On February 21, Hang-Kam Annie Chiu was walking in north Toronto when she was viciously attacked by a man with a hammer, killing her. That same night, Pakistan-born Saad Akhtar, 30, would surrender at a nearby police station. Akhtar was arrested and charged with first-degree murder for the death of Chiu.
On April 23, 2018, a rental van mounted the sidewalk in Toronto and plowed its way through pedestrians. It was one of the most horrific attacks in Canadian history, 10 were killed and 16 injured. Eventually, after failing to get killed by police, Alek Minassian, 27, would be arrested. Minassian would be charged with 10 counts of first-degree murder and 16 counts of attempted murder. In a message left before the attack and in a lengthy interrogation with police, Minassian said that he subscribed to the ideology of the incels—the involuntary celibate subculture—and the attacks were driven by his hatred of women.
On January 29, 2017, Alexandre Bissonnette walked into a Quebec City mosque and murdered six Muslim men in cold blood. Bissonnette was arrested and charged with six counts of first-degree murder and six counts of attempted murder. Bissonnette plead guilty and received life imprisonment with no chance of parole for 40 years. Bissonnette said the reason he targeted the mosque was that far-right figures convinced him that refugees coming to Canada were going to be a threat to him and his family.
Yet only one of these crimes resulted in a terrorism charge being laid. You probably won't be surprised by which one.
On February 25, Toronto police and the RCMP said they found evidence that led them to believe Chui's alleged homicide “may have been a terrorist-related offence.” Police updated Akhtar's charges to include terrorist activity but have not explained what the evidence that led them to this conclusion was. Police have yet to say what ideology was behind the attack but using a hammer of a weapon is reflective of the low sophistication of modern-day jihadi terrorism.
Since the 9/11 terror attacks, 53 of the 54 terror charges laid in Canada have been in connection to Islamist terrorism—the other one was connected to the Tamil Tigers. The charges come from section 83.01 and 83.02 of the Criminal Code which outlines that terrorism charges can be laid if a crime is committed “in whole or in part for a political, religious or ideological purpose, objective or cause, and in whole or in part with the intention of intimidating the public.”
The criminal code section was written on September 28, 2001, just weeks after the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. Stephanie Carvin, an assistant professor of International Relations at Carleton University and host of the Canadian national security podcast Intrepid, said the timing of the section's birth cannot be overlooked.
“Like with all laws you have a certain understanding of certain concepts at a time,” said Carvin. ”The idea that there was going to be more attacks, and it was going to be from Al-Qaeda style organizations, I think shaped the legislation that we have, which is that you have to demonstrate it was carried out for political, religious or ideological cause.
“So, the challenge is what is a political, religious or ideological cause? It seems that in criminal cases we have been eager to apply it in some cases—in particular, Al Qaeda or Islamic State-inspired extremism and not others.”
Over the years there have been several attacks that weren’t jihadi connected, that have occurred which could seemingly have fit the description in 83.01 but terrorism charges weren’t laid.
Carvin says, in a legal sense, it can be easier to prove someone has perpetrated a crime on behalf of ISIS because the group has leaders and books and speeches, but it’s a little more difficult in the far-right ecosystem. Many within the far-right don't have a uniform ideology and the groups that exist within it are extremely fractious. For example, the incel movement that Minassian tied his motives to has no real leader and a cohesive ideology would be hard to pin down. The wording of the language also makes it difficult to charge someone who isn't involved with a group, like Bissonnettte, and many other far-right lone wolf attackers. This will only be made more difficult by a recent court case—regarding a man who attacked a Canadian Armed Forces recruiting centre—in which the judge ruled 83.2 does not apply to "lone wolf terrorists.” The limited evidence about Akhtar points to him being a lone-wolf style attacker, but that could easily change as more information comes to light.
Amarnath Amarasingam, an assistant professor at Queen's University who researches extremism, told VICE that he thinks that alleged attackers like Akhtar get charged with terrorism because they leave evidence behind—like a video manifesto pledging support—which makes it easy for the prosecution to prove a terrorist motive.
“If prosecutors feel like they can prove terrorist motives without too much difficulty, based on what they find during investigations, then they are likely to take the risk in court,” said Amarasingam. “With the vast majority of far-right groups not listed [as a terrorist entity] in Canada, and many far-right individuals not explicitly linked to an actual group, these motives become harder to prove in court, and there is a real risk that they might lose. They instead stick to what can be most cleanly proven in court.”
Carvin says that there are several ways we can change this. The first would be pulling the term ideological from the language but that risks the definition becoming too wide. The second would be getting rid of terrorism charges in entirety but that’s not politically viable. The third, and perhaps the best option, would be to have prosecutors “start making arguments that are a "little bit bolder” and pushes the courts to advance their definition of “what an ideology is.”
“Many of us have argued for some time that far-right groups need to be similarly listed and treated like jihadist groups," Amarasingam said. “At the very least, it communicates to Canadians that all ideologically-inspired violence is taken equally seriously—and we are not just painting brown folk with the terrorism brush. Far-right violence is just as ideological as jihadist violence, but it is treated quite differently in court because the legal structures aren't in place to treat them as similar.
“That absolutely needs to change.”
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