Canada Is at a Crossroads One Year After Brutal Attack on Parliament

Canada’s outgoing prime minister and the man set to replace him shook hands today and joined thousands in Ottawa to pay tribute to two soldiers killed in brutal attacks that shook the nation one year ago.
October 22, 2015, 9:35pm
Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Any discord between Canada's outgoing prime minister and the man set to replace him seemingly dissipated for a moment on Thursday as they shook hands and joined thousands in Ottawa to pay tribute to two soldiers killed in brutal attacks that shook the nation one year ago.

Stephen Harper, and prime minister-designate Justin Trudeau placed a wreath at the foot of the National War memorial where reservist Nathan Cirillo was shot in the back and killed while on guard the morning of Oct. 22, 2014. That was just two days after another Canadian soldier, Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent, was killed in a hit-and-run attack outside of Montreal.

Though unrelated, the attacks were carried out by two converts to Islam who espoused extremist ideology. Michael Zehaf Bibeau, who killed Cirillo, and Martin Couture-Rouleau, who killed Vincent, were already known to the federal police for their world views and desires to flee Canada to support armed jihad. Bibeau was gunned down after he tried to storm the main Parliament building — the prime minister just a few feet away. And after a brief car chase, police shot and killed Couture-Rouleau.

It was later revealed that both men suffered from mental illnesses and used drugs. Harper held them up as emblematic of the threats posed to Canada by the Islamic State (IS), and ramped up his government's crackdown on terrorism at home and abroad.

In a televised address to the nation from his residence hours after the attack on Parliament Hill, Harper declared the shootings acts of terror and promised to "fight against the terrorist organizations who brutalize those in other countries with the hope of bringing their savagery to our shores."

"This week's events are a grim reminder that Canada is not immune to the types of terrorist attacks we have seen elsewhere in the world," said Harper, whose government had only just deployed six warplanes to fight IS militants in Iraq alongside the US.

**Related: **Report Says Gunman Who Ambushed Canada's Parliament Last Year Was Shot 31 Times

It was no surprise when, a few months later, his government unveiled Bill C-51, controversial anti-terror legislation that came into effect earlier this year. Patrice Vincent's sister supported the bill, telling a parliamentary committee it could have spared her brother's life.

But that legislation has been widely condemned — and is currently being challenged in an Ontario court — for giving Canada's spy agencies unfettered power, violating freedom of expression, and for unfairly targeting Muslim communities.

And many Muslim leaders told VICE News that such legislation, as well as an increase in rhetoric around terrorism they perceived as Islamophobic, undermined the counter-radicalization work they had, for years, been doing with Muslim youth in collaboration with federal law enforcement agencies. At worst, some said, the damage done has led to deep distrust between many Muslim communities and the federal government.

Kamran Bhatti, who ran a workshop series that brought together Muslim youth and Public Safety officials to talk to each other about radicalization, described that relationship as fragile, "built on the thinnest ice."

That ice cracked, he said, with the passage of Bill C-51, and it's now more difficult to carry on with the workshops, which have been on hold since March, as local Muslim groups are now unwilling to sit down with Public Safety officials.

"They feel betrayed. They're asking where they fit into countering violent extremism, and whether prevention is really the goal of this country," Bhatti added.

Government rhetoric, from calling terrorism "jihadism" to railing against the niqab, also risks adding to the impression that Muslims are unfairly targeted in Canada, and that there's a clash of civilizations that forces them to choose sides.

In an interview with CBC News, Ihsaan Gardee, executive director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims, reflected on how things have changed for Muslims since the October 2014 attacks. He says there's been an uptick in incidents of anti-Muslim vandalism and verbal abuse in Canada since the attacks.

But with a change in government taking effect, Gardee says he's hopeful that the anti-Muslim rhetoric of the previous government will die down.

"We have confidence in our fellow Canadians that they will see these acts for what they are — the actions of fringe groups or individuals on the margins who have been radicalized towards extreme violence through propaganda and other factors," he said.

Related: Trudeau Tells Obama He's Pulling Canada Out of Bombing Campaign Against the Islamic State

According to its campaign platform, the new Liberal government will repeal "problematic elements of Bill C-51" (even though the party also voted for it during the last session of Parliament). Beyond that, the party has pledged to create an Office of the Community Outreach and Counter-radicalization coordinator.

In a phone call with US President Barack Obama on Tuesday, Trudeau reiterated his pledge to pull Canada's fighter jets out of Iraq and Syria.

"Last October, many people said Canada would never be the same. But I don't think Canada changed forever," Canada's Governor David Johnston told the crowd at the memorial service on Thursday, composed mostly of soldiers and dignitaries. "The way we respond to tragic events in our country says a lot about who we are."

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