Amongst many Canadians, a popular response to the shootings in Ottawa that claimed the life of Nathan Cirillo earlier this week has been: “This doesn’t happen here… This is Canada.” And that’s true enough. Political violence of the sort we witnessed this week rarely touches Canadian lives. Ottawa is one of those curiously apolitically political cities – a place where the majority of the workforce works directly or indirectly for the government but a community where global politics rarely penetrates every day life. But the Ottawa shootings should bring into relief the need for the Canadian government and Canadians at large to look themselves in the mirror and ask a simple yet tough question: why did this happen?
The easiest answer, and one that has already been proffered by a host of observers, is that a single, crazed lunatic who hated Canadian values went on a murderous rampage. This is an attractive explanation because it diminishes the possibility that any of us, and any part of Canada or Canadian society, bears any responsibility for the shootings. But this is too easy and it is simply not true. Being radicalized into Islam or any other sect or religion isn’t “crazy”. And as has become increasingly clear since the attacks, the killer was politically inspired and motivated. Moreover, while he may have acted alone, this is likely a reflection that, in planning and perpetrating acts of terror, it is more effective to work alone than plan in large groups.
Canadians and the Canadian government should look to the case of the 2011 Oslo shootings. The same refrain (“This doesn’t happen here… This is Norway.”) was palpable in the wake of Anders Breivik’s attacks on Oslo and Utøya. The same explanation (“This is the work of a crazy lone wolf”) was popular. Indeed, Breivik was initially declared criminally insane by the country’s top psychologist and thus not liable for his crimes. However, Norwegians en masse rejected the idea that Breivik was “crazy”, instead acknowledging that his attacks were politically motivated and planned. That meant that Norwegians had to ask the toughest of questions: was there something about Norwegian society that could inspire someone to take such horrific actions against innocent civilians? Being introspective in the wake of what looks like senseless violence is never easy. But Canadians can be inspired by the courage Norwegians demonstrated in looking within themselves for answers rather than solely blaming violence on the mental stability of Breivik.
An uncomfortable reality is that Canada is no longer perceived as an innocent, liberal, peace-loving state anymore. Nothing brings this into sharper relief than the attacks on Ottawa. In speaking with a senior Canadian lawyer as the events unfolded, his response was: “This is no surprise. It was only a matter of time.”
The Conservative government under Stephen Harper has undermined the country’s prestige and reputation as a producer and builder of global peace and justice. This may not be clear to all Canadians but it is certainly evident in the eyes of many across the globe. Having lived abroad for the last five years, I can attest to this. When I arrived in London and told people that my intellectual and academic interests lied with the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) and the International Criminal Court (ICC), I would regularly be chided with: “that’s so Canadian.” It certainly was and I took pride in the fact that R2P was a principle which would not have been developed without the sponsorship of Canada and that the Canadian government played an instrumental role in the Rome Statute negotiations that led to the creation of the ICC.
But these principles have been abandoned. The Canadian government has actively pursued a political philosophy of retribution and control that tarnishes the country’s image as an ‘honest international broker’. Harper’s record attests to an unyielding mission to reshape Canada’s international identity as a tough and hard-power state. The Harper government plays the part of destructive belligerent in climate change negotiations and tar-sands cheerleader. It is first in line to threaten Palestine with “consequences” if Ramallah pursues accountability for alleged crimes committed by Israeli forces in Gaza. While it isn’t usually described as such (many prefer terms like “militarily engaged”), the reality is that Canada has been at war, primarily in Afghanistan, for most of the last decade. And while we should judge each decision to engage in wars on their own terms, the government has positioned itself as a military – rather than diplomatic or humanitarian – middle power. The role of Canadian citizens in the Afghan detainee scandal has been swept under the rug. The government willfully left a child soldier, Omar Khadr, to rot in Guantanamo and were the only Western government not to request the repatriation of their citizens from that nefarious island prison. It left Abousfian Abdelrazik, a Canadian citizen wrongly accused of terrorism, stranded in Khartoum for years and threatened anyone who tried to help him return to Canada with aiding and abetting terrorism. In a country that takes pride in seeing Lester B. Pearson as the father of peacekeeping, the government prefers to count the number of fighter jets it will buy than the number of peacekeepers it deploys. And, making matters worse, those who disagree with the Harper government’s approach to being “hard on crime”, “tough on justice”, and “a military power” are too often portrayed as naive or betraying Canadian values.
The government’s philosophy on the world stage has incurred significant costs. When the Harper government failed to gain a seat on the UN Security Council in 2010, an open secret was that Canada didn’t deserve a seat. In my visits to international institutions and conferences and when I speak privately with colleagues about Canada’s role in the world, the most common, and admittedly difficult comment to hear, has been a question: “what has happened to Canada?”
Compounding matters is this government’s approach to violence – political or otherwise, in Canada and abroad. Domestically, its favoured approach is to respond with a heavy hand. This is most evident in the misguided policy of building more prisons rather than addressing why violent crimes happens in the first place. In the wake of the 2013 Boston bombings, Prime Minister Stephen Harper vociferously attacked Liberal leader Justin Trudeau for suggesting that, in order to prevent such violence in the future, we had to identify and understand its “root causes”. Harper derided such thinking, insisting that there was no place for identifying such “root causes”. What the world had to do was respond quickly and harshly. More recently, the Liberal Party has come under steady attack for abandoning the principle of R2P in the context of Canada’s military engagement against ISIS in Iraq. While it focused its energy on accusing its adversaries of being unwilling to support a mission the Conservatives maintain is about our responsibility to protect civilians in Iraq, the Harper government dropped the ball on how its policies have made it harder to protect civilians in Canada. And in response to the Ottawa shootings, Harper has promised more of the same: we need to forge forward with more retribution, more punishment and more control.
The events in Canada this week were unequivocally unjustified. But while the people of Canada did not deserve these attacks, they also don’t deserve the politics and cavalier foreign policies that stoke political violence – in Canada and abroad. Canadians need to be vigilant, not just against more attacks but against the kind of politics that inspires hatred and violence whilst shunning cooperation and understanding. In response to the Ottawa shootings, do Canadians want more of the same or will we look ourselves in the mirror – even if we’re not happy with everything we see?