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Barriers to Violent Radicalization: Understanding Pathways to Resilience Among Canadian Youth


As many scholars and policy analysts have made clear, the nature of contemporary terrorism and political violence is evolving. While terrorist violence has indeed been rare in Canada, we are nevertheless not immune from it. Cases like the Air India bombing of 1985, the Toronto 18 plot of 2006, as well as instances of Canadian youth travelling overseas to fight on behalf of foreign groups like Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and Al-Shabaab in Somalia are all cause for concern. Canada’s counter-terrorism strategy, entitled Building Resilience Against Terrorism, calls on law enforcement to not only “prevent, detect, deny, and respond” to terrorist activity in Canada, but also to build community resilience against the spread of extremist ideas and to prevent radicalization to violence.

The complexity of the issue, then, lies in the fact that violent extremists do not have an easily distinguishable character trait, and come from a wide variety of religious, ethnic, regional, and socio-economic backgrounds. Similarly, while certain grievances against Canadian society and culture as well as national and foreign policy may indeed be precursors to violent radicalization, the question remains: why do the vast majority of individuals who hold grievances remain nonviolent? This study focuses on the resilience and pro-social expression of dissent among youth who experience themselves as marginalized or silenced. While it is important to understand what radicalizes youth to the point of violence, it is also important to identify culturally specific and population wide factors that support the engagement of youth without that engagement leading to violence.

The study of resilience shifts the focus of research from psychopathology and disorder to the individual, social, economic and political factors that predict positive and prosocial development, social cohesion, cultural adherence, relationships, powerful identities, individual and social efficacy, and many other influences on behaviour. A social ecological understanding of resilience decenters our understanding of resilience, arguing that much more of a person’s positive development under stress can be accounted for by external rather than internal factors. Applied to the problem of homegrown terrorism or radicalization, we need to investigate in contextually sensitive ways why the vast majority of young people resist violence even as they become engaged. How do they experience the psychosocial benefits associated with resilience without resorting to violence? What pathways do they follow, and what do their families, communities and governments provide them with that make it more likely they will become resilient without becoming a violent extremist? Our study, funded by Public Safety Canada’s Kanishka Project, is among the very first in the world to investigate the social ecologies of resilience that prevent violent extremism.

Lead Investigators:

  • Michael Ungar - Resilience Research Centre, Dalhousie University, Halifax, NS, Canada
  • Amarnath Amarasignam - Wilfred Laurier University, Waterloo, ON, Canada


Pathways to Resilience (2007-2015)

Transitioning from one service to another can be a confusing and stressful process, especially for youth. The risks they face in the home or community, as well as their strengths and abilities impact what services youth are referred to. The Pathways to Resilience Project seeks to better understand how youth navigate between mandated services (child welfare, education, mental health, and youth justice) to successful outcomes.

Negotiating Resilience Project (2007-2010)

Negotiating Resilience is a qualitative exploration of how youth from five different countries cope with daily challenges using video technology.

Most of us have felt out of place at one time or another. So how do youth who experience adversity cope with this feeling; a youth with a physical disability being educated among able-bodied youth, or an Aboriginal youth living off-reserve in an urban environment, or a child refugee displaced from his/her home community. Using visual methods this research seeks to understand how youth coped with these challenges and how resilience is understood and experienced across cultures from the perspective of youth themselves.

The International Resilience Project (2003-2005)

The International Resilience Project (IRP) aims to develop a more culturally sensitive understanding of how youth around the world effectively cope with the adversities that they face. The IRP uses a unique cross-cultural approach that employs both quantitative and qualitative research methods to examine individual, interpersonal, family, community and cultural factors associated with building resilience in youth around the world. In particular, the study has helped to develop the Child and Youth Resilience Measure (CYRM) and a tool box of qualitative research techniques.

Stories of Transition (2007-2008)

The transition from high school into educational and occupational pathways is a bewildering process for many young people and their parents. From the time they start kindergarten to the day they graduate from high school, most youth travel down a relatively straightforward path. They proceed systematically from one grade to another. Everyone their age is doing pretty much what they are doing school-wise, and career decisions are something for the distant future.

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