For 48 hours, St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., was Canada's epicentre of improbable terror. And, just as improbably, it was soon forgotten.
It is no mystery why. The Oct. 22 attack on Ottawa represented something bigger than ourselves. Michael Zehaf-Bibeau's shots in front of the Cenotaph and inside the Parliament were a violation of all that the country holds sacred, but the event was also a proving ground for what we value: Canada the subdued and strong; Canada the unintimidated; the collective mourning for Corporal Nathan Cirillo and the tumble-and-shoot acrobatics of 58-year-old Sergeant-at-Arms Kevin Vickers. Ottawa made CNN and The Colbert Report.
Yet 10 days after Martin Couture-Rouleau killed Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent near a Tim Hortons in St-Jean, it has barely resonated in Canada, let alone on U.S. networks. Unlike the school-trip familiarity of Ottawa, St-Jean's landscape is terra incognita. The military college there did not resonate with Canadians who do not live in the area. Physically, it does not conjure the historical gravitas of, say, Quebec City. To the many who did not know the place, it was a bland Montreal suburb, and then a mere outgrowth of the events in the country's capital. It could have happened anywhere – so goes the abstract thinking. And anywhere is St-Jean. At the side of a Tim Hortons.
Set in a fertile netherland between Montreal and the Vermont border, St-Jean is a self-contained community where only 10 per cent of its residents commute. On a windy day, you can still smell the pastures rolling off the Richelieu and blowing through its quaint, cultured old-town district. A largely pure-laine city of almost 100,000, it's hardly a cauldron of radicalism. There is a sliver of a mosque with only 40 to 50 families.
It is not a hotbed of criminality, either. Before the 25-year-old jihadi lunged at local officers with a hunting knife after a car chase, the St-Jean police force had used their weapons only twice in the past 25 years. "All of the crime stops at Brossard, and so does the immigration," said an official close to the investigation. "This is just one stupid person, and they are everywhere. It's one guy who lost his head."
Yet St-Jean remains a target for the likes of Mr. Couture-Rouleau. After all, it is a storied, four-century-old garrison town where the British in 1775 held off the American Colonials who were threatening to conquer Quebec. Freighted with its own symbolism, the city is rich in military history and with the present-day bustle of military life – the sight of seven or eight camouflage trucks does not make residents worry about martial law. The problem here was the symbolism did not worry enough people.
St-Jean is a cautionary tale about the agony of foresight. Family and friends sensed Mr. Couture-Rouleau's embrace of the extremist group the Islamic State would have a disastrous outcome, but they could not do anything about it. It was knowledge without power. His imam knew. The RCMP knew. He was even on the Mounties' now-notorious list of 90 suspects. His passport was taken away, so he turned his hatred inward, at his own troops, people next to whom he could have stood in line or driven next to on the main drag, the Boulevard Du Séminaire Nord.
Some may see the attack as incidental. Others saw it as inevitable.
A friend's nightmare
An old friend of Mr. Couture-Rouleau said he had a harrowing dream the week before the attack on the soldiers in a plaza off du Seminaire. "I don't know if it's a coincidence, or I'm a … clairvoyant, but last week I dreamt Mart was committing a terrorist act and I died."
The friend, who asked not to be named because he did not want to be publicly associated with the attacker, described Mr. Couture-Rouleau as smart but obsessive man. He was a gentle, thoughtful guy who had many challenges in life. He tried to make an honest go of things by taking on a business partner and starting a power-washing business, but it fell through. He lived alone in a basement under the home of his father, Gilles.
Mr. Couture-Rouleau had a hardscrabble upbringing. His mother had long disappeared, probably to Montreal, and his father was a bus driver. Mr. Couture-Rouleau spent his early years in specialized education centres for difficult children, his friend said, adding that as a teen, Mr. Couture-Rouleau had a brief run-in with the law. Kid's stuff, though.
The pair used to see each other regularly, but about two years ago, Mr. Couture-Rouleau became eccentric, talking up conspiracy theories about the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He converted to Islam, changed his name to Ahmad, and distanced himself from friends and even his toddler son, who was in the custody of his girlfriend. He grew a beard and dressed differently. The friend would still visit him. Or as he phrased it, "Check up on him." While his old mate had some eccentric views and his religious obsession was off-putting, his friend went out of loyalty.
Mr. Couture-Rouleau constantly read the Koran and wrote the whole book out as many as 14 times. He no longer had a TV, and wanted to talk only about the scriptures, or his ambitions for jihad: going to Syria through Turkey. "If you die there," he told his friend, "you'll go to heaven."
Contrary to other reports, Mr. Couture-Rouleau never tried to convert anyone else, his friend said. Islam was his own private matter – no one else's. Martin was a private guy, not the bon vivant figure he had created as an alter-ego to build on his dramatic, if conventional, conversion narrative. Eventually, the relationship frayed. Even Christmas greetings or birthday wishes became tense moments, to which Mr. Couture-Rouleau would respond, "Thank you, but no thank you. I don't celebrate those things any more."
The friend remembered their last conversation, which took place around five months ago. They were going back and forth about Canada's support of Israel. "If you're not part of the solution," his friend told him, "you're part of the problem."
Around that time, Gilles Rouleau formally complained to the local police that his son was not psychologically sound and was worried that he was spending too much time on jihadi web sites. The report was bounced to the RCMP. In July, the Canadian government stripped Mr. Couture-Rouleau of his passport while he was trying to travel to Turkey, suspecting that he had ambitions to join the Islamic State.
The RCMP met with Mr. Couture-Rouleau after and thought he was turning a corner. Then came the October attack.
Many Canadians have difficult upbringings, so explaining Mr. Couture-Rouleau's motivations is difficult. They could be religious, and they could be psychological. It could be both. It could be one triggering the other.
Some point to the mosque he attended and an imam who frequented it. Wedged between a paint shop and tarp vendor, the mosque does not look radical. The congregants are heterodox: Some have beards, others look decidedly secular.
After the attack, the mosque quickly condemned his actions, and distanced itself from Mr. Couture-Rouleau. Leaders said he stopped attending prayers there two months before the attack.
Outside prayers last Tuesday, Youness Baraka, an official from the mosque, said the clerics did not notice any apparent change in Mr. Couture-Rouleau's behaviour. "We had little contact with him, you know. He'd often come here in his car, pray, and leave."
One nagging question lingers: A controversial cleric named Hamza Chaoui preached at the mosque from time to time. Did he and Mr. Couture-Rouleau consort?
Mr. Chaoui, a former cleric at Laval University, is known for quoting the anti-Semitic tract The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, saying that the World Cup was part of a Jewish plot to distract gentiles from their plan for world domination. The imam has justified stoning and whipping for those who do not follow sharia law. In his view, democracy and Islam are parallel and incompatible.
When asked if Mr. Couture-Rouleau had contact with the preacher, Mr. Baraka referred to the investigation and said he could not comment. Is Mr. Chaoui radical, The Globe asked. "No," Mr. Baraka said, echoing what another congregant, Yolande Tétrault, told La Presse. He cautioned that Mr. Chaoui's words could be taken out of context.
While the fledgling jihadi's relationship with Mr. Chaoui is speculative, so is the psychological connection. A neighbour told The Globe that Gilles Rouleau told him he tried to get psychological help for his son, only to be rebuffed.
Perhaps only the father knows the truth.
These two reporters climbed the worn, wooden steps of the Rouleau house and knocked on the door. Gilles Rouleau answered. He asked if we were journalists and then nodded grimly. "Too much sadness," he said apologetically, his hand over his heart. "Too much pain."
The other soldier
Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent was always moving – an industrious 53-year-old. A former firefighter in the Royal Canadian Air Force, he started as a combat engineer in 1985 and then served on five vessels, but he slowed down with age. He had heart issues.
While some thought he may have been reserved at first, he opened up quickly. In a group gathering, he would always be in the thick of it. Unmarried with a twin sister, Mr. Vincent lived in a south-shore suburb of Montreal. On the cusp of retirement, he worked with sick and injured soldiers in St-Jean, but knowing a few things about triage, he also worked with the 438 Tactical Helicopter Squadron in St. Hubert.
His desk was still intact when The Globe went to visit his colleagues. Computers were neatly stacked with Post-It notes. A box with the word "Crap" scrawled across it. There was a clipping of Rick Moranis with his Ghostbusters helmet on. His chair was missing.
"He was the kind of guy who comes into your life and makes it brighter," said Sgt. Marc Adolph, whose office was next to WO Vincent's and saw him the morning he drove into St-Jean. "And when he's not there, it seems darker."
Soldiers from the St. Hubert base drive down to the Boulevard du Séminaire to run work errands. It's about a half-hour drive, right off the Autoroute 35, not really worth the hassle of getting in and out of uniform for that length of trip.
"We all go to St-Jean in uniform if we're doing something for the base," said Lieutenant Guy Bernard, a friend of WO Vincent and the public affairs officer for the 438th. "It could have been any of us."
Sitting in his 2000 beige Altima, Mr. Couture-Rouleau had been waiting for two hours in the parking lot near the Service Canada centre and the Tim Hortons before picking his targets at 11:33 a.m.
Contrary to news reports, Mr. Couture-Rouleau targeted four people: a nearby police officer, whom he missed. WO Vincent was with two other soldiers. A woman in uniform and a man in civilian clothing. The female soldier was grazed. The male soldier was injured. WO Vincent was hurt seriously. Both men were admitted to a hospital. A policeman happened to be in the lot, writing a traffic ticket. He called for back-up.
(It is unclear if the policeman writing the ticket was targeted. The St-Jean Police referred questions to the Quebec provincial police, which is investigating and would not take questions.)
The police pursued the suspect down du Séminaire, but desisted as he reached a residential area with schools. They turned off their lights and slowed. Fortunately, other squad cars were in the area responding to calls of a break-in.
In anticipation of his route, the police laid down a nail carpet. The assailant swerved, and his car rolled into a ditch, top down. Four police officers told him to put his hands up and offered assistance. He lunged at them with a hunting knife and was shot dead.
Outside the Service Canada building, a modest gathering of bouquets has been left in honour of WO Vincent, but there are no grand memorials or banners anywhere else for Canada's other fallen hero. In an ever-modest, Canadian way, the family has requested privacy and the Forces and city are strictly observing their wishes.
A town moves on
St-Jean's mayor, Michel Fecteau, may not be a household name in Canada, or even parts of Quebec, but some may recall his role during the city's great flood of 2011. As president of SOS Richelieu, he mobilized nearly 7,000 people and raised almost half a million dollars to support the displaced. These days, he faces an inundation of another kind.
In his office in old-town St-Jean, the chatty former Chamber of Commerce chairman was talking about receiving the news of the attack on Oct. 20. "It was too much," he said, recalling Stephen Harper's announcement to the House of Commons about a possible terrorist attack. "It was too quick to call it a terrorist act before the investigation was done," he said.
To date, the mayor said he has heard from neither the Prime Minister nor Premier Philippe Couillard.
Mr. Fecteau also thinks that more communication among the federal intelligence agencies might have prevented the attack. "If the police knew that this gentleman could be at risk, probably after an hour he had parked there, they could have approached this guy and asked him where he was going and searched his car."
In the future, he suggests terrorism suspects wear electronic bracelets. "I hope the government will put these people on surveillance."
The mayor called on the local mosque to disavow Hamza Chaoui and hold a press conference to address concerns raised by the attack. The group that runs it, the Muslim Association of Upper Richelieu, cancelled a press conference last Sunday, saying it could not find a venue, although Mr. Fecteau said he had offered them one.
Mr. Fecteau also said he was exploring a legal way to deter any future visit by Mr. Chaoui. "I'm gathering information for a guy like that who's coming here to put oil on the fire," he said. "A person like that, who's coming to a peaceful mosque in a peaceful town."
If someone is inciting hatred on social media, he feels it could be within his rights to arrest that person in his hotel room.
Mr. Fecteau is now turning his attention to the future. His government has built a new town square, spending millions touching up Old St-Jean, and will refurbish a century-old rail bridge to the tune of $80-million. The town is also gearing up to celebrate its 350th anniversary in 2016. General Romeo Dallaire, a graduate and former commander of the Military College, will be the honorary chairman.
Maybe all of these historical reminders will put St-Jean on the map once and for all.