Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

What Next, Canada?

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As the dust slowly settles on last week’s terrorist attacks in St. Jean, Québec and the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa, it may be a good time to assess the fallout. Overall, Canadians did not panic, and responded with compassion and moderation. The Canadian media avoided the sensational, and stuck to a balanced and thoughtful coverage. Canadian politicians were able to stand above the partisan divide.

It was also a time to reach out to our Muslim fellow citizens. Canada is a pluralistic society that cherishes its diversity. It was a moment to reassert our values and not succumb to finger-pointing or profiling. 

Our U.S. friends and partners immediately expressed their solidarity. President Obama called Prime Minister Harper at the height of the crisis. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will also visit Ottawa.

In the past few days, observers in the media have tried to make sense of what happened. The how and the why are only beginning to be scrutinized. The theory of the lone wolf terrorist acting domestically appears to be a serious by-product of the war against terrorism. After two soldiers were killed within a 48 hour period, it is now obvious to most Canadians that the homeland is facing a threat where there is no textbook defense or tested, reliable counteroffensive. Granted, the two killers were troubled individuals who apparently became Islamic extremists, but their actions seemed to be motivated by propaganda on the Internet. This is difficult to assess, much less prevent.Since Canada’s federal elections are less than a year away, on October 19, 2015, it is possible that politics may soon begin to play a role in the government’s response to last week’s attacks.  After 9-11 in the U.S., we recall how the political class united behind then-President George W. Bush and his response to those attacks. By the 2002 midterms and the presidential contest in 2004, however, the magnanimity and unity of the political class had morphed into a partisan debate over the invasion of Iraq.       

As we move forward, it is important that Canada not fall into hysteria, making freedom and security a zero-sum game. We are a country rooted in democracy—with cherished freedoms in a Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms—and in the paramount importance of the rule of law. We must not succumb to the belief that our current laws are inadequate and our freedoms too generous to offset the spectre of the lone wolf terrorist.

That we question the scope of existing laws is a normal part of any process to assess the fallout of these terrible events. Canadians are accustomed to accepting some inconvenience to assure the safety of their fellow citizens. This being said, Canadians hold to their democracy, and would react negatively to any move to reduce their freedoms. No one wants a gradual shift to enhanced and unscrutinized surveillance, or any curtailment of activity without democratic oversight and, ultimately, judicial review. There are laws on the books that can deal with suspected terrorists.

The Harper Conservative government acted responsibly in both the debate on Canada’s approval of the war against ISIS and the events of last week. The opposition parties, the NDP (New Democratic Party) and the Liberals, responded in a measured and orderly manner in both the parliamentary debate on the ISIS resolution and after last week’s events. Yet there is no doubt that the home-grown terrorist threat in Western, democratic societies is real. The temptation to seek some political advantage, therefore, will become ever more prevalent as we enter the pre-electoral phase of Canada’s next general election. 

Proposed legislation dealing with the terrorist threat will be a first test. Already, we see that police and intelligence authorities are asking for more powers.  So a partisan debate is bound to ensue. The hope is that the politicians will not misread the current mood of Canadians, which can best be summarized as “security for sure, but not at the expense of our liberties and our rights.”


John Parisella is the former Québec delegate general in New York and currently a visiting professor at the University of Montréal’s International Relations Center. He is also a Member of the Board of Directors of The Montreal Council on Foreign Relations.

Tags: Canada, Ottawa attacks, Terrorism
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