An Interview with Christianne Boudreau
Since her own son Damian became radicalized and died fighting for ISIS in 2014, Christianne Boudreau has worked tirelessly to a give a voice to her own experience, and the experiences of other families whose children have been lost to radicalization. Christianne has appeared on numerous news networks and in multiple documentaries. She has also founded and co-founded several Counter Violent Extremist organizations including Mothers for Life, Hayat Canada Family Support Foundation, and has been an active participant of Extreme Dialogue.
OP250: Prior to your experiences with Damian, were you aware of radicalization or online radicalization?
Christianne: Absolutely not. I had absolutely no idea, no understanding, and just complete ignorance.
OP250: So you think that is likely a part of the issue? A lack of understanding by the public about this problem and how it manifests in our society?
Christianne: Yes, I think that it is one of the components. The fact that I did not have the opportunity to be aware of what was happening, or the know with all to recognize that the changes occurring in him could be much more significant than what I thought them to be, is a problem. My opinion, at the time was that he was just a kid who was growing up. Often parents tend to second guess themselves quite a bit and we generally can think that we are overreacting because a lot of people will say to us ‘you’re over reacting,’ and it’s the rash judgment that the public usually makes when anything serious may or could be happening.
By opening up those doors for dialogue and creating an awareness it also creates an environment where someone can actually take accountability and responsibility for not bringing it to someone else’s attention.
OP250: What, to you, if anything, were the signs that Damien was moving towards extremism?
Christianne: To put a black and white sign post on any one particular sign, is the changing environment, they are coached by their coaches, their recruiters, and their group, by they should and should not do. The recruiters base this off of what is circulating in the media at the time as ‘typical radicalization signs,’ they don’t want families to be able to recognize what his happening to their child. I think as a parent we really have to go by gut and I noticed a large change in personality. If we were in a room with the rest of the family, friends of the family, he was a lot less personal, a bit on edge, there was just a switch in personality and it was enough that as a parent I started asking myself questions. The other thing was, he used to always have friends come into the home, and I would meet them. He started just leaving the house and meeting people around the corner. These people would not even pull into the driveway. There was a lot of secrecy, privacy, and avoidance. That’s a big tell-tale sign that something is up. When you see that much of a shift. When there is a huge change in social structure, we as parents need to have that connection and that knowledge with our children to make sure that everything is still the same, and it still meets the ‘status quo.’ Sometimes when these huge shifts happen, they will quit their jobs, stop going to school, change their circle of friends, all of these are huge personality changes that people really need to take a look at. Quite similar in any extremist group, these are the signs that people will show and they are the same ones society needs to take a look at. It is actually similar to mental illness, when people are going through mental health problems they will display many of these same signs. It’s that singularity, that de-pluralization that is a sign that they are cutting themselves up and changing themselves.
OP250: So going off of that, do you think Damian met any of the ‘classical’ radicalization signs?
Christianne: I think it is very contextual and situational. Yes, Damian met some of those classic signs, but you have to understand that his process happened in 2012, before everything was sensationalized by the media, before recruiters were teaching people ‘ok before you leave you have to make sure everything seems as normal as possible. Because this is what is being published in the media and this is what the public knows about. We don’t want people to catch onto you.’ Everything shifts and changes based on what is common knowledge. So I think I might have seen a little sign here, a little sign there, but that was in 2012/ 2013, now they are being taught how to behave during this process, now it’s not like something is stamped on somebody’s forehead, the problem has become much deeper than that. Those relationships between family and friends are key, because if you are close to somebody, you will feel that shift, you will know that something is different about them, you will know that something is happening to them. It’s not something that you can put into a box. You can’t make a ‘radicalization’ check list, and go let’s check off this, let’s check off that, and say to yourself, ‘oh this is a classic case.’ You can’t do that.
“I think [radicalization] is very contextual and situational.”
OP250: So you bring up a very good point in terms of Damian’s personal story, when this experience was happening for you, it was back in 2012/2013 before it was well known that western children were being radicalized to go join jihadists across the world. Our knowledge of radicalization is ever evolving, and our tactics are ever adapting as we gain more knowledge about what their [the terrorists] tactics are.
Christianne: Yes, what you are looking at right now with all the air strikes, resistance, and fighting over in Syria and Iraq, is that the recruiters have started saying, ‘don’t come here. We don’t want you coming here. We want you to stay home and build your faith and build your solidarity to the cause, back in your home country.’ We are seeing another shift, the face is changing. And quite honestly if you want to hide something, most people can hide it, but if you know somebody really well, think of a close friend, or somebody that you care about deeply, you will sense that something is not quite right, you will sense that something is off. That is always going to be the general sign. We need to start trusting our instincts, or our gut. We are taught logic, analytics, and black and white. Life is not black and white, there is a huge shade of grey, and we really have to start relying on those ‘human’ feelings because they give us more truth than what we give them credit for.
“We need to start trusting our instincts.”
OP250: Do you worry at times that this ‘radicalization’ check list, may cause certain people to not follow their instincts?
Christianne: Absolutely. Growing up, you are taught how to react to different things. You are taught how to analyze things. We as a society are moving further and further away from human instincts. Everyday. Partially because of technology. If we start relying on our gut and how we feel, we will start moving in a better direction. We also need that validation from other people. If someone reaches out for help, and they say, ‘this just doesn’t feel right.’ We as a society need to validate them, because the people closest to that person know best, and we cannot just base everything off of a classic check list. It’s the same as if somebody that goes to a doctor and they feel as if their issues may going unheard. It’s their body and they know when it doesn’t feel right. Generally people will be right about their gut instincts in that respect. The same goes for radicalization, people will generally know when something is wrong, we just have to give them more credit. We can’t let them think they are overreacting. Too often families in this position are told they are overreacting.
OP250: Going off of that, do you think the responsibility of knowing whether or not a child is being groomed falls solely on the shoulders of the parents or should society also bear some of that responsibility?
Christianne: This cannot be completely on the parents’ shoulders because sometimes you are just too close. I think it takes a community, everybody within that person’s social circle needs to share that responsibility, like that old saying, ‘it takes a village to raise a child.’ We have all forgotten that. Everybody is trying to place blame where they can. When something like this happens, we should all be accountable. The family should take accountability, along with the friends, the school, neighbors, essentially everyone needs to be personally responsible. Sometimes people are too afraid to say something when they see a problem, it takes that one strong person to say to that parent, while giving them a safe place for discussion, and say ‘I’ve seen a change [in him or her] I think there is a problem.’ Unfortunately this does not happen enough. People are afraid to step up, take action, and be accountable for what they are witnessing.
“This cannot be completely on the parents’ shoulders because sometimes you are just too close.”
OP250: Do you think there was anything Damian did that made him vulnerable to radicalization?
Christianne: I think it was a combination of things that allowed this to happen. A part of it is being at the wrong place, with the wrong people, at the wrong time. We all have gaps in our lives, or transition periods where there is an emptiness and we will try desperately to fill that void. We cannot find answers and there is emotional frustration. When someone presents you with a solution and it looks like it could fill that void, you are going to hang on to it, and that is basically what happened to Damian. He was going through a lot of things. He was extremely intelligent, and he felt like no one was understanding what he was trying to express. He couldn’t understand why governments in the world were doing certain things, and making bad decisions. To him there were obvious answers that would make things better and it frustrated him when he felt no one else saw those answers. He couldn’t understand why there was so much hatred. In the case of Syria, he was confused as to why the world kept turning their heads to what Bashar al Assad was doing. To him it was horrifying. He also felt very powerless in a lot of personal situations. Doing what he did filled a lot of those gaps and if you think in about your own personal life, any decision a human being makes is generally emotionally driven. We react to whatever our heart is telling us, we don’t stop and think ‘okay let’s logically play this all out in my head, and research every angle before making a decision.’ Emotion sways most of our decisions whether it be the right one or the wrong one. That is the issue right now, a lot of these kids are open to suggestions, and they are looking for solutions. They don’t have the resiliency and maturity to step back and look forward to what the consequences of these actions could be. They want the instant gratification of the solution. You are looking for some sort of comfort. Anywhere to feel strong again.
“They want the instant gratification of the solution.”
OP250: Do you think terrorism is spoken about enough in an educational setting, if not why?
Christianne: I think because they keep trying to label it as terrorism it makes it very scary and it makes it very difficult to have a discussion about that and all the other areas that could be encompassed within that. I think that because people are afraid of the topic, they fear that they might say something wrong, or even adversely push somebody in that direction. Often people say, ‘I don’t know enough, or I am not comfortable enough with talking about this openly, and honestly.’ Simply it comes down to a lack of confidence and comfortability with the subject matter.
“If we are not providing that information for children in a safe environment, they will start looking for those answers elsewhere.”
When Damian was growing up and going through depression, I tried reaching out to various organizations and groups, we kept getting put on weight lists for one to two years. We would see counselors that couldn’t handle his level of intelligence and they would say, ‘go find somewhere else.’ I had to keep fighting to try and find him the help that he needed. I, as a parent, continued to fight, I was continuously placed under judgement and scrutiny by counselors, by schools, teachers, and other various organizations that I turned to for help. If I had, had some guidance through my experiences with Damian that would have made a huge difference. I needed a place where I could go and feel safe talking about what we were going through. I needed someone to help me help him work through those emotions that he was having.
I know so many other parents who have been in the same position as me and my family, and they like us, had one door after another slammed in their face. After trying so hard to reach out to every resource as possible then having to face the shame of the judgement, it was so frustrating. Still after all of this I still get the bulk of the blame from the general public. People think I didn’t do enough to stop it. You can’t win.
For the families that I know who were able to find that safe place to go, they were able to disrupt the process [radicalization].
OP250: Do you think there are any specific measures that should be taken in terms of education?
Christianne: We need to stop putting up all these blocks and safeguards. We can’t constantly be looking over everybody’s shoulders 24/7. Things are constantly evolving and changing all the time. We are chasing something that we are never going to catch up to. You are much better off creating that education for children, about online safety, so they can make those aware and informed decisions about what they should and should not be doing. Education is the key. Kids as young as 5 are online on their own now a days. Parents keep setting up all these blockers and locks on the internet. People who are doing that are in a state of disillusion. It really takes that education and awareness to make a difference. Kid’s need internet safety courses.
The real need is for critical thinking skills. They need to be given the tools so that they can be confident in what they are looking at. They also need those safe spaces and those safe people that they know they can go ask questions to without the fear of consequences. The kids need to know that these people won’t judge them or put them down for what they were looking at. Kids are afraid getting in trouble so they won’t say anything. Education and critical thinking are key.
We are not educating. We are not empowering. We aren’t teaching critical thinking. We aren’t doing any of these things that would prepare our kids to handle difficult situations. When we think our kids are going to see something bad we say, ‘stop, don’t look at that!’ We try and shut down their curiosity. All we are doing is making them more curious.
“We need to stop putting up all these blocks and safeguards. We can’t constantly be looking over everybody’s shoulders 24/7. Things are constantly evolving and changing all the time. We are chasing something that we are never going to catch up to.”
Operation250 would like to thank Christianne for spending the time talking with us and giving us such insightful information