Experts weigh in on the impact and aftermath of the Parliament Hill shooting Oct. 22
Separate attacks by two radicalized Canadian converts formed the scene last week that saw a pair of fatal attacks on two members of the Canadian Armed forces, one in a hit-and-run in Saint-Jean-Sur-Richelieu and another at the War Memorial in Ottawa and just steps from Parliament.
The first occurred on Tuesday morning in Saint-Jean-Sur-Richelieu, Que., when Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent, 53, was wounded alongside another soldier after 25-year-old Martin Couture-Rouleau struck them with his car and sped away. Vincent later died of his injuries, while a police chase and shootout ended with similarly fatal results for Couture-Rouleau.
On Wednesday in Ottawa came a moment most surreal as a gunman barged through the halls of Parliament, exchanging fire with RCMP officers. The shooter, 32-year-old Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, had earlier killed Corporal Nathan Cirillo, 24, at the nearby National War Memorial. He too was killed in a barrage of gunfire.
The objectively minor death toll by the two attackers belied a subjective trauma and the breaking of new psychological ground. Up until then, Canadians could perceive themselves as inconspicuous players on the world stage and almost below the notice of counter attack. No nation’s capital—excepting the 2005 train bombings and the 2013 murder of soldier Lee Rigby, both in London—had ever been attacked before in such a way, and certainly not the nerve centre of a country. It was a completely unexpected and rude awakening for Canadians.
Fervent or ill?
While both perpetrators are said to have converted to Islam, their personal circumstances bring into question the reasons behind their actions. The National Post portrayed Zehaf-Bibeau, a convert to Islam for the better part of a decade, as a crack addict who saw prison as a way of beating his habit. In 2011 documents showed he demanded money from a Vancouver McDonald’s before calmly awaiting to be apprehended by the police. Later he was said to have wanted to travel and fight in Syria until his passport was taken away. Authorities only later admitted their error. On the other hand, RCMP officers have stated he’d made a video showing his ‘ideological motives’, according to Reuters.
Couture-Rouleau also planned on going abroad and, in contrast to Zehaf-Bibeau, had been under close surveillance for many months from authorities who knew of his deepening radicalization. His passport was seized when he attempted to fly to Iraq. There was even a program of ultimately unsuccessful de-radicalization undertaken with Muslim community leaders who knew him. Officials said despite all the signs, no crime had been committed, and as such no steeper measures could have been taken.
What has happened is past, and what remains is to see how Canada will respond. As befits this country, there has largely been an atmosphere of mourning without a descent into prejudiced revenge.
Canada’s military involvement—catalyst or not?
The two attacks throw a spotlight onto the uncomfortable fact that Canada has now bled on home soil for its long-time support of Western military action in the Muslim world. They highlight the reality with which extremists are bringing the fight from active battlefields and to their host countries. No longer are the big players the targets, but also their steadfast allies.
As journalist Glenn Greenwald recently wrote, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that, after 13 years of military participation he dubs ‘perpetual war,’ Canada finds itself a target. The indisputable point is that Canada’s involvement has seen tens of thousands of soldiers serve in war zones, and an equal effort on the part of the Canadian government as an aid and conduit to intelligence gathering and logistical support.
What is surprising is how Canada has managed to maintain a low-key profile in the public psyche, despite taking part in international military campaigns, serving as a top-notch intelligence conduit, and already promising a war response in Syria and Iraq but barely a few years extricated from Afghanistan.
The Way Forward
Concordia professor Julian Schofield, an expert in policy in Southeast Asia, disagrees with the view that outside actions by the government brought the attacks to Canadian soil. Instead, he sees the situation as a deep sociological tension between landed Canadian society and those of its increasingly prevalent, uprooted immigrants.
“Young men especially behave in an aggressive gang-like fashion when they see they can’t assimilate into society,” said Schofield. “If he [Zehaf-Bibeau] did not seek the Islamic movement, I could see him attach on to maybe a political right movement, or an anarchist-type [to get a] sense of what was happening to him. He was somebody looking for an explanation for his life. He was seeking solitude from his drug problem.”
Schofield considers a bringing together of cultures as a pragmatic, if painful, way to improvement.
“We’re going to have to accommodate these other values,” he said. “I think we have to be ready to change our laws with our identity over time. We certainly can’t stay the same…It’s the price we pay for being in a secular, highly socially-mobile non-classed society. We have a certain anomie, where people are not sure what the purpose of life is.”
If we are immune to actual war, how are we to dodge the insidious range of media propaganda that requires no fuel and can filter through border checks and national boundaries with impunity?
Both sentiments are somewhat bridged by Dr. Chedly Belkhodja of Concordia’s School of Community and Public affairs, a researcher specializing on immigrant policies and fundamentalism.
“You can say it’s because we live in very individualized worlds. We see people more and more in a bubble. In a society you need to be able to talk, you need to be able to reach, to help, to smile, to look at a Muslim and not think he’s a threat. And that’s what I think we’re losing.”
“Responsibilities aren’t only on individuals. Extracting bad apples doesn’t make us safe. Canada has a foreign policy that is unchanged, but Canada is participating in a war against the Islamic State, and Canada is at risk and is exposed. Maybe 10 years ago, that wasn’t the case … [we weren’t] as present or as aggressive in our foreign policy.”
A Muslim response
Ultimately an answer will have to come as much from traditional Canadians as newer ones. Overwhelmingly, the Muslim community’s reactions have tended towards solidarity with their fellow Canadians in condemnation of the attacks and condolences toward the families of the victims. Yet that doesn’t do away with the problems afflicting Muslim culture when it comes to self-critical introspection and an openness to change.
CSU Advocate and Muslim convert Stephen Brown is not one to shy away from such questions, having perspective with them by virtue of the twin words he now straddles.
“The Muslim community, like it or not, is in the middle of this conflict. And they need to deal with it better than they are,” he said, criticizing the poor state of outreach between the two communities, the simultaneous ‘pandering’ by the government of such crises for votes and an increase to powers, and the cycle all players find themselves in.
“The first question everyone asks is, ‘why?’ When you ask Muslims, they say Islam is peaceful. Where are the Muslims denouncing it? When you say that Islam is peaceful, tell us something we don’t know. These old slogans … are not addressing fears and concerns, and are not addressing the actual problem,” said Brown. “As a convert, I live my daily life as a Canadian. But, I have a good mentality of the average Muslim in Canada. It’s a unique understanding.”
Meanwhile in the same school, student and Officer Cadet Karl Antoine Usakowski walks the halls without his uniform, the result of a military decision to do away with visible military attire. Usakowski sees his fellow Canadians in much the same way, Muslim or not: as a privilege to be around, and a privilege to serve. Meanwhile, looks forward to the day when he can once again wear his second skin in public.
“As soon as we are allowed, we’ll be wearing our uniforms with pride and not walk in fear—anywhere. This is our home, this is our land, this is the land we promised to defend,” Usakowski said.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated that the Ottawa shooting took place on Oct. 24, when it in fact took place on Oct. 22. The Concordian apologizes for the error.