On Monday, police laid murder and attempted murder charges against Alexandre Bissonnette, the lone suspect in the Quebec City shooting that left six men dead and 19 others injured. Although politicians haven’t hesitated to brand it a terrorist attack, charges under Canada’s terrorism legislation have not materialized.
That may still happen, the RCMP has said, but legal experts say it is a complicated proposition. VICE News breaks down the considerations that police must make before deciding how to move forward.
We don’t yet know what motivated alleged shooter Alexandre Bissonnette, and that is surely what investigators are trying to piece together now. The 27-year-old had openly supported France’s far-right National Front Leader Marine Le Pen, according to people who read his posts online, and was “enthralled by a borderline racist nationalist movement.”
In order for his charges to rise to the level of terrorism, however, the RCMP would have to be able to prove that Bissonnette committed an act that caused serious harm, and that it was carried out for some ideological, political, or religious motivation with the intention of intimidating the public, according to Wesley Wark, a professor at the University of Ottawa and national security expert. They would also have to establish that he was mentally capable of understanding his crime.
Ultimately, the decision to lay charges under the Anti-Terrorism Act falls to the federal government. For any terrorism charge to be laid, the Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould must sign off.
Is there a point?
If prosecutors can secure a conviction for more conventional offences, like murder, they may see no point in also pursuing terrorism charges, wrote national security law expert Craig Forcese.
This is what happened in the 2014 case of Justin Bourque, who had openly expressed his disdain for authorities, before shooting five RCMP officers, three of whom died, Forcese pointed out. Bourque was convicted of murder and attempted murder, although police had considered terrorism charges. He could not have been sentenced for any longer even if they had been laid.
Similarly, Bissonnette already faces consecutive life sentences for the six counts of murder and attempted murder he is charged with.
“But there is a political downside: What may be good prosecution strategy may contribute to the impression that terrorism offences are confined to only certain sorts of perpetrators, motivated by [al-Qaeda/Islamic State]-related ideology,” wrote Forcese. “This makes for a horrific narrative.”
Wark argues that the prosecution service, the Department of Justice, and the government would have an interest in sending a political message that terror offenses “are not simply something that individuals within the Muslim community, jihadists, might conduct against others, but they are offenses that can be conducted against them.”
Right-wing extremism is viewed differently
From a national security perspective, right wing extremism, while a serious problem, is seen differently from other kinds of extremism, in particular Islamist extremism, said Stephanie Carvin, a professor of international relations at Carleton University and former national security analyst. “I don’t think that’s correct, but that’s the reality.”
The Ministry of Public Safety’s latest annual report on the terrorist threat to Canada, for example, makes no mention of right-wing extremist groups, at home or abroad — although the RCMP’s most recent guide to extremism does mention an array of far-right organizations and movements.
While groups like the Islamic State have a coherent narrative, right wing extremism is an extraordinarily fragmented movement, said Carvin.
They count among them people, who are part of the sovereign citizens’ movement and freemen-on-the land, who believe they’re only subject to laws if they consent to them,, to skinheads, extreme anti-jihadists and pro-Christian identity extremists.
“There are coherent ideas, but no coherent narrative that connects them,” she said. “So when you’re trying to prove that someone’s carried out an attack in the name of an ideology, there isn’t really an ideology to point to per se.
“Under the current legislation, it makes it really hard, and the risk of that is it makes our legislation look really discriminatory, and that’s a real problem.”
This, despite the fact that in 2015, the Chief of the Sûreté du Québec’s Division of Investigations on Extremist Threats, told the Senate that “the majority of the service’s active files deal with the extreme right.”
“We treat it as a police issue and not as a national security issue, which politically looks bad, but practically makes sense,” said Carvin, adding that politicians were right to call the shooting a terrorist attack. “This is why we have to be really careful in how we address in what happened in Quebec.”