Imagine this. You are sitting in your home in a major North American city; in this case it’s Calgary, Alberta, Canada. The phone rings, you pick it up. On the other end is a journalist from a major national newspaper, in this case the globe and mail. The journalist asks if you have a recent picture of your son, somewhat you say, “Well only the one on his Facebook page.” The journalist says rather disappointedly, “Oh, well, we already have that one.” And it’s about to sign off when you say, “Why are you looking for a picture of my son?” And he answers, “We’re about to post that your son, Daman Clairmont, was executed today in Syria by the free Syrian army as an ISIS terrorist.” The journalist abruptly signs off. Executed, ISIS terrorist, dead, my son, Damian Clairmont was 22 years old, date January 14, 2014. My guest this week is Damian’s mother, Christianne Boudreau, initially labeled as “the mother of a terrorist,” now turned social activist dedicated to intervening terrorist recruitment of vulnerable, angry, lost and disempowered youth from around the world. As the founder of “Mothers for Life” and fellow of GIRDS, standing for the German Institute on Radicalization and De-radicalization Studies, Christianne has turned her grief and overwhelming loss into a movement, focused on using the same strategies that are employed to recruit young people into terrorism to intervene and provide an alternative outlet and connection for their sense of alienation and rage, against the world that no longer hold any meaning for them. Christianne and her colleagues used tech-savvy interventions for youth and their families through which hope replaces fear and love supersedes hate. Here is the story of how woman stepped into a leadership role on a global level. One that she never imagined and one with consequences, she most definitely did not expect nor ever could’ve predicted. I found Miss Boudreau in France where she is living in exile. To find out why, stay tuned. And just as a note of clarity, when she mentions CSIS it stands for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, which is the equivalent of the CIA or Central Intelligence Agency in the U.S.
Lesley: Well welcome Chris to this show as I find you in the region of Bordeaux in France.
Christianne: Thank you.
Lesley: And I’m going to start right at the knob of where your leadership had to step in. And my question is, when and how did you realize that you had to go from the position of a grieving and shocked mother, to someone who had to take charge of the issues that you feel or facing young people and their parents when it comes to radicalization?
Christianne: It was completely by accident. Quite honestly it was a matter of desperation, we’ve promised psychological help counseling for the family and the federal government pullback on that promise. So from there I was trying to seek out any sort of help whatsoever, because having younger children as well and worrying about their future in what was going to happen with them, I needed to find that help. And in that process trying to reach out to my local member of parliaments, various player in the field to try to get that, I realize nobody was going to take my calls. Nobody was going to meet with me and I was forced to push forward and realize as well that being alone in this situation made it worse, and I didn’t want anybody else to go through what I had to go through.
Lesley: Was there a stigma associated with the fact that you’re a mother of what was deemed terrorist and therefore the government didn’t want to have contact, or was it just that they did not recognize that there was an issue that needed to be dealt with?
Christianne: I think, for the government it was the matter of the whole problem that was happening, and it was happening with other families as well because they were trying to avoid it becoming public knowledge. I’ve been warned by a CSIS agent prior to all of that, that they didn’t want it going public because kind of the having image to protect. So that was the biggest issue, they were afraid of what it might do, how damaging it might be for the reputation, and they wanted me to keep quiet. So by avoiding altogether, I guess they figured it would go away.
Lesley: So here you are, you’re in Calgary, Alberta, you’re at home and you are trying to figure out how you’re going to get the kind of help you’re going to need to get. So how did you start to find out about other people who were in this situation, who are parents or family members of young people that’ve gone to Syria and had joined ISIS?
Christianne: Well when Damian was still alive, he was in Syria, and I was trying to find help then, trying to find a way to connect with him to convince him to come back home and to turn his life around. And during that process I did many hours of research, hours upon hours and made connections with various journalists. So as much more successful with the journalist world, I was much more successful in finding people in other countries that were willing to come forward and much more open about it. And that’s when I realized it was a problem plaguing many people from many different backgrounds, many different places around the world. And it was through that that I discovered that there were other families as well that were affected and impacted in Canada.
Lesley: So let’s just talk about the impact, and especially as well the impact on Luke, your younger son. What was happening for you as a family as you came to groups with the fact that Damian had not gone to Egypt as he said he was going to had in fact found himself in Syria, and in fact was fighting with ISIS, and then to find out about his execution in the most horrific of ways? What was it that the family went through in those times that started to make you think, this is absolutely something that a family does not need to go through?
Christianne: Oh just the psychological drain, emotional drain on everybody, distress, not knowing each day when you wake up. Am I going to get a phone call? Am I going to find out about his death? The whole issue with dealing with CSIS agents showing up at my workplace, showing up at my home, phoning even when I was vacationing in France, visiting my parents, that constant pressure, the RCMP coming through wanting me to help them with their investigation, finding out more information. It was a constant strain on the family every day. And I started looking for psychological help then just trying to cope and deal with everyday life, and having people hang up or not even respond thinking I was crazy with the whole notion that this was happening.
Lesley: So here you are, going through your own grief, in shock as it is, and then to start to realize that other families, not only in Canada but around the world were experiencing this same tragedy, where was it that you found the most significant help that sort of triggered you to realize that you could in fact move from victim to advocate?
Christianne: I think the first person, Daniel Koehler in Germany, at the time he was working for Hayat, and had worked with Exit, and worked on methodologies reaching out to these youth intervening doing intervention. So by communicating with him and him asking me to meet with him at the same time as locating another mother in France in connecting with her, and being able to express myself and my grief without judgment was a huge relief. It was empowering that was all of those emotions…
Lesley: Did you experience from another Canadians a sense of not knowing what to do with you, or do they understand what you are going through?
Christianne: Well there is a difference. Anybody who knew me that was close to me understood and were very supportive, all the stranger started coming out were very cool. There is lot of fear there, so it was, “Oh you’re a terrorist mother, you should die too. It’s your fault that he became the way he became.” So there was a big difference. If somebody couldn’t see me, didn’t know me was hiding behind the computer screen, then their expressions were much different than those who did know who I was.
Lesley: So when you contacted this…and he’s German?
Christianne: Yes he’s German.
Lesley: And did he go on to be involved with GIRDS?
Christianne: So he went on in October of 2014, started his own organization GIRDS, because he want to help as many families internationally as he could.
Lesley: And GIRD stands for the German Institute on Radicalization and De-radicalization Studies.
Christianne: That’s correct.
Lesley: And this is where you had a common ground of wanting to work and find out how the de-radicalization can actually be a powerful tool, to actually intervene when a young man or woman is being recruited from an ISIS agent.
Christianne: Exactly. And it can be used in a lot of other areas too. This is not just ISIS. We have to worry about, there’s a plethora of groups and organizations in Syria, Iraq, and it’s all the same methodologies that they use to intervene.
Lesley: So tell us about these methodologies that you have now adopted as well because you’re a fellow of GIRD.
Christianne: Right. So what I did was, I brought Daniel Koehler into Canada in February 2015 to do some training, to train some caseworkers to be able to work with them as if they were to reach out. And what is does is it connects through the social network of that youth indirectly. So rather than working with the youth directly, we use their social circle. Usually close families, friends, whether it’s a teacher, employer, somebody who’s close, a mentor, who has that personal relationship already by connecting with them, finding out what their real passions are, redirecting them in a positive way.
Lesley: Here’s what I understand is that social media has now become an incredible tool, and in fact it was a BBC production that said all of the governments are trying to do including the US in intervening on social media is a mere drop in the bucket compared to what the terrorist cells have as access to the way in which they use social media.
Christianne: That’s very true. And mainly because what happens with all of these radicalized individuals, what they do is they circle someone who expresses any interest in understanding their plight, and they create a social circle, a social network. So they have access to the individual 24/7. They have people that are continuously grooming them, making them feel better about themselves, giving them purpose. So they have that one-to-one connection after the initial contact is made, and they continue building those relationships whereas we don’t have the resources to do that on a 24/7 basis.
Lesley: So, the type of individual and this is in the case of Damian was a child who had been bullied, there had been already signs that he was not happy necessarily with what was going on in his life. He did find faith with the Muslim faith. How old was he when he started to go to the mosque?
Christianne: He was 17 years old. It was after he was released from the hospital after his suicide attempt.
Lesley: So he was a youth definitely vulnerable.
Christianne: Absolutely in every way.
Lesley: In every way. And so he did find a faith that he felt he could associate with. But he continued to go to this mosque without any form of demonstration of anything other than he felt a sense of belonging there but something happened. What was it that, as you say, this social network that they built started to come and do the active recruitment?
Christianne: Well this is where the switch happened. It wasn’t until he was much older until he’s in his twenties. Early 2011 it would’ve been, he moved to different part of the cities. So instead of attending his regular mosque, he started with a new one and met new individuals. And they started planting the seed, questioning the rights of women and children in what was happening to them in the Middle East. And he was always very protective over the weaker especially women and children, he had a big strong heart for children. And he felt at that point learning what he was learning about the atrocities and how the western governments weren’t doing anything to step in, it was his place to step in and do something about it. And they empowered that by continuing a prayer group of young men and strengthening each other’s ideologies by keeping themselves kind of separated, I guess, from the regular society.
Lesley: And so what that continued to do then was to build his resolve that he needed to take action that it was no longer time to talk, it was time to make a move. And that’s when he called you from the airport and told you that he was heading to Egypt.
Christianne: That’s correct. He talked about it before, saying he wanted to study Arabic and become an Imam. But I didn’t truly believe he would get on the plane because he’s having opportunity to come to France to study cooking when he had a passion for cooking when he was 16, and he didn’t want to leave me or his little brother. So I really didn’t think he was going to go forward with it until I got that phone call from the plane.
Lesley: Now, what happens next is that he gets his way into Turkey and then into Syria, is that correct?
Christianne: That exactly what happens. So he continued to communicate while I thought to be in Egypt, he was actually in Turkey. His last phone call came in, December 23, 2012, and after that point he was successful in crossing the border.
Lesley: And at that point you’ve lost complete contact.
Christianne: I did for approximately two months. It wasn’t until the end of February 2013 that he reached out again.
Lesley: So one of the videos that shown on an organization of which you are a part is FATE which stands for Families Against Terrorism and Extremism. And you started with them a Mothers for Life initiative and I’m going to get to that. But on that particular site is a video of a young French man, who describes what happens is that they get to the camp and what they think they’re going to be doing in terms of standing for the cause of women and children, they then become totally ingrained in the fight of the terrorist act and have no ability to leave.
Christianne: That would be a yes. And we’ve spoken together in Paris to crowds of people. And his story was quite interesting to me, it was quite different from Damian’s story. His brother coaxed him to travel, he didn’t explain what he would be joining, he didn’t explain in details. But on the road of adventure wanting to be able to explore other opportunities, he went there realized what was going on and tried to leave and his life was threatened.
Lesley: So how did he get out in this case?
Christianne: Eventually what happens, 9-11 happened while he was there and they had finished their camp, and they were given the option then to leave but they were arrested and did transport back to France by… I think it was a Pakistani group, and then sold to the Americans.
Lesley: And then sold to the Americans, okay. So these are actions that you and I as Canadian mothers never thought we would be exposed to other than on the news item, bulletins that are coming through. So, here you are, you had a phone call form Damian, December 23, 2013?
Christianne: No, it was at the end of February 2013 at this point.
Lesley: Okay alright. And did you have any other contact with him up until the time in which he was executed?
Christianne: We have regular contact from February 2013 until June 2013. Every two or three days we would speak, until there were couple of occasions where he said he was going away, what he called a vacation to visit France. When he would return, I would notice a distinct difference and his personality, there’s much more withdrawn, and distant, and cold, and not as connected, not as loving. He was almost as there’s somebody else taking over his body.
Lesley: Well I guess they had. So, you actually personally experience these stages of withdrawal, these stages of someone else taking control over your son’s mind. So let’s go back into GIRD and what is done by this organization, which is try to intervene as this process is unfolding, to give them these young people an understanding that they can achieve their cause which is “I want to help people in a different way than picking up a gun.”
Christianne: Exactly what we tried to do. We tried to learn what the various trigger points where they created the vulnerabilities in the first place, go through a broad range of historical information on their personality development, how they grew up, certain things that interest them, and through that we try to redirect them. And there are some cases, it’s not just a matter of helping, it’s very individualized. People don’t realize some people, political injustice that they’ve seen over and over again and they’re push. Some people, marginalization, they’re feeling disconnected, hopeless, can’t find work. Whatever it may be we engage with the family that social network to try to provide those opportunities to garner that relationship, build it, help it flourish, provide additional education, additional hope for their future.
Lesley: And what’s the take up on this? So let’s go back to that Mormon, Calgary, when you exposed those families to de-radicalization. Was there awareness in the group that this was actually happening and that they needed to get involved? Or was it like, “Oh my gosh, this seems too overwhelming to even become a part of”?
Christianne: It was very overwhelming in the beginning when it was first explained to me what that I could possibly help. And initially when I’d spoken with Daniel, I said, “I’m not ready to do something like this and take on something like this.” And I put it completely out of my mind until I’ve met mother and Toulouse, and the day after my father and I had gone into Berlin and met with Daniel Koehler and two other mothers in Germany. That’s when I felt empowered, that’s when I felt it was necessary. He wasn’t an option anymore and that we had to somehow connect together and use the methodologies that he was using, and try to bring it towards social change to provide that hope to families to give some sort of outreach and possibility.
Lesley: So you stay connected with him, and the organization is kept together through a social network?
Christianne: That’s correct. That’s what we do. So, we connect usually through skype, whatsapp, email, any way that we can. And if we have any families outreaching, we also have network communities in Iraq, Syria, Turkey. If somebody does want to come back out to try to help them and to try to turn their life around, we have those extra potential options available to us.
Lesley: So, you can reach in to where they’re located, as well as it was some hope intervened earlier before they actually make the decision to go into Syria.
Christianne: Absolutely. It’s much better if we can intervene in advance before they cross that border, because the geographical distance “A” is difficult. And “B”, with the way that everything is going now there, coalition strikes with them being suspicious of spies and executing people if they want to leave. All those other issues that weren’t there before that are becoming much more difficult, and In order to get somebody out, it’s much easier if we can turn their lives around before they take that extra step.
Lesley: So you target the people in their social circle, who will have a much greater chance of making contact and having dialogue. What’s the response that you get when you first approach a parent and start to inform them about the fact, or do they call you and say, “My child is demonstrating these signs of withdrawal anger about the system in which he or she is living, a rage that is showing up very resolute in the way in which alcohol and other forms of living are not to be done.” As they see signs of this, do they contact you or do you find that there are these young people who are in motion and you find them that way?
Christianne: There are many different ways. We’ve had other people contact us through forms of intervention. They found that there was an interest through twitter, they have other people sitting on computer basically picking out somebody saying, “This person, there is a danger them going.” And making contact with their families, saying, “We have concerns, these are the reasons why.” We’ve also had families, friends, love ones contact us, saying, “We have concerns, what do we do?” Try to work with them to determine if there is indeed something going on.
Lesley: So, along the way, you began Mothers for Life.
Lesley: Tell us about that organization and what made you decide to do that.
Christianne: Well that was something that came about first of all when I met Daniel in Toulouse, France before she went to Germany. We talked about pulling our powers together and bringing a network of mothers together and empowering them to start reaching out both for peer-to-peer support as well as prevention and intervention. And then when I met with Daniel Koehler the following day, we again reiterated how comforting it was to be able to share just those different memories without that judgment to have that support and that connection. And to be able to do more to feel like we were taking back control over our lives and our children weren’t dying in vain that we were doing something with it. So Daniel Koehler and I started working together, developing the concepts of Mothers for Life. And through that, we launched in February 2015 with the whole background and notion of how we were going to progress. And the different things we could start doing to create that outreach and connect with other people.
Lesley: And so in terms of that outreach, how have you been doing in terms of bringing in women from around the world? Or are mothers recognizing this need and connecting with you?
Christianne: They are. I’m quite surprised. Some of them, when they come forward, it takes a lot of courage for that initial connection. You’re contacting a stranger, you’re telling them something that’s very intimate and personal in your life, and in some cases parents are feeling like a failure because their child is vulnerable or going in that direction. So it takes a lot of courage for that initial contact. But once they do make it, that emotional connection that we have is so strong and then they want to do much more. In some cases they just want to stay quiet and find out more information in their own case, just want to help but later on decide, “Okay, now that things have happened the way they have, we want to go on and do better things.”
Lesley: So, the other organization that I believe you’re a founder of is Extreme Dialogue.
Christianne: I’m a participant in Extreme Dialogue, I continuously work with them. So it’s actually been put together by Institute for Strategic Dialogue based out of London.
Lesley: And this is a very powerful website. It has in the first person, individuals, who are saying and talking about the rawness of their experience as you do. And then you also go on to talk about radicalization and how it happens, and then what de-radicalization needs to be acted on.
Christianne: Exactly. And what we do is going from the emotional perspective. So that has a shock value and an impact, because quite honestly human beings, we all react on our emotions that’s what motivate us most. Same with youth, if you’re going to connect with them you can’t talk at them. You have to draw them in, open up their hearts to be able to get to the critical thinking part of their mind, to open them up to listen to other options. So it goes on to provide resource packs to be used within schools, community groups, youth groups, to be able to open up that dialogue, to be able to have some sort of activities where they participate, and sharing, and feeling those emotions to start to understand them.
Lesley: So here you are in middle of 2016 and you are literally stuck in France.
Christianne: Literally stuck would be the way to put it not then I’m complaining entirely because I’m with my parents, but it’s making it very difficult to continue my work, yes.
Lesley: And just tell us about your passport has been revoked.
Christianne: Exactly. So within two weeks of arriving here, I received a letter from the Canadian government requesting “I return my passport.” They revoked it and just on going back and forth. They are stating that I wrongly got my son’s passport with provided false information which I’ve done everything through a lawyer, so I don’t know how that’s the case. And in trying to resolve it, we’ve been spinning circles, I have several people involved. Thank goodness I do have a lawyer now in Canada who stepped up to work for me pro bono, and we just keep getting s spun in circles and nobody’s wanting to divulge anymore. They’re not willing to work towards a resolution. They’re not willing to go through any appeal process or anything like that.
Lesley: So the issue at hand is that you did have permission for Luke to leave the country, and now it’s being stated that he was not traveling with correct documentation for you to be able to travel with him to France. And therefore, this is the action that they’re taking on behalf of the Canadian government. Are they saying that they feel that you’ve done the inaccurate information on the passport and therefore that’s reason for you to have your passport revoked?
Christianne: That’s exactly what they’re stating. And even though I told them we’re not even in the country that we’re outside of the country so that would leave us virtually stateless. There’s been no response in regards to that at all. So currently we’re here without proper documentation and paper work. We’ve extended our stay beyond what visitors legally can stay. We have no access to healthcare. We have no access to even applying for the correct documentation to stay in the country without having that form of ID.
Lesley: And in your heart of hearts Chris, what do you think this is all about?
Christianne: I think there’s a combination of things, obviously I complain to CSIS about the way my son’s case was handled. And they were very careful and cautious with their response, avoided a lot of the questions completely and appear to be quite fearful of perhaps me taking a legal stance against them. There is also the whole point where I was threatened by CSIS agent that I couldn’t go public because the image with me being away, I’ve heard that the whole issue is no longer in the media. It’s not something that’s being spoken about anymore. It’s been put back on the backburner so they don’t have to deal with it.
Lesley: So here we are with a terrorist movement that has access to incredible social media and incredible skills. I mean they’re recruiting skills are amazing, and the Canadian government is saying, “Well, we don’t want people talking about that because that might raise the fear factor in Canada. And so we don’t want to be exposed that we could’ve done something about de-radicalization and are not. And if we are, it’s not successful, so it’s better to just keep you quiet and the issue will just die on the vine.”
Christianne: That’s basically my feelings and my thought, and several other people have been trying to help me resolve this issue. They get spun around in circles and realize that they don’t really want us back in the country, so this way goes away. It’s no longer blemish or a concern, and they’re not held accountable or responsible to progress on dealing with the issue.
Lesley: Well is there a plan here at all Chris, in terms of what’s next?
Christianne: It’s day by day. I continue doing the work I’ve been doing as best I can. I’m currently working with several other families in France so I continue to do that. When I get requested to go to other countries to speak and to educate, I try to find another mother who can go on my place so that we’re continuing that momentum to get the various programs in place that are required to help those families. I’m not going to give up, I refuse to give up. Families, people, human beings are so important, and there are so many young children as well that are part of this war that nobody is even talking about to have and have a choice that are there that we have to start dealing with. So we need to keep moving forward. And all I can do is leave Canada on its own, it’s going to have to deal with it by itself. And when it does where its ugly had in a more forceful way, there’s nothing I can do. I just have to keep working in Europe.
Lesley: Well Chris, I can’t even begin to speak about what you have gone through, or my admiration in terms of how you’ve turned that pain into a forceful voice for change. And unfortunately we’re out of time but we’re not out of time to see how we can do to get that passport back, and make it known that this is not how we as Canadians feel we should be taking on issues such as terrorism.
Christianne: Well thank you. And I’m hoping there’s some sort of resolution so that we can continue to help more families in North America specifically and not just out here in Europe. It’s very important that this becomes a global movement for change and that we start looking at human beings as human beings, and having the compassion and solidarity so that we can get through this on the other side without more kids finding other organizations as a way to fight their hopelessness.
Lesley: Thanks Chris.
Christianne: Thank you.
Christianne Boudreau is for me the epitome of a woman who is leading. And in the terms of this show’s definition, a woman who is stepping in to unknown territory, making a difference with everything she has. Her step unto the world stage as an agent for change was neither planned, intended, or for that matter ever wished for. But in her own words, she realized she did not have a choice when it came to her ever growing understanding of how terrorism is taking cancerous claim to the minds of our disenfranchised youth. Christianne illustrates for me the process of becoming empowered from that of a grieving mother living her life as a normal citizen, a manager in an everyday organization, to the global voice for government intervention in the de-radicalization, or the counteract to the terrorist recruitment of our targeted vulnerable youth. To say that she has paid an unfathomable price for doing so is an understatement. If you wish to lend your voice to the cause to make contact with Christianne, you can do so at firstname.lastname@example.org that’s A-L-L-4-Y-O-U-1-3-6-@hotmail-dot-com. You can find her on Facebook under Mothers for Life and also Christianne Boudreau C-H-R-I-S-T-I-A-N-N-E-B-O-U-D-R-E-A-U. If you’re interested in finding out more about the organization in Germany dealing with the prevention intervention and peer grief support for terrorism responses, it’s www.GIRDS.org. And, if you want to catch some very powerful video, then you need to go to extremedialogue.org. Well, you know where to find me Lesleysouthwicktrask.com, at womenwholead.co, Facebook: Women Who Lead Radio Show. And I’m leaving this week’s show with a song dedicated to Christianne – Tears in heaven by Eric Clapton. And don’t forget, this is your show and I am your host, Lesley Southwick-Trask. Thanks for listening, see you next time.