We Canadians like to think that we are a boring and peaceful nation, that nothing much ever happens here, and everybody likes us. It therefore comes as a shock when we are attacked, as we were this week in Ottawa.
Yet terrorism is not a new phenomenon for Canada, as demonstrated by the assassination of one of the fathers of the confederation, Thomas D’Arcy McGee, in 1868; by the murderous behaviour of the Front de Libération de Québec in 1970; and by the destruction of Air India Flight 128 in 1985. Our legislative institutions have been regular targets of attack. A Loyalist mob burned down the Parliament of Lower Canada in Montreal in 1848. In 1966 Paul Joseph Chartier brought dynamite into the House of Commons in Ottawa planning to kill as many MPs as possible, but managed to kill only himself. And in 1989 Charles Yacoub hijacked a bus and had the driver take him to Parliament Hill whereupon, claiming to represent the Liberation Front for Christian Lebanon, he fired several shots at tourists before eventually surrendering to the police.
The attacks this week appalled the country. On Monday, Martin Couture-Rouleau, the owner of an industrial cleaning company in the town of Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, southeast of Montreal, deliberately drove his car into two soldiers, killing one of them, Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent. Then, on Wednesday, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau – an itinerant with a number of convictions for drug offences and robbery – fired a rifle at one of the guards at the national war memorial in Ottawa, killing Corporal Nathan Cirillo. Zehaf-Bibeau then moved on to the nearby Parliament building where he was shot dead.
The Canadian Security Intelligence Service had already identified both attackers as security risks. Zehaf-Bibeau had been denied a passport due to suspicions that he might commit terrorism overseas, and was apparently furious as a result. Meanwhile, Couture-Rouleau had been prevented from flying out of Canada to Turkey, from where it was suspected that he planned to join the army of the Islamic State. According to CBC News, Couture-Rouleau had announced on Facebook that he was angry at the Canadian government’s decision to send fighter jets to join the international coalition bombing the Islamic State.
This forces us to confront the tricky question of Canadian foreign policy – and, no, confronting that question does not mean apologising for the perpetrators. In the past decade, Canada has abandoned its peacekeeping tradition, and adopted a different posture exemplified by the high-profile combat role the Canadian forces played in Afghanistan and the recent deployment of aircraft to fight the Islamic State. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that these operations have contributed in at least some small way to the radicalisation of Canadian Muslims such as Zehaf-Bibeau and Couture-Rouleau. Consequently, it is not obvious that the operations are making Canadians safer.
The suspicion many have is that Canadian governments only do what they do because they want to get on well with allies, particularly the United States. Thus our Prime Minister agreed to send planes to Iraq – not because he really felt that they would achieve anything, but because the Americans had asked him to and he didn’t want to antagonise them by saying no.
If this is the case, then the government ought to be honest about it and let Canadians know that an increased risk from terrorism is simply the price we have to pay to protect important interests, most notably good relations with the United States. More attacks are quite possible, and the fact that they are conducted by lone individuals in a seemingly spontaneous manner means that they will be almost impossible to prevent. However, the same randomness means that their impact should be very limited. Individuals conducting hit-and-run operations with their cars are hardly criminal masterminds. The task for the Canadian government now is to show that the interests it is promoting are worth the price.
Paul Robinson is a professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa. He blogs at irrussianality.wordpress.com.