Following the shooting in Ottawa, questions have arisen regarding the future of security and notions of safety in the face of escalating fundamentalist Islamic activity in Canada and abroad.
Canada is still in the throes of recovering from the terror attacks of October. On Monday, October 20th, two soldiers were hit by a vehicle in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu in what is now known to be a targeted hit-and-run. The radicalized Martin Couture-Rouleau, 25, killed Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent and injured another soldier by driving into them. After being engaged in a high-speed chase, Couture-Rouleau was shot dead by police . While Canadians were still reeling from this brazen attack on one of our own, two days later, on Wednesday, October 22nd, came yet another. This time, another radical, Michael Joseph Paul Zehaf Bibeau, 32 years of age, “fatally shot an honour guard [Nathan Cirillo, a Canadian soldier on ceremonial guard duty at the Canadian National War Memorial] at point blank range at the National War Memorial”. He then proceeded to Parliament Hill. Upon his arrival, Zehaf Bibeau entered the centre block of the Parliament Buildings, where members of Parliament were attending caucuses, and became immersed in a gunfight with security personnel. The Sergeant-at-Arms, Kevin Vickers, is credited with fatally shooting Zehaf Bibeau and, by doing so, saving the lives of the many people in the building.
Canadians have always viewed their Parliament buildings as “the people’s building” and, as such, anyone is free to enter. The nation has always strongly advocated for this, and, until now, it has never been an issue of concern. We have seen the radicalization of youth in Europe and even terrorist attacks committed in other countries, yet despite the lingering possibility, we — Canadians — did not think or prepare ourselves for such a catastrophic event to occur on our own soil. Globally, these remorseful occurrences are seen as “Canada’s wake-up call” or “the day Canada changed,” but realistically, what does this mean?
If we take a look at our neighbours to the south and examine how their lives changed after 9/11, we may have some idea. It goes without saying, however, that as tragic as these events in Canada have been, our loss pales in comparison to the thousands of lives lost on 9/11. Michael Nacht, a professor of public policy at UC Berkeley, former dean of the Goldman School of Public Policy and former assistant secretary of defence for global strategic affairs under President Obama, claims that “the most fundamental impact of 9/11 is the sense of permanent vulnerability”now felt by Americans. Nacht also believes that the attacks, in addition to the United States’ response to them, is the cause of America’s current economic woes Likewise, Brown University history professor James Patterson believes that Americans have suffered from a “national confusion” since the 9/11 attacks. In his view, “the terrorist attacks lives on in the psyches of Americans who had assumed that the United States was beloved around the world as a beacon of hope and defender of rights”.
Jean Bethke Elshtain, professor of social and political ethics at the University of Chicago, believes that the attacks “highlighted the intensification of the long-running isolationism-interventionism debate within American society”. She explains the two parts to American thinking of the time. One part of America wished to retreat to its isolationist ways: this idea based on the knowledge that when America becomes involved in world events, there is an invariable potential for backlash. The other part of America, however, became certain that there was a “need to engage the world and … to do it more knowingly, more tellingly and perhaps even more dramatically and at times more aggressively”. As for the question about whether or not America is more secure preceding or proceeding the attacks, it seems to be agreed upon that Americans will have to live with a sense of vulnerability and that, like any other country, the United States of America will never be completely safe from attack. With the addition of enhanced security since 9/11, most Americans admit that they feel safer. In truth, however, the United States is only marginally safer than before the attacks.
Was the outcome any different for the British after the London tube attacks in 2005? During morning rush hour in central London on July 7, 55 people were killed and another 700 injured when bombs exploded on the London underground. Tony Blair, the then prime minister, immediately called a press conference at which he warned: “Let no one be in doubt. The rules of the game have changed”.
These changes that Mr. Blair referred to were not only to the legislative framework that governed the counterterrorism agencies in Britain, but also how the police, MI5, and MI6 would operate. While Britons felt a sense of increased security knowing that more stringent rules would be in place, they were also left feeling rather polarized. They would, in fact, be more secure, yet this security came at the price of certain individual freedoms. Many of Blair’s proposals were defeated, leaving British citizens to continue with their same civil liberties, but also with an understanding that while these threats of terror could likely be minimized, it appears that there is no way to make a country completely safe.
What will happen to Canada and Canadians? It is likely that us citizens — just like the Americans and the British — will stay more or less the same, with subtle chances at most. As Stephen Maher, a journalist for The Vancouver Sun, explains: “For all the fear and suffering that resulted from [the St. Jean attack and the Parliament Hill] shooting, it hasn’t made us fearful or hateful, and it doesn’t look like it will”. Furthermore, Maher points out that the tragic events “gave people opportunities to do things that matter — to be brave or strong or compassionate or wise — to show us what we are made of”. Evidence of Maher’s suggestions can be seen in the way young cadets and long-retired veterans from across Canada, none of whom had never met Nathan Cirillo, took it upon themselves to stand guard at their local cenotaph in Cirillo’s honour. Others turned to banks and the internet to create and donate to a trust fund for Cirillo’s young son. People left their homes and work places to pay their respects at Cirillo’s viewing, and later for Cirillo’s funeral, by either attending in person or taking the time out to watch the procession live on television.
Rather than rush to put up metal detectors at Parliament Hill and transform our “people’s building” into Fort Knox, Canadians are trying to find a way to implement security at Parliament Hill without it being overtly obvious from afar. As a result of these actions, we — the citizens — are telling the world that, as Prime Minister Stephen Harper stated, “Canada will not be intimidated”. We have no wish to change our Canadian ways. Leo Gagnon, a friend of Cirillo and former co-worker, perhaps worded this best when saying that “it’s a paradox, … It’s like the old cliché. You need evil to bring out the good”. This is precisely what will be seen in Canada, the good being that Canadians will continue to come together with a strong resolve to not let something so terrible defeat us. As oppose to hatred, Canadians are responding with kindness and an outpouring of generosity. Journalist Andrea LeBlanc believes that it is our duty to respond this way. She notes, “To allow anger or fear or despair to consume our lives is a choice and, if made, is an abdication of our responsibility … our choices have repercussions on the lives of children everywhere”.
While it would be wonderful to see this national unity continue, the truth is that it is largely temporary. Over time, the shock of the events of last week will pass and life will turn towards a new normalcy, which won’t be so different from what we know already. As writer for The Guardian Hadley Freeman reminds us, “Things generally don’t change. No matter how chagrined people feel in the moment, all too soon, once again, politicians will lie, tabloid editors will hound celebrities, the rich will get richer … People are rude again. Jokes and sarcasm are allowed”. We Canadians are resilient. What has happened is a deep wound which will scar and heal, but again, as Hadley Freeman reminds us, “the mark will always be there” It seems intelligible to take precaution. Now that we have gone from being a country that observed overseas acts of terror to a country that has suffered one of its own, this caution, with our usual dose of Canadian gentleness, is a positive maneuver.
Sophie Barnett is a first year student pursuing International Relations at the University of Toronto.