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Jeffrey Simpson

Jeffrey Simpson


Then along came terror Add to ...

From personal tragedy has arrived political opportunity for the federal Conservatives.

The October attacks that killed two Canadian soldiers – Nathan Cirillo and Patrice Vincent – set the country on edge. Both assailants were mentally unstable. Both had converted to Islam. The RCMP described the shooting of Corporal Cirillo and the storming of Parliament as a “terrorist attack.”

In the minds of many Canadians, these events became conflated with the country’s participation in the military campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq, terrorist attacks in Paris and Copenhagen and a foiled terrorist plot in Belgium. Suddenly, the abused phrase “war on terror” seemed real for this country.

Jihadi terror is a military and political fact that manifests itself in various places and ways. Any government, of whatever political stripe, would have an obligation to respond to the threat. After all, the protection of a country’s citizens is a basic responsibility of the state.

What kind of response is a proper matter for debate. In the Parliament of our dreams, a government would assume its responsibilities, think through what might be required to equip security and police with such powers as might be needed to combat this new, insidious threat. It would seek to balance these new powers against the protection of privacy and the need for oversight.

Then, in this ideal world, a government would say something like, “We have done our best, but not being perfect, we invite other parties and civic society to suggest improvements, since the protection of society against this menace is not a partisan affair. We will listen therefore to all reasonable criticisms and suggestions.”

Fat chance of that happening in today’s Canada, though. The Conservatives have decided to go partisan in the “war on terror,” for being partisan is all they know.

When the Al-Shabaab terrorist organization produced a video urging attacks against shopping centres in Canada, the United States and Britain – including the West Edmonton Mall – the government immediately seized the political opportunity. “Terrorist threats such as these demonstrate why our government recently introduced the Anti-Terrorist Act, 2015, to further protect Canadians against jihadi terrorists who seek to destroy the principles that make Canada the best country in the world to live,” declared Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Steven Blaney.

Terror at home. Terror abroad. Tough on crime. Tough on terror. Fear stalking the land. Threats. Bad guys. It’s a dangerous world out there, folks, and only the Conservatives can protect us. The other parties? Soft on terror. Weak-kneed. They are listening to “elites” nattering about personal privacy at a time of menace. Only we can keep the country safe. For this government, the narrative is heaven-sent.

The taxpayer-funded advertisements on which the government spends millions have changed to suit this new narrative. For years, the ads featured Canada’s Economic Action Plan and job apprenticeships. These have now been replaced by military recruitment ads that show soldiers parachuting or bearing heavy-duty rifles, breaking into dimly lit buildings where terrorists might be found. They are fighting terror, just like the government.

It has been obvious from the moment Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced a six-month role in the military coalition against the Islamic State that the mission would be extended.

It’s going to take a very long time to push the movement out of Iraq and even longer to dislodge them from the chaos of Syria. In the meantime, Islamic State groups are implanting themselves in Libya and Afghanistan. This “war on terror” was never going to be over in six months. The Harper government was either going to cut and run upon the mission’s expiration, which would have been inconceivable, or Canada would remain in Iraq for much longer.

So Canada will be at “war” well past the October’s scheduled election date, which suits the Conservatives’ political narrative just fine. When men and women of the Canadian Forces are fighting and dying, citizens will rally around them, as happened in Afghanistan. Only much later does anyone ask: What was that all about?

The government had intended to run on economic management. But suddenly, after the oil price shock, prospects for the Canadian economy were looking cloudy.

The dollar tanked. The federal budget got postponed. Economic growth figures were revised downward. New Statistics Canada figures showed meagre job growth in 2014. New jobs in January were largely part-time. Full-time employment fell that month.

The economic news was bad politically for the government. Then along came terror.

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