Is this the end of Canada’s innocence? “Canada’s 9/11”, as one US cable news commentator suggested? A consequence of Canada’s engagement in the “global war in terrorism”, first in Afghanistan and now with Canada’s commitment of military forces to the fight against the self-styled “Islamic State” (ISIL) in Iraq? The beginning of a new era of draconian security measures intended to defend against the radical Islamist threat?
It is still not clear whether this week’s incidents were a result of mental health or social adjustment problems characteristic of other, less ideological violence.
Canadians like to see themselves as a “peaceable kingdom”. Certainly they hope that they are less likely to be the target of terrorism than more important world powers, that the closer integration of ethnic and religious minorities in the national fabric makes them less vulnerable than many European countries, and that they are less prone to mass killings than their violence-prone southern neighbours. However, few believed the country was somehow immune to either the murderous acts of maladjusted individuals or politically-inspired terrorism.
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Canada’s foreign policy has shifted since the war in Afghanistan, with strong support for Israel, and now commitment to the anti-ISIL coalition. This undoubtedly fuels the anger of would-be Canadian jihadists. In the short term that makes attacks more likely, a point that has undoubtedly figured in Canadian threat assessments, and was certainly noted by media commentators well before the most recent events.
Canadian officials would respond that the risks posed by ISIL successes in Syria and Iraq pose a much larger threat to Canadian interests, and much of the Canadian public would agree.
While neither of Canada’s major opposition parties supported the deployment of CF-18 fighter-bombers to the Middle East for operations in Iraq, polls suggest a majority of Canadians are willing to support some form of military involvement in Iraq. This week’s attacks are unlikely to change any of that.
Are the Saint-Jean and Ottawa attacks the sort of event that will transform Canadian politics, in the way that the 9/11 attacks transfixed the United States for more than a decade? There is little doubt that the Conservative government will cite the attacks as further evidence of the need for greater powers for the security establishment. Legislation to the effect was already pending introduction even before the events of this week. Changes to the Citizenship Act were made earlier this year that enable the government to withdraw Canadian citizenship for dual nationals involved in terrorism (although it is not clear they will survive any eventual Supreme Court challenge). Physical security measures will inevitably be increased at public and government venues.
However, whatever legislative changes are made are likely to be fairly limited. The more important initiatives are likely to be those that garner less attention: slightly increased counter-terrorism budgets, and a greater effort to work with Muslim communities on counter-radicalisation.
The effects on Canada’s social fabric are less clear. There will likely be some backlash against Muslim communities because of the religion and apparent Islamist ideological motivation of the attackers. Last year’s debate over Quebec’s proposed Charter of Quebec Values – an initiative partly underpinned by thinly-veiled Islamophobia – showed that there is fertile ground for such a reaction in some parts of the country.
However, political leaders from all parties have been loud and clear in drawing a sharp distinction between the Muslim faith and jihadist radicalisation, and Muslim community leaders have been equally quick to condemn the attacks. However imperfect it might be, multiculturalism is deeply engrained in much of Canadian society and robust enough to withstand whatever pressures recent jihadist violence might bring.
Terrorism makes for dramatic television, especially when it involves an attack on a national capital. Pundits always like to pronounce the start of a new era. The aftermath of these attacks will preoccupy politics for many weeks. Security and intelligence officials will intensify their efforts to counter the threat.
Provided that these remain relatively isolated and limited attacks by single, self-radicalised attackers, however, none of this will spark a major turning point in security or foreign policy. The Canada a year from now will not look all that different from the Canada of last week.
Rex Brynen is a Canadian foreign policy analyst and Middle East specialist. He is professor of political science at McGill University and author of “The Palestinian Refugee Problem: The Search for Resolution” (2013).