After a 'bad week', Canada does soul-searching – the Canadian way


In the aftermath of Wednesday’s brazen attack on parliament, Canada has plunged into national soul-searching as a country famed for its non-threatening harmony digests a disturbing week that saw two deadly assaults on its servicemen in 48 hours.


As images of heavily armed police officials tearing across sedate, idyllic Ottawa were beamed across the world, Canadians were confronting questions of national security, international engagement, enhanced safety measures and dwindling freedoms, which many fear, surely must come in the weeks and months ahead.

“There will be questions,” intoned the editorial of leading Canadian daily, The Globe and Mail, published hours after the attack started, with downtown Ottawa just emerging from a lockdown.

“There will be questions about whether we need heavily armed security and security cordons around major public buildings like Parliament,” noted the newspaper’s editors. “There will be questions about whether our laws need to change. There will be questions about whether Canada needs to change.”

A day after the attack, as parliament resumed Thursday, politicians from across the aisle insisted that despite the changes that will no doubt be put in place, the freedoms that Canadians cherish must be maintained.

“Yesterday, we woke up in a country of love, diversity and peace and that has not changed today,” said opposition leader Thomas Mulcair, before adding. “If the person who came here yesterday with violence in his mind and in his gestures didn’t win, we can’t allow that openness & freedom to be rolled back either. We have to continue to defend both.”

Mulcair was addressing parliament minutes after Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper noted that the aim of Wednesday’s attacker to “interrupt government” had failed. “Here we are in our seats, in our chamber in the very heart of our democracy, at work,'' said Harper. “We will not be intimidated.''

Harper’s speech to parliament mirrored the themes of his televised address on Wednesday night, when the Canadian prime minister vowed a tough, uncompromising response.

“This week’s events are a grim reminder that Canada is not immune to the types of terrorist attacks we have seen elsewhere around the world,” said Harper.

“We are also reminded that attacks on our security personnel and our institutions of governance are by their very nature attacks on our country, on our values, on our society, on us Canadians as a free and democratic people who embrace human dignity for all. But let there be no misunderstanding. We will not be intimidated. Canada will never be intimidated.”

Blame Harper, not Canada

But regardless of whether Canada will or will not be cowed, in the days and weeks to come, there will also be questions over Harper’s foreign policy. The debate had been raging before Martin Couture-Rouleau, a recent convert to Islam, allegedly drove his car into two Canadian soldiers in Quebec on Monday, killing one of them.

Couture-Rouleau was known to the state's anti-terrorism task force and authorities had seized his passport after he tried to travel to Turkey and from there, presumably, the jihadist battlefields of Syria and Iraq. Monday’s attack came a day before six Canadian fighter jets took off from their base in Cold Lake, Alberta, to join a US-led force launching airstrikes against the group that calls itself the Islamic State (IS).

In a scathing October 3 column criticising Canada’s participation in the international mission against IS, former Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler slammed Harper’s “trumpeting of a ‘values-based foreign policy,’” as “ignorant and pretentious”.

The Canadian prime minister and leader of the Conservative Party has long criticized the “moral neutrality” of the “modern left” and maintained that Canada’s “emerging debates on foreign affairs should be fought on moral grounds,” arguing that “current challenges in dealing with terrorism and its sponsors…will be well served by conservative insights on preserving historic values and moral insights on right and wrong”.

Wrong, argues Fowler, a seasoned diplomat who was kidnapped by AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) and spent five harrowing months of captivity in Africa's inhospitable Sahel region before his April 2009 release. “We got it wrong in Iraq, then again in Afghanistan, then in Egypt, then in Libya, and since the outset in Syria,” wrote Fowler. “Our values are not their values, nor are they universal…However much we might wish it were so, there are effectively no universally agreed essential values, and we have had little success, anywhere in the world, forcing people to trade their values for ours.”

‘In favour of calming the hell down’

Details of the motives of Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, the chief suspect in Wednesday's parliament attack, have yet to emerge. But as political columnist Andrew Coyne notes in the National Post, this week’s two attacks represent a “micro-terrorism” with “a couple of lone wolves, maybe even one, with no similar ambition or sophistication, but also less exposure to detection”.

Faced with this insidious, hard to uncover threat, Coyne’s advice to the nation is they’d better get used to it: “we are entitled to feel a bit shaken up,” he concedes. “But we should not be surprised; neither should we think this will be the last such attack. It will happen again, and what is more there is nothing we can do to prevent it.”

Just hours after the nation’s capital was terrorised for a day, pundits were already calling for some very Canadian restraint – and, as The Globe and Mail put it, “a backlash against overreaction and in favour of calming the hell down”.

Summing up a disturbing week, the country’s leading daily noted that, “In light of this week, Canada may have to change. But whatever changes we choose to make should be done carefully and calmly, with an understanding of the limited scale of the threat, and the nature of the tradeoffs between freedom and safety.”

In a country that prides itself as not being as security-crazed as our “neighbors to the south,” The Globe and Mail reiterated the nation’s commitment to the values that Canadians have long cherished. “We have had a bad week. There is much loss to mourn. But we are still here. We are still standing. The True North remains, strong and free.”


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