notes.

“Ensuring a high vaccine coverage in all communities is critical to ensuring an ongoing decline in cases and ending the pandemic. This will be especially important with the return of students to post-secondary institutions in our region in the fall of 2021.”

Neither Carleton University nor Algonquin College is currently mandating vaccination for students living in residence, according to the websites for both schools. But uOttawa isn’t alone in its policy – Western University, Trent University, Durham College and Fanshawe College have all implemented similar requirements. Seneca College, in the GTA, is going even further, making vaccination mandatory for students and staff to come to campus, in-person, for the fall term.

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