Canada, so the reigning cliché goes, is a peaceable country, the quaint counterpoint to the aggressive ways of its southern neighbor. And while part of that cliché is hardly true — we’ve seen our fair share of wars — its central idea generally holds: Canadians tend to be less reactionary in the face of a perceived threat. Witness how Canada didn’t participate in the Vietnam War, or the Iraq invasion in 2003. Cooler heads prevailed, perhaps because (to borrow another cliché) they were watching a hockey game.
Two recent attacks on Canadian soldiers threaten to lay waste to this cheery sensibility. On Oct. 20, a 25-year-old recent convert to Islam hit two soldiers with his car in a Quebec town about 25 miles outside Montreal, killing one before a police officer shot him. Less than 48 hours later, another Islamic convert shot and killed a soldier before dying in a shootout in Ottawa with the police and Kevin Vickers, Parliament’s sergeant-at-arms.
The two attacks sparked near-instantaneous calls for an increase in surveillance powers for Canada’s law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
“In recent weeks, I have been saying that our laws and police powers need to be strengthened in the area of surveillance, detention and arrest,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper told Parliament a day after the Ottawa attack. “They need to be much strengthened. I assure members that work, which is already underway, will be expedited.”
Mr. Harper is right: The Canadian government’s attempts to erode individual freedoms in the name of security started well before the deaths of the two soldiers. Last fall, the government shoehorned increased Internet surveillance powers into an anti-bullying bill, which would grant legal immunity to telecommunications companies that voluntarily hand over customer data. The bill would also further lower the standards of evidence for police officers seeking to monitor Internet activities.
More recently, the government introduced legislation that would give blanket anonymity to informants for Canada’s spy agency. This would potentially allow for a dereliction of a basic principle of justice: An accused person would be unable to face his accusers.
Yet the attacks have apparently loosened the tongues of those in government wanting the country to go even further. The government, Justice Minister Peter MacKay recently mused, should consider further powers to monitor and remove offensive websites, lest they lead to a “poisoning of young minds.” Jason Kenney, the minister for multiculturalism, recently suggested that those suspected of terrorist sympathies be subject to “preventative detention” — which the criminal code already permits — for longer time periods, and a lower legal threshold for the government to detain them.
It’s worth considering that such measures would not have prevented the recent attacks. Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, the perpetrator of the Ottawa shooting, had little online presence. His arrest record, a grab bag of drunken driving, drug possession, assault and weapons charges, suggests teenage overindulgence and inner demons, not a budding terrorist. Having drifted from his family, he lived on the margins of society for years. He’d recently told an acquaintance that the devil was following him around.
In the case of Martin Couture-Rouleau, who hit the two soldiers with his car, law enforcement had already revoked his passport, and he’d been under surveillance for months — including at the mosque he attended. He simply hadn’t done anything to warrant arrest, preventive or otherwise. His online presence, meanwhile, was largely an Islamic-themed cacophony of anti-Semitism and cut-and-paste screeds against Christianity. While disturbing, only in the most totalitarian of states would this sort of thing constitute a crime.
Besides, Canadian intelligence and law enforcement agencies have performed their jobs admirably without any increased powers. Canadian law enforcement has prevented at least two potentially disastrous terror strikes on Canadian soil in the last decade. And the country’s spy agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, isn’t without resources: Its budget has more than doubled in the last 12 years.
Canadians need only look to the south to see how attacks on individuals and establishments can’t usually be prevented by increased surveillance of a country’s civilians. The United States arguably is home to the world’s largest and most sophisticated intelligence-gathering network, the excesses of which have been documented by leaks from the former National Security Agency contractor Edward J. Snowden.
Yet none of this prevented the breach of the White House in September, in which an Iraq war veteran scaled the White House fence and made it to within feet of where the president and his family live before being apprehended. Nor has surveillance hindered the ability of various gunmen to inflict mass murder on innocents throughout the years. As the former Vice President Al Gore noted last year, in a speech decrying the folly of such mass intelligence gathering, “When you are looking for a needle in a haystack, it’s not always wise to pile more hay on the haystack.”
Theoretically, it would be possible for the Canadian government to legislate itself the powers to prevent all such attacks. Yet the trade-off — constant surveillance, criminalization of dissent, restriction of free movement and the economy — would make the country unlivable. It would be a travesty if the actions of two troubled individuals moved the country closer to that possibility.
Martin Patriquin is the Quebec bureau chief of Maclean’s magazine.