Women, kids detained in ISIS camps should be repatriated to Canada quickly: expert

MONTREAL — A psychiatrist involved in efforts to support children of Canadian women detained in Syria after travelling to join the Islamic State is urging Ottawa to speed up repatriation efforts.

Dr. Cécile Rousseau, a pediatric psychiatrist at McGill University and an expert on violent radicalization and extremism, was part of a committee of local health officials and child welfare experts brought together by the RCMP's Quebec detachment after the caliphate fell in 2017.

She said she does not believe that a handful of women returning with young children, who will be monitored and given support, will represent a danger to Canadian society.

"I think we should move forward because the more we wait, the more it will be difficult for Canada and for the people coming back to reintegrate into society," Rousseau said.

"So waiting is not a good idea, especially with young children. They are Canadian citizens, let's have them back home — that's the best outcome for them and for us."

On Wednesday, Oumaima Chouay, 27, returned to Canada with her two children and another Canadian adult, Kimberly Polman of B.C.

Chouay faces charges of leaving Canada to participate in the activity of a terrorist group, participation in the activity of a terrorist group, providing property or services for terrorism purposes and conspiracy to participate in the activity of a terrorist group. Her case returns to court Nov. 8.

Polman was granted bail on Thursday by a B.C. court pending a peace bond hearing.

Rousseau said in an interview Thursday that she could not speak about Chouay's children, but she discussed the reintegration efforts considered before their arrival from northeastern Syria, particularly from the child's perspective.

Quebec authorities have been awaiting the return of citizens who travelled to the Middle East to join the Islamic State, with a particular concern for young children born overseas and arriving in Canada for the first time.

They spent more than a year discussing the plight of those children and their mothers held in detention camps and coming up with a plan for them.

Rousseau said officials looked at the experience of England and France, where mothers were separated from their children automatically after being repatriated. They also examined other models that involved a community approach, favouring no separation between mother and children and a quick integration into school and community.

"The idea was to favour, as much as possible, the preservation of an attachment relation," she said. "With a parent if possible, certainly with a relative and the extended family as long as the kids were safe. And not to take the predicament of other European countries who had kind of considered that extended family should be considered suspect until proven otherwise."

Authorities hope to avoid a revolving door of placement, especially "for kids who have undergone cumulative trauma, multiple attachment disruption and living in hardship or survival situations for the last at least three years if not during their whole lives," Rousseau said.

During a news conference on Wednesday, the Quebec RCMP said the force has long held concerns about the kids. Insp. David Beaudoin said extensive measures had been taken to ensure they receive proper support, including the involvement of extended family.

Rousseau said authorities considered everything from their arrival at the airport and providing kids waiting for hours while their parents undergo interrogation with food, toys and a place to rest. They also discussed what to do if there's no extended family in Canada, finding safe foster environments while promoting cultural and religious continuity and safety.

Rousseau said the first order of business was to determine whether the returning mothers were available for the children, both psychologically and emotionally. A depressed and traumatized mother may be able to look after the children, but not necessarily provide emotional care, she said.

"Because we know that this is what makes kids feel safe and this is absolutely essential," Rousseau said.

Rousseau said most of the kids coming to Canada are toddlers or school-aged children who have experienced trauma, war or grief of losing a loved one, notably their fathers. Many of them will suffer from acute post-traumatic stress disorder but also complex post-traumatic stress, where patients deal with deprivation at the same time as traumatic symptoms, she added.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked about the repatriation efforts last week and stressed it was important that people who travelled for the purpose of supporting terrorism face consequences.

"Fundamentally, travelling for the purpose of supporting terrorism is a crime in Canada. And anyone who travelled for the purpose of supporting terrorism should face criminal charges,'' he said.

Asked if other repatriation efforts are underway, Trudeau said Canadian authorities continue to ``engage responsibly'' in the region.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 30, 2022.

Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said Kimberly Polman was granted bail on Friday in a British Columbia court. Bail was, in fact, granted on Thursday.