Since last week’s killing of two soldiers and the storming of Parliament, Stephen Harper and the security establishment (the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and others) have offered a very American response.
They characterized the attacks as terrorist — not in the sense that both attackers terrorized but in the prevailing parlance of Muslim terrorism.
The prime minister projected himself as resolute in fighting terrorism at home and abroad, having already committed Canada to the American war on the Islamic State in Iraq. He has been front and centre of the story — at the War Memorial, in the Commons, and at the funeral of Cpl. Nathan Cirillo. He has cancelled his trip to China for the Asia-Pacific summit, to be in Ottawa for Remembrance Day next week.
The security establishment asked for more powers and resources. Harper obliged. A new bill would allow the spy agency to operate abroad, even break foreign laws; insulate informants from public scrutiny, so their identity is kept secret and the veracity of their tips not challenged; and provide little civilian oversight. Toronto lawyer Lorne Waldman notes a little-noticed provision — speeding up the stripping of citizenship from dual citizens convicted of terrorism (presumably aimed at Omar Khadr). The bill should raise alarms, as federal and provincial privacy commissioners warned Wednesday.
Another bill, already passed by the Commons and now before the Senate, makes it easier for the RCMP to monitor suspects online and phone. It has been opposed by the Canadian Bar Association and the federal Privacy Commissioner.
And Harper is promising more drastic legislation to enhance powers of surveillance and detention without charge.
All this, in the middle of the national mourning, helped hide serious security lapses. (1) A confidential 2013 federal report had foreseen attacks on military personnel, especially in Ottawa, according to the National Post. (2) Last week’s two attackers were known to the Mounties and CSIS, walking-talking time bombs ready to explode, yet allowed to roam freely. (3) Security at Parliament Hill has been ineffective — divided between four forces, one each for the Commons and the Senate, plus the RCMP and Ottawa Police, criticized as far back as 2012 by the federal auditor general, but not fixed.
Encouragingly, parallel to the government propaganda, a different more Canadian narrative is being offered, among others, by the grieving mother of one the killers.
Over the weekend, Susan Bibeauwrote an extraordinary letter to Postmedia News reporter Douglas Quan, countering the official assessment of her son, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, the killer of Cpl. Cirillo, as an Islamic terrorist headed to Syria.
She said she told the Mounties he wanted to go to Saudi Arabia, to learn Islam and kick his drug habit, not Syria. “They taped my conversation, so there can little doubt about the accuracy of what I said.”
The RCMP conceded the mistake yet insisted that it had not seen the need to correct the record “because extremist travellers destined for Syria often go first to places like Saudi Arabia or Turkey.”
Bibeau wrote that while her son “did create terror,” he was not a terrorist. “I don’t believe he was part of an organization or acted on behalf of some grand ideology or for a political motive. I believe he acted in despair,” presumably because his passport had been refused. “That pushed him into action. He felt cornered, unable to stay in the life he was in, unable to move on to the next one he wanted to go to. He was mad and felt trapped so the only way out was death . . . For me, mental illness is at the centre of this tragedy.”
That’s what many Canadians have been saying. Two attacks by two disturbed individuals — how were they different than Timothy McVeigh, Marc Lépine or Justin Bourque?
If the 1990s budget cutbacks to mental health institutions pushed patients out into the streets and made them criminals, now we are making them “terrorists,” worthy of military responses.
Zehaf-Bibeau may well have been a terrorist with connections. But the Mounties are coming across as clutching at straws to keep the official spin going.
Liberal leader Justin Trudeau said last week the gunman was a criminal. “Criminals do not dictate how we act as a nation, how we govern or how we treat each other. They do not dictate our values. They will not make the rules about this land that we share.”
If Harper said “we would not be intimidated” into stopping the war on terrorism, Trudeau said “we will not be intimidated into changing” from what we are: “a nation of justice and the rule of law. Those are the values and principles to which we must hold on even tighter.”
NDP leader Thomas Mulcair joined him Wednesday, saying the Ottawa shooter was a criminal, not a terrorist.
The debate is just beginning. It’s about Canadian values vs. American.