Following the Ottawa shooting both the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star ran headlines that signaled the nation was under assault. The Globe went with the single word "Attacked" superimposed on a silhouette of parliament, with a solitary red-and-white Canadian flag fluttering against the background gloom. The Star went with "Under Siege" with the sub-heading "Terror grips Ottawa and the nation."
The message of 'nation-under-threat' contained in these headlines and images was also apparent in the rhetoric of the Harper government that framed the Ottawa shooting incident as a terrorist attack... an attack on the very heart of democracy.
Two incidents involving Canadian military personnel happened within days of each other. In the Ottawa incident, a homeless man with a history of drug issues named Michael Zehaf-Bibeau shot Cpl Nathan Cirillo dead at the National War Memorial. Days earlier two members of the Canadian military were struck by a car driven by Martin Couture-Rouleau. This occurred in a parking lot located in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, about 40 ks southeast of Montreal. One of those struck, Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent, has since died.
The government response to the Ottawa incident went all out... enacting the National Anti-Terrorism Plan, which as this report notes "... involved the coordinated mobilization of all sections of the national-security apparatus, including the military; placed large sections of downtown Ottawa under lockdown for ten hours; and ordered Canadian Armed Forces’ bases across the country to go on high alert."
During a televised address a grim looking Harper used the terms "terrorist" and "terrorist attack" and was clearly intent on conveying the impression of Canada under siege. He also appeared to use the incident in an effort to channel public outrage behind support for Canada's role in the US-led bombing campaign in the Middle East.
Speaking in parliament on Thursday Harper made clear the government's determination to use the incident to increase the powers of the security apparatus: “Our law and police powers need to be strengthened in the area of surveillance, detention and arrest... I assure you that work—which is already underway—will be expedited.”
The way these incidents have been framed plays into a reactionary right-wing agenda that seeks to justify militarism, increased powers for the security establishment (and with it an erosion of democratic rights). Such hyped up rhetoric doesn't unify the nation - it divides it. Over the years since 9/11 how often have we seen the same tactics used time and again south of the border.
Let's be clear, these attacks were carried out by disturbed individuals with troubled personal histories. Neither man had active operational links to any terrorist organization - homegrown or otherwise - and no connections to each other. Neither man has been reported to be part of any sleeper cell or larger attack plan. Both were clearly at odds with a federal government at war, but despite their identification with jihadism (via the internet) their actions weren't aimed at the general public, infrastructure or other soft targets - as is the case with the vast majority of terrorist attacks. So care needs to be taken not to conflate their acts, however brutal, with "terrorism" most especially when there is an agenda in some quarters in this country to do precisely that... for all the wrong reasons.
This is not to say that Canada isn't a possible target for a coordinated terror attack. The divisive policies of the Harper government, its neocon-like foreign policy positions and pro-US agenda have created the climate in which such outcomes are more rather than less likely. In the process Harper has badly damaged Canada's long-standing reputation as a fair broker and peace keeper, once widely respected in the broader international community for exactly those qualities.
Harper's determination to drag Canada into another bombing war in the Middle East alongside Uncle Sam, Sunni dictatorships and former colonial powers is a big mistake. But it goes hand-in-glove with the Tories beefed-up-vision of Canada that includes reviving attachments to the British monarchy and attaching the word "Royal" to the Canadian Navy and Air Force. Militarism has become more and more of a priority for Ottawa.
As with many similar incidents mislabeled "terrorism" a close look at the facts of these recent cases reveal a very different backstory... less to do with terrorism than broken families, personal problems, alienation and mental health issues.
The Ottawa shooter, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, was enstranged from his family and had a history of drug use, including crack cocaine. In 2011 he was arrested in Vancouver for approaching a worker in a McDonald's restaurant with a sharpened stick and demanding cash. The worker called police and Zehaf-Bibeau calmly awaited their arrival. He claimed that he wanted to go to jail to clean up his crack addiction. He had other run ins with the law in his past. At the time of the Ottawa incident he was living in a local mission shelter. Some of those who knew Zehaf-Bibeau in Vancouver and Ottawa believed that he was dealing with drug and mental health issues.
In a letter to Postmedia News, Zehaf-Bibeau's mother - a senior official with the Immigration and Refugee Board - said that her son wanted to travel to Saudi Arabia, not Syria as originally claimed by police. RCMP Deputy Commissioner, Mike Cabana, has acknowledged the mistake on the part of the police.
His mother also made the point that Zehaf-Bibeau went to Ottawa to try and convince officials to give him clearance to travel. She believes that the inability to obtain a passport caused him to snap and lash out at what she describes as "symbols of government." She also said that “Most will call my son 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."