The media in Canada, and internationally, has been filled with reports of, and commentary on, the attack on the Canadian Parliament, in Ottawa, Canada’s capital.
On 22 October a lone gunman shot and killed Corporal Nathan Cirillo, a soldier on honour guard at the National War Memorial, and then entered the Parliament building firing shots, until he was killed. Much of the centre of Ottawa and Parliament Hill was locked down for several hours after the incident.
The events in Ottawa came only two days after a driver deliberately ran over two soldiers in a town south of Montreal, killing Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent. The car driver, Martin Couture-Rouleau, was later killed by the police.
Of course people across Canada were shocked and saddened by these events. They also gave rise to a huge amount of talk by politicians and the media about terrorist attacks and threats linked to reactionary Islam.
From all the reports, it seems that both men acted alone. Couture-Rouleau converted to Islam over the last two years after what has been described as a “dark period in his life”. This followed his small business hitting problems. More recently, he had started putting pro-ISIS material on his Facebook page.
The Ottawa gunman, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, however, does not fit the same pattern. He had a history of mental illness and drug problems and was homeless. When charged with robbery in 201, Zehaf-Bibeau told a court judge that as he was homeless and a drug addict and he wanted to go to jail to ’sort himself out’.
Zehaf-Bibeau spent some time at a mosque but had been told to leave due to his behaviour. He had also stayed in a Salvation Army shelter in Vancouver, where again his behaviour caused problems. He clearly needed help and support but never received any.
There was also third targeted killing of authority figures in Canada this year. In June, in New Brunswick, another young man, Justin Bourque, shot and killed three police officers and wounded two others, before being arrested. The prosecutor in his case said that he targeted the Royal Canadian Mounted Police "specifically because of who they were, what they did, the badge they carried". However, Justin Bourque’s actions have not been described as terrorist – they are called a crime.
Why the difference? Bourque had mental health issues, friends had been alarmed by his aggressive behaviour and he was described as paranoid by his father. He also posted political comments on his Facebook. However, Bourque posted right-wing, extreme populist comments compared to Couture-Rouleau’s reactionary ideas wrapped in an Islamic flag. Bourque complained about the lack of freedom of speech and the "rule of tyrants” and had shared slogans, such as, "Free Men Do Not Ask Permission to Bear Arms" and "Militia Is Only a Bad Word if You’re a Tyrant"
How many of these killers were “terrorists”? The Conservative government clearly thinks only two of them were. Only Couture-Rouleau expressed support for ISIS. Zehaf-Bibeau seems to have had some links to Islam and been flirting with more violent ideas, but he had a long history of drug abuse and mental illness and had made several pleas for help over the years. But the government wants to hype up the threat of terrorism.
Even before the attack in Ottawa, the Conservatives planned to give more powers to Canada’s spy agency, Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). Within days of the shooting in the parliament building, the Public Safety minister Blaney moved to change to the law and stated that it is “time that we stop under-reacting to the great threats against us”.
The proposed legislation Bill C-44, among other things, would allow complete confidentiality to CSIS sources, so avoiding any cross-examination in court. It would allow CSIS to investigative activities outside Canada “without regard to any other law, including that of any foreign state”. The government has not announced any plans to increase parliament’s oversight of CSIS. The government said it is considering further changes to the law.
Canada’s tattered social safety net
All three killers were young men, ages 32, 25 and 24, whose lives had not gone well. They were all alienated from society and had some mental health problems. Only one, Couture-Rouleau, was considered by the police and the government spy agency to be a threat and he had been contacted by them. Michael Zehaf-Bibeau had been in prison but was not considered a security threat. Justin Bourque did not appear to be on anyone’s radar.
All were depressed, and emotionally and financially unstable. One expert, David Welch, pointed out, “the problem is not Muslim radicalization so much as maladjusted males”.
The Conservatives will, no doubt, use the killings of the two soldiers to step up ‘security’, increase military spending, push harder on ‘the war on terrorism’ abroad, spend more money on spies and prisons, and reduce democratic rights.
Will any of these stop similar acts in the future, of a single, mentally unstable, alienated young man with a weapon?
More effective would be to provide proper support for mentally ill people, to repair Canada’s tattered social safety net and ensure there are good jobs.
But that would run counter to the entire programme of the ruling Tories – they want to boost Canada’s imperialist role (last weekend Canadian fighter jets carried out their first bombing mission in Iraq) and whipping up widespread fears of terrorist attacks helps that. In addition, acting against terrorism, may help Harper present himself as strong leader and distract from all his difficulties at home. Perhaps Harper is lining up his election strategy of re-elect him, for stability in an unstable world.