People who think Canada has “lost its innocence” in the October 22, 2014 terrorist attack on the War Memorial and Parliament Hill don’t know much about Canadian history.
Just one year after Canada became a country in 1867, Canadian Member of Parliament Thomas D’Arcy McGee was assassinated in downtown Ottawa, one block from Parliament Hill. D’Arcy McGee was one of the Canadian Fathers of Confederation, originally an Irish nationalist who censured the Fenian Brotherhood, an Irish group that plotted a forcible takeover of Canada from the United States in order to strike back at Britain for its occupation of Ireland. When D’Arcy McGee was assassinated presumably by a Fenian sympathizer, soldiers patrolled the streets of Ottawa and men of Irish origin were rounded up.
In the 1960s, a Québec separatist group called the Front de Liberation du Québec (FLQ) bombed mailboxes, businesses owned by anglophones, and other places symbolic to them such as the Montreal Stock Exchange, Royal Montreal Regiment, the Canadian Army Recruiting Centre, and the home of Montreal’s mayor. A number of people were killed and many injured in attacks spread out over seven years. Then in 1970, the FLQ stepped up the attacks by assassinating Quebec Labour Minister Pierre Laporte and kidnapping British trade commissioner James Cross. The War Measures Act was invoked, there were soldiers in the streets, and over 450 people were rounded up by police and detained without charge. I was five years old and lived in Québec then, and I remember – Je me souviens.
Where is the FLQ today? Nowhere, because most Quebeckers did not support violence and developed a democratic avenue to express a commitment to independence. Quebec’s first Parti Québécois government was elected in 1976. Since then, Québec independence has been democratically debated, and supporters of independence know that they must convince enough other Quebeckers to support it in order to make it happen. Did the FLQ die because of a “war on terror”? In fact, the demands of the FLQ cell that captured James Cross were met – the terrorists were given free passage to Cuba in exchange for Cross’ life, as well as having their manifesto broadcast on the airwaves.
The Parliament Hill shooting was not the first terrorist act in a Canadian legislature. In 1984, former Canadian Forces Corporal Denis Lortie opened fire in the National Assembly (the Québec legislature), killing three people and wounding 13. The Parliament Hill shooting was not even the first threat to Parliament Hill. In 1989 Charles Yacoub hijacked a Greyhound bus full of people, drove onto the lawn of Parliament Hill, and claiming that there was a bomb on the bus proceeded to hold the hostages for eight hours. The Parliament buildings were evacuated.
Nor were any of these incidents the worst act of terrorism in Canada, a dubious title which still belongs to the Air India bombing in 1985. The bomb was put on the plane in Vancouver and killed 329 people.
People think of Canada as a peaceful and prosperous place, and it is for most Canadians now, except for the 2,959,000 million Canadians who live in poverty and the 223,000 Canadians assaulted in 2012. Canada’s history has not been so peaceful. In 1919, Canadian soldiers were used to violently suppress workers involved in Winnipeg General Strike. During that time period, violent suppression of labour unrest and union activity was common. The War Measures Act was also used from 1914-1920 to round up “enemy aliens” (Canadians of Ukrainian, East European and Turkish descent) and put them in forced labour camps across Canada. During World War II, Canada confiscated the property of Japanese Canadians, which was never returned, and interned whole families in camps. Some Canadians of German, Italian background and other “enemy aliens” were also interned. Canada has a sorry history of racism from treatment of Black Loyalists, to anti-Asian riots, anti-Jewish riots, anti-Greek riots and so forth. In Canada, many indigenous peoples were removed from their land, their religious practices banned by law, their governance systems replaced, and their kids taken away to residential schools where they were beaten, broken, many were raped and thousands died. The Government of Canada recently fought in court to keep records pertaining to the use of an electric chair on kids as young as six years old at St. Anne’s Residential School from being turned over to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It’s debatable whether Canada has any innocence to lose.
In fact, it strikes me as odd that all of a sudden, some people are waking up to terror for the first time, when other Canadians have had to live with terror on a daily basis all their lives. In Canada, women and children are most likely to be beaten, raped and killed by someone they know, often in their own homes. Many are still living in terror every single day. People living in the poorest Canadian neighbourhoods also know the daily threat of violence all too well. Welcome to their world. Fear is not something new to Canadians, only to some Canadians.
In terms of broader acts of terrorism in Canada within my life time, I remember the Squamish 5, a group based in British Columbia which bombed the Litton plant. The Global Terrorism Database catalogues only 68 terrorist incidents for Canada, but some academics place it at hundreds of mainly low level incidents and attempts.
Europe and the US face armed right wing extremists such as Anders Breivik who killed 77 people in Norway and Timothy McVeigh who killed 168 and injured over 600 in Oklahoma. In Canada so far, violent right wing extremism has been mainly targeted at specific groups in the form of hate crimes. In 2012, there were 1,414 police-substantiated criminal incidents motivated by hate in Canada. About half (51%) were motivated by hatred of a specific race or ethnicity, 30% were motivated by hatred of a religion, another 13% by hatred of minority sexual orientations and the rest by other types of hatred.
In case you think I’m trying to paint Canada as a terrible place, I’m not. We like to think we are different, but in fact, racism, violence and marginalization are found everywhere in the world, including here. I’m glad that in Canada, we are free to talk about it, and to work together toward a vision of a peaceful, prosperous society in which all are equal and no one is left behind. We still have work to do.
There are people around the world who have to deal with terrorist threats every day, as well as threats from their own governments, families and neighbours. As a result of the attack in Ottawa, Canadian Prime Minister Harper had to cancel his meeting with Malala Yousafzai who was shot in the head by the Taliban for advocating education for girls. One fifth of Canadians were born outside of Canada. Some of these Canadians are refugees who have firsthand experience of the horrors of armed conflict and paramilitary raids. I remember doing some volunteer work helping a 16 year old girl in Ottawa write an essay. The topic was “What I like best about Canada.” She didn’t know how to put it into words on the paper. So I asked her, “What do you like best about Canada?” Her answer was that she didn’t have to constantly worry about bombs dropping from overhead. Her family was Kurdish, and had fled from northern Iraq, spending two years in a refugee camp on the Turkish border. She felt safe here. She felt she had a future.
The ethnicities, causes and ideologies associated with terrorist acts change. Legitimate grievances may be resolved or at least allowed democratic avenues of expression and incremental change. Destructive ideologies diminish when public support for them diminishes, which is why it is important never to play into terrorist or nationalistic narratives about wars between religions, cultures or classes. This is why turning on Muslim Canadians, for example, when Muslims have actually been the primary victims around the world of so-called “Islamist” extremists, is exactly what violent extremists want. Terrorists feed on conflict, division, suspicion and fear. Muslim Canadians stand united with all other Canadians against terrorism. We cannot let anti-Muslim sentiment divide us and poison Canada.
Although Canada has experienced many forms of terrorism based on many different causes and ideologies, currently, violent extremists who believe in a twisted interpretation of Islam are viewed as the primary terrorist threat. Some opinion leaders are approaching this challenge with outdated concepts of warfare. In the past, war was between primarily ethnically-homogenous nations. You could bomb and destroy the homeland of the “enemy”. The people were finite. They could only reproduce physically by having more children. Today’s warfare can go well beyond these boundaries. It is an ideological war in which the “enemy” can be mentally reproduced across national boundaries, and is therefore not at all finite in number. Dealing with such an “enemy” by bombing some part of the world is unlikely to stop it. Instead, the struggle needs to be also taken to where the warfare actually originates – on the ideological level. And this doesn’t mean beating your chest like a gorilla and re-stating your own point of view. You need to understand who you are dealing with and how to turn them away from the path they are on.
This is particularly true of an “enemy” that rises up from amongst us and works alone, leaving no communication or anything that authorities can intercept about their plans. With Canada’s elimination of the long-gun registry, authorities don’t even know if these extremist individuals own firearms. This is an extremely dangerous situation to be placing both police and the public. The policy is to identify individuals, and if they express a desire to go overseas and fight in ideological wars, take their passports away. That leaves frustrated would-be violent extremists here in Canada with no one to attack but Canadian targets, and the authorities with no knowledge of what means they have at their disposal.
Canada’s security apparatus were already familiar with Martin Couture-Rouleau, who deliberately ran over and killed Canadian soldier Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent with a vehicle in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu on October 20, 2014, two days prior to Michael Zehaf-Bibeau’s Ottawa attack. Couture-Rouleau had previously had his passport taken away as he had been identified as intending to go overseas to fight with Da’esh (ISIS/ISIL). As police have pointed out, it is difficult to arrest these people and have the charge succeed in court because the crime is based on something the suspect might do in future. Having extremist or any other thoughts is not against the law, nor should it be. Even if violent extremists were put in jail before committing a crime, which is contrary to Canadian principles of justice, that’s not an end to violent extremism as they could recruit more people in prison. If violent extremists work as a group and plan to attack a target, which is a crime, communications can be intercepted by authorities and the plan undermined. That’s what happened in the Toronto 18 case and others. However, isolated extremists working alone pose a particular challenge. They may be convinced that they are a part of an important and noble cause but communicate with no one, and that is a psychological battlefield.
The home front is not the only way in which warfare has changed. When today’s soldiers are sent to places like Iraq, Syria or Afghanistan, how do they determine who the enemy is? Someone can appear to be a friend and kill you. Someone may be labeled an enemy yet simply be committed to defending their homeland against foreign soldiers and influence, which is perhaps what any one of us would do if our country was invaded. In airstrikes against Da’esh (ISIS/ISIL), how can we be certain that already-oppressed civilians are not also being killed? How can anyone really be certain who is with Da’esh and who isn’t? Can we be certain that our actions are not creating brand-new recruits for the cause? How do we act in solidarity with people who are being attacked by paramilitary groups without appearing to be part of the problem? War was always bloody and fraught with uncertainty, but it was never as complicated as this.
Simplistic views of the world and expectations about masculinity feed into homegrown terrorism. Many people seem to believe, like the superhero and crime TV shows and movies they watch or the video games they play, that there is a clear distinction between the “good guys” and the “bad guys”. One of the most insidious ways that we teach our sons that violence is not only okay, but it’s brave and heroic, is by teaching them that there are good guys and bad guys, and that both sides use violence rather than negotiation or prevention to resolve problems. The good guys physically attack the bad guys to prevent them from killing others or to defend some ideal. With the current major terrorist threat, these very same arguments are used, except there’s a difference of opinion about who the good guys and bad guys are. Da’esh (ISIS/ISIL) supporters are defending an idea they believe in, feel the rush of being a part of a cause, and think that being killed/martyrdom is literally a ticket to heaven. They think western forces and Arab governments are the bad guys, to be stopped at any cost even at the expense of their own lives. This could be a Hollywood movie – the brave fighters sacrificing their lives for their buddies and ideals, not afraid to be tough and use violence to defend a territory – except for the casting.
Although there have been female terrorists, it is largely a male phenomenon. And machismo is also present in some of the reactions to terrorism, such as the Twitter idiots who were saying Canada capitulated because some soldiers were told not to wear their uniforms in conspicuous places when off duty. They claimed such an action “lets the terrorists win”. We are Canadian. Most of the time we are a sensible people who try to do the right thing. The right thing is to protect lives. Had we sent off-duty soldiers out as walking targets in a display of misguided masculine bravado, we would not have been Canadian. Hopefully, we will not let attacks such as this change our best qualities as a people, qualities that were developed the hard way over time. We should also think about what might actually bring about peace rather than acting out the same script with different actors. Perhaps it’s time to write a new script.
If we are going to prevent homegrown terrorism, we will do it with intelligence, knowledge and compassion, and we will start in daycares by teaching kids how to resolve problems without violence. We will do it through democratic reform so that people do not feel disenfranchised and helpless to change their country and the world. We will do it by teaching young people in schools how they can have a positive impact in the world, how to recognize and challenge efforts to recruit them into extremist ideologies, how to research what is actually happening and make decisions based on evidence, how to access mental health services and ensure appropriate services are there, and help young people develop a positive sense of identity and belonging so that they do not succumb to these false routes to glory. In fact, making positive change in the world doesn’t involve grand gestures or dramatic heroism, it is daily helpfulness, engagement and respect for others that truly creates a beautiful and functional world.
We can also do a lot more to support the people around the world forced to live with violence. Yet what actions to take, how much it will cost, what possible effects they may have and how long we can engage in these actions are a matter for national debate. Often there is a pressure to “do something”. What is more difficult is to determine what the right thing to do is, and whether Canadians are willing to see it through.
I can’t help but ponder the fact that the War Memorial/Parliament Hill gunman Michael Zehaf-Bibeau was staying at a homeless shelter for a couple of weeks before the attack, behaving bizarrely, which may not be unusual for such shelters considering how many of Canada’s mentally ill are living on our streets and in our jails. His mother described him as “lost and did not fit in”. Whether it applies to this particular case or not, beefing up mental health support might save lives. Perhaps a more proactive and better-funded mental health outreach could have identified and treated people like Vince Li who decapitated a stranger on a Greyhound bus while in the throes of a psychotic episode. That was not considered a terrorist act because there was no political or ideological motivation, yet the victim is just as dead. There are thousands of people left on the margins, stewing alone in their own thoughts and delusions, or hooking up with other people who facilitate destructive views. Mental illness does not have to doom anyone. With treatment and social support, people diagnosed with mental health conditions can live good lives.
One of the reasons why I bring up mental illness is to put terrorism in Canada in perspective. Hundreds of Canadians have been killed over the years as a result of ideologically-motivated violence. However, in 2012 alone, 543 Canadians were murdered, 84% of them by people they knew. In 2011, seven times as many people – 3,728 people – in Canada committed suicide. Depression is one of our biggest mental health challenges, one that kills thousands of Canadians and millions of people around the world each year. So let’s put risk in perspective. In Canada, we are most at risk from ourselves. We are more likely to kill ourselves than have anyone else kill us for whatever reason. If we broaden this to look at the risk of cancer (71,125 deaths in 2009 in Canada), heart disease (49,271 deaths in 2009), and diabetes (6,923 deaths in 2009), we are exponentially more at risk of dying from junk food and a sedentary lifestyle than we are from terrorism. However, nothing frightens us like guys with guns or bombs coming out of the blue every few years, even though it’s that bag of chips and the soda that will kill most of us.
Does the low relative risk of a terrorist attack mean we shouldn’t be prepared? Absolutely not. Safeguards and procedures should be in place. We also need to do the harder work of building an inclusive society in which there is help available to prevent people from going down dangerous paths. And that inclusive society will help us stand together when (not if) attacks occur.
Violent extremist ideologies offer a clear-cut view of the world, a purpose in life and a sense of camaraderie in a cause. You certainly don’t have to be mentally ill in order to be taken in, and most violent extremists are not mentally ill. In an uncertain world, many people thirst for certainty, meaning and community. Many people are outraged by injustices happening at home and around the world, and don’t know to do about it. Many people feel a sense of powerlessness and anonymity, and fantasize about being a hero. Some people want to be part of a group of friends or band of brothers doing something important. Some people gravitate to violent extremist ideologies because they seem to offer answers and avenues for action.
Given aspects of our history that I’ve only briefly touched on, I’m not sure Canada had much innocence to lose. The current challenge (or one of them) is to work together to prevent our sons, daughters and neighbours from ever reaching the point at which they think violence toward themselves or others is a good idea. We need to stand together across ethnic, religious, economic or ideological differences and realize that the actions of a few individuals do not reflect whatever ethnic or religious group they may be associated with or try to associate themselves with. We also need to understand that any religion or ideology can be hijacked and twisted to justify crime, as the past thousand years can tell us. At a time at which Islam was producing scientists and mathematicians, Christians were embroiled in sectarian violence, trying to take over other countries, burning witches, and torturing people in the name of religion. During my lifetime Catholics and Protestants were still at it in Northern Ireland, trying to destroy each other. In Canada, Christianity was imposed on indigenous people by force through residential schools in which kids were beaten for speaking their own languages and practising their own religious beliefs. We have now come out of that horrifying history, although vestiges of exclusion remain in some quarters. Through the majority of us cooperating with each other across language, religion, ethnicity and political differences we have built a largely peaceful and prosperous country which is just beginning to rectify the injustices of the past and present. No act of terrorism will shake us from this course, unless we let it.
And for those who think that this is just a narrative, an idealistic discourse about what Canada can be, you are right. It is by stating our goals that we can bring them into focus, and make them come true.
“Of all our dreams today, there is none more important – or so hard to realise – that that of peace in the world. May we never lose our faith in it or our resolve to do everything that can be done to convert it one day into reality.”
“But while we all pray for peace, we do not always, as free citizens, support the policies that make for peace or reject those which do not.”
– Lester B. Pearson, Prime Minister of Canada from 1963-68, Nobel Peace Prize winner