History: A Short History of Canada's Over- and Underreaction to Terrorism

AuthorCraig Forcese; Kent Roach
History: A Short History of Canada’s
Over- and Underreaction to Terrorism
No one can seriously think that Ca nada is immune from terrorism or that it
has ever been.
Aspiring ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) recruit Martin Couture-
Rouleau killed Warrant Ocer Patrice Vincent in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu
on  October . Angered by the Canadian militar y presence in Afghan-
istan and Iraq, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau murdered Corporal Nathan Cirillo at
Ottawa’s war memorial on  October . He then stormed Parliament’s
Centre Block, before being shot and killed in the chaotic secu rity response.
ese events galvaniz ed a horried public. But that same downtown pre-
cinct of Ottawa had seen this sor t of thing before. Zehaf-Bibeau shot Corporal
Cirillo three times in the back, steps from the Sparks Street boarding house
where omas D’Arcy McGee was assassinated a yea r after Confederation.
McGee had been an Irish nationalist but turned against t he violence of the
Fenian Brotherhood. Patrick James Whelan, a suspected Fenian sympathiz-
er, was convicted of the murder in a (procedurally doubtful) trial. He was
hanged before , spectators in Ottawa.
e  October  terrorist attack was not even the rst t ime that
terrorists had targeted Canada’s grand Parliament buildings. A recent data-
base created by the Ca nadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security
and Society (TSAS) records eighty “terrorist or extremist attacks” in downtown
Ottawa between  and . Twenty-one ta rgeted the Parliament build-
ings, with most instanc es involving letters containing white powder delivered
in . But other, more serious, incidents involved attempted bombings or
other physical assaults.
In , ocials declined Paul Joseph Chartier’s request to give a speech on
political matters in the House of Commons. In response, he prepared a bomb
to be tossed into the chamber from the visitors’ gallery. e bomb detonated
prematurely in a Commons washroom, killing Chartier. Police found anot her
six sticks of dynamite and notebooks full of anti-parliamentarian polem-
ics in the terrorist’s Toronto residence. Another plan to bomb the House
of Commons was foiled by police, after a tipo, in . e perpetrator
intended to express his anger at the prime minister during the constitution-
al repatriation debates. en, in , a man screaming “devil worshipers”
drove his vehicle up the stairs leading to t he front door of Parliament, ran
into the lobby, and struggled with security ocers before being overcome.
Also of note, given the parallels to t he  and  October  attacks,
is a  May  assault, occurring on the day of Quebec’s rst sovereignty
referendum, in which a Quebec man stabbed a Canad ian Forces colonel very
near downtown Ottawa’s national defence headquarters. To publicize his
views that Quebec’s language law was discriminatory, the man had declared
his intent to attack Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Foiled in those
eorts, he instead “decided to become a terrorist and attack the military
leadership that morally represents the policies of the Federal Government.”
And these Ottawa events are not unique. e TSAS database records
, terrorist or extremist incidents and  deaths in Canada during the
period between  and . is latter gure includes the largest mass
murder in Canadian histor y: the  deaths on Air India Flight , en route
from Toronto to London, England.
Given these data, no one can seriously think that Canada is insu lated
from terrorism, that it has ever been, or that October  marked some
rupture between a bucolic state of innocence and a more dangerous present
But What Is Terrorism?
With the distance of time, we do not always k now what motivated the perpe-
trators of all of these attack s. But we do know in many cases. Many of these
incidents meet the denition of “terrorist activity” in Canada’s contemporary
Criminal Code. Under that law, terrorist activity includes most acts of vio-
lence done for political, religious, or ideological motives with the intention
of intimidating the public “with regard to its securit y, including its economic
security, or compelling a person, a government, or a domestic or an inter-
national organization to do or to refrain from doing any act.”
Chapter Two: History
Of course, this denition did not exist until , and so terrorism was
more a colloquial expression than a legal concept before that time. But our
law has now long since evolved past treating terrorism as a disputed den-
itional question, inviting endless inquiries into whether mentally ill people
can be terrorists or whether certa in political justications somehow make the
label improper.
ere is, therefore, no purpose in endlessly disputing whether someone
is a terrorist, something that consumed much oxygen a fter the October 
events. A mentally ill person can commit a terrorism oence — so long as
that person is capable of forming the requisite intent. e criteria for that
intent are xed and indeed have survived constitutional challenge. All that
remains, then, is unearthing the facts.
Nor should we waste eort imagining t hat terrorism is conduct conned
to one particular form of ideology — in modern practice, that inspired by
ISIS or al-Qaida. In law, there is no such thing as “noble cause” terrorism.
e rule of law applies to all. It does not pick sides. Our law does not, in any
form, exonerate terrorist activity because the political, religious, or ideological
motivation is appealing or the cause worthy. At most, the Criminal Code
makes a modest eort to exclude from the reach of the terrorist activity def-
inition things done during an armed conict, in compliance with applicable
international law. is is as close as Canad a comes in recognizing a “freedom
ghter” exception, and it is an exception very few insurgencies could satisfy
in practice. It is instructive to note, moreover, that the TSAS database rec-
ords a dizzying array of motivations. ese historical data suggest that over
the last fteen yea rs, al-Qaida- or ISIS-inspired “lone wolf ” terrorism is less
common than other forms of terrorism, especially that perpetrated by white
e truth that terrorism is a tact ic is often lost in political discussion, and
in the way our law is used. In Januar y , Justice Minister Peter MacKay
refused to consider a plot by three youths to shoot people in a Halifax ma ll
to be terrorism because there was not “a cultural component.” And yet “cul-
ture” is not a prerequisite of terrorist activity in Canadia n law — indeed,
the term appears nowhere in it. We suspect that if three young Muslims
had hatched an equivalent plot with press reports revealing a similar nihilist
ideology, the plot would probably have been labelled as terrorism. And such
a plot might well have attracted terrorism charges if that ideology had been
conrmed by police investigations.
As we describe in Chapter , it is striking t hat all but one of the terrorism
prosecutions under post-/ law have involved persons inspired by al-Qaida
or ISIS. is is not just about the threat environment — there have been

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