On the evening of July 22nd, 2018 a gunman identified as 29 year-old Faisal Hussein, opened fire targeting innocent civilians in a busy area known as Greektown on Danforth street in Toronto, Ontario. This incident left 13 injured and 3 dead, including the gunman. The following day, in Ottawa, a man identified as 24 year-old Jesse Mooney, was arrested on a busy Parliament Hill after an altercation with officials during the popular Changing of the Guard ceremony. Both of these incidences, invoked terror. In Ottawa, the incident brought back memories of the 2014 attack where a sentry at the National War Memorial was shot and killed by a lone terrorist attacker before storming Parliament Hill, where he was eventually killed by officials. In Toronto, the attack made people realize that what happened in Paris in 2015 was happening in their own community, while also replaying the terror caused in Canada’s recent van attack that occurred in north of Toronto earlier this year. However, can these attacks that occurred this week be described as terrorism by Canadian legislation? Let us look at what we know:
In Toronto, the attacker used a handgun targeting innocent civilians with the intent to kill. Analysis by tactical experts of the captured video footage of the attack concludes that the attacker was untrained, but did have experience in firing the weapon; thereby, indicating that the attack was planned.
In Ottawa, the attacker was identified, arrested and a small pocket knife was located on his person during the arrest. He was handed over to the local police where he was charged with assault and breach of probation.
Not one of these incidences have been identified as a terrorist attack. This may be because, in Canada, section 83.01 (1) (b) of the Criminal Code of Canada describes an act of terrorism as any act carried out for political, ideological or religious reasons intended to cause death or bodily harm. The section further stipulates that an act must be carried out in the name of a listed terrorist entity, such as ISIS, in order for prosecutors to rely on a set of ideologies for terrorism charges to be laid. Moreover, when the attack is motived by broad anti-government ideologies or movements, not directly associated to a listed terrorist entity, charging an individual for terrorism becomes even more difficult in the Canadian system. For example, in 2017, Alexander Bissonnette shot and killed six people at a Quebec City mosque. This attack was considered terrorism on a community who was practicing their faith. Yet, because the motive was not connected to a particular ideology, but rather, connected only to Bissonnette’s belief that society was under attack and that he needed to do something, terrorism charges were not laid. Instead, Bissonnette was charged with six counts of first degree murder. In Edmonton, also in 2017, 30 year-old Abdulahi Sharif stabbed a police constable and then purposely struck and injured four people with a rented vehicle during the police chase. Once Sharif was arrested, an Islamic State group flag was discovered in his vehicle. However, no terrorism charges have been laid, to date. Only 11 charges including 5 counts of attempted murder were laid because investigators and prosecutors are not able to link the attack to a motive associated to a particular ideology or terrorist group.
In the name of consistency with Canadian legislation, government officials have been careful in identifying this week’s attacks, and especially the one in Toronto, as a terrorist act. What is also interesting is that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was one of the last to comment on the Toronto incident via twitter, offering his condolences and support for the victims and their families, hours after the incident and only a few short hours before the attacker was identified.
Canadian media have also been careful in identifying the events as terrorism. In fact, there has been little reported on the incident on Parliament Hill and the media discussions on the attack in Toronto have moved more towards the increased gun violence in Toronto, issues surrounding mental health and less towards the attack itself.
Yes, there is an increase in gun violence in Toronto. However, this was not a robbery, or a gang related incident. While discussions on gun control are important, this is not the issue in this attack because had the attacker not had access to a gun, he would have had access to another weapon, such as a vehicle. The motive was to kill random innocent people and instill fear in a community.
Yes, the attacker struggled with mental health issues, as stated by the attacker’s family and close friends. However, one can argue that anyone who commits such similar violent attacks must also have a history of mental health because the average, everyday person does not even think about committing such an act, let alone actually commit one. While mental health is a serious issue and Canada should be doing more at all levels of government to provide support for those struggling with mental health, it cannot be used as an excuse for committing such atrocities. In doing so, it stigmatizes all who are dealing with mental health difficulties, but living a normal, hardworking and law-abiding every day life.
Furthermore, while it is important to have legislation that dictates consistency with investigations and charges of terrorism, the conversation of legislation and what should be defined and treated as terrorism should be kept separate. How many times has an act by a perpetrator been defined as murder by a government official, but in the end the perpetrator was charged and convicted with a lesser charge? How many times have we heard of an incident where an individual clearly committed an offence only to make a plea deal with the judicial system for less charges? This does not change the motive, commission of the act or even make the offence any less severe. The change is only in the charge, the conviction and in the negotiations for judicial system purposes.
With all this being said, it is clear that the attack in Toronto and the attempted attack in Ottawa have elevated the threat and fear in Canadian society. What we should do as individuals is be able to identify what these acts really mean. They invoked terror in the community, and despite the resilience of Canadians who will still make every effort for these recent events not to disrupt their every day life, they will be even more cautious now, especially when they are in public places. It may not be terrorism as described by legislation, and government officials, and even the Canadian media may be weary of identifying it as such, but we as Canadians should be able to step back and ask ourselves: do I feel safe? Did the act terrorize me? Avoiding the problem does not make it go away. We should not be afraid to call it terrorism for fear of breaking political correctness, but rather, we should be able to say that we feel less safe, regardless of the motive behind the attack and start to look at a way in which we can contribute to minimizing these violent attacks in our society. When there is public pressure, there is a response. Security will be heightened, and government officials will be forced to look at improved methods, programs, or other mechanisms to protect its society, regardless of what the judicial system will charge the terrorists with. This will be a good starting point.