An Uncomfortable Look in the Mirror: Canada in the World, Before and After the Ottawa Shootings

Ottawa. (Photo: Creative Commons / Endlisnis)

Ottawa. (Photo: Creative Commons / Endlisnis)

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.”

Police officers in Ottawa move flowers to the War Memorial (Photo: Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Police officers in Ottawa move flowers to the War Memorial (Photo: Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

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?


About Mark Kersten

Mark Kersten is a consultant at the Wayamo Foundation, a Senior Researcher at the Munk School of Global Affairs, and a law student at McGill University Law School. He is also author of the book, 'Justice in Conflict - The Effects of the International Criminal Court's Interventions on Ending Wars and Building Peace' (Oxford University Press, 2016).
This entry was posted in Canada and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to An Uncomfortable Look in the Mirror: Canada in the World, Before and After the Ottawa Shootings

  1. olakersten says:

    I totally agree with you, Mark. The actions of those in power are getting our country further and further from what is a core of Canadian values we all embraced. I hope we will be able to assume responsibility to what is happening to our country. Sometimes people need to be profoundly shaken before they see themselves in the mirror!

  2. Reblogged this on Revel Law Review and commented:
    Brilliant addition to this now-unfortunately unavoidable conversation for Canadians. Fully endorse your consideration of Mark’s statements here.

  3. dovjacobs says:

    We can discuss the link between being a peace-loving, liberal state and terrorism when we next meet. I just wondered what you meant by “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”? The last I heard, Canada was a democracy and therefore the people of Canada do deserve their politicians and their policies, right?

  4. Staszek says:

    Great piece, great debate. I have a different perspective: Canada with its size and resources cannot anymore be the “nice guy” it used to be. Tempora mutantur at nos mutamur in illis. We have to take sides, and sometimes we have to pay a price. I do agree about the prisons, though.
    Thanks again Marek for this piece

  5. Alexa says:

    You could say that Amurricans deserved Bush minor, and Canadians don’t deserve Harper, but I am not so sure about the veracity of either statement, tempting as both are.

    That said, let me now try to steer away from Dov Jacobs’ unduly pedestrian, knee-jerk commentary. Kersten astutely contrasts a past positive image of Canada with the influence that he ascribes to its present government of the day. I would venture that the positive values that Canadians subscrbe to (and which they consequently self-ascribe) are to a large part due to the immediate and always visible contrast to the other American state. If there is a large nation of savages south and west of your borders, it it comparably easy to show off in contrast. Michael Moore has exploited this contrast nicely.

    The Canadian military history is a long and proud one. Interestingly, public intra-Canadian perception does not seem to be quite aware of it. The truth however is, as clear and sober as that, that Canada and Canadian “volunteers” (where the government saw it fit not to be too directly involved, e.g. 30,000 of them in the Vietnam War) have hardly ever missed a chanve to participate in a war when the convenient opportunity arose. What is new about Harper, is maybe rather the tone.

    • dovjacobs says:

      I’ll gladly concede the “pedestrian” nature of my comment, but it was in response to what seems to me to be an equally pedestrian initial point made by Mark. As a result, I still do not understand what he meant by saying that Canadians don’t deserve their politics and policies. But maybe I was reading too much into that… Care to weigh in Mark? 🙂

      This aside, I find interesting Alexa’s point on tone vs substance of Canada’s military involvmeent in the past. This reminds me of the debates that took place in the Bush era about the alleged “break” in US foreign policy, which, when you did a long term analysis of it was not entirely accurate, beyond the tone employed.

      • Mark Kersten says:

        Thanks to all for these very constructive and interesting comments.

        @Dov – I think you’re right to question this point and your comment is incisive. I did not explain it with any detail and, to be quite honest, did not necessarily want, in this post at least, to go into the question of Canada’s “democratic deficit”. But it is clearly part of the problem – and one that is compounded in terms of international affairs / foreign policy.

        In Canada, the current reality is that with less than 40% of the vote (about 37.5% to be more precise), it is possible for the Conservative government to hold a majority in Parliament. We don’t have proportional representation. Moreover, the turnout in the last election was just over 61%. So a significant majority of Canadian voices and constituencies are lost – especially because the Conservatives have shown virtually no interest in cooperating with other parties on foreign policy and view things like coalition governments with deep suspicion. Issues like Canada’s involvement in Iraq were *brutally* under-debated in Parliament and the government has been anything but transparent with the facts of why were are there and what it is, exactly, that our contribution is supposed to entail. In short and in my opinion, the combination of 1) the democratic deficit and 2) the cavalier approach to foreign policy (including issues of international justice and human rights) of the Government allows for some judgment to be made that the vast majority of Canadians did not sign up to this government’s policies and don’t deserve their repercussions either.

        I’m not sure that will satisfy you, Dov but for the moment and in the context of a succinct comment, it’s the best I can give.

  6. Pingback: Crackpot theory #2: The Responsibility to Protect | IRRUSSIANALITY

  7. Alexa says:

    The answer to Paul is simple. There existed a Canadian general called Roméo Dallaire; well strictly speaking he still exists, because alas, nobody has put him before a firing squad. Doubtlessly the greatest Canadian war criminal in the 20th century.
    There crimes of commission and crimes of omission. Like his Dutch brothers in crime (e.g.Thom Karremans), his genocidal crime was one of omission. And this entirely answers (and closes) the irrussianal contribution linked above.

  8. Mark, regarding your comment about Canadian citizen/s being left to rot in Guantanamo Bay, I am ashamed to say that Australia was another Western govt guilty of this (see

  9. Lukas says:

    It looks to me like Norwegian authorities want to keep him out of any kind of real prison and keep him in a mental institution. I don’t blame them, but they’re doing a deep disservice to the victims by covering up the nature of his insanity.

Leave a Reply to Paul Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s