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Messages are placed near a mosque that was the location of a shooting spree in Quebec City, Quebec on January 31, 2017.

ALICE CHICHE/AFP/Getty Images

The RCMP are investigating the Quebec City shooting to determine whether to add terrorism-related counts to the charge sheet, even as politicians of all stripes have branded the mosque attack as a "terrorist" act.

The different responses reflect two definitions of terrorism: The legal definition takes an overwhelming burden of proof before being applied by police, prosecutors and ultimately the courts. Politicians and commentators, on the other hand, can apply the term more broadly.

As it stands, the lone suspect in the shooting at the Centre culturel islamique de Québec, Alexandre Bissonnette, is facing six counts of first-degree murder and five counts of attempted murder.

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The RCMP, which is leading an Integrated National Security Enforcement Team with other police forces, is still looking through evidence before deciding whether to lay additional terrorism-related charges, officials from the national police force said on Tuesday.

Experts said the threshold for the RCMP will be finding a clear "political, religious or ideological purpose, objective or cause," as called for in the Criminal Code. Authorities often need detailed admissions, such as confessions, manifestos or wiretapped statements, to launch terrorism prosecutions, said Craig Forcese, a University of Ottawa professor specializing in national-security law.

"Unless you've got a paper trail … your life is pretty difficult," Prof. Forcese said.

Still, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale did not hesitate on Monday to brand the Quebec City shooting a terrorist attack, even as he cautioned the police had yet to determine a motive.

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"This was an act of extreme violence directed against a particular group with the clear intent to intimidate and harm that group and to strike fear in their hearts. In the definition in broad terms of terrorism, they were trying to inflict terror, and that fits the definition," Mr. Goodale said.

Adopted by Parliament in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, the terrorism-related offences were designed to give prosecutors and police new tools to stop suspected extremists before they got to the point of detonating a bomb or shooting up a site.

When authorities are blindsided by an attack or a suspect, other Criminal Code charges are often more suited to the task of prosecution, even if this means mass murderers won't bear the stigma of being legally declared terrorists.

Terrorism charges can greatly stiffen sentences associated with minor crimes. But they may have no impact in cases where suspects already face stiff penalties.

Consider the cases of Momin Khawaja and Justin Bourque.

Canada's highest courts ruled that Mr. Khawaja should have to spend years in jail for wanting to illegally wire money overseas to al-Qaeda-associated figures, even though the original judge gave him relatively light punishments for the financing aspects of his case. (Mr. Khawaja is currently serving a life sentence for his various conspiracies hatched during the early 2000s.)

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Mr. Bourque shot dead three RCMP officers in Moncton in 2014. Prosecutors had considered trying him for terrorism, but relied on three counts of first-degree-murder instead. He was convicted on these charges, and attempted-murder charges for wounding two other officers. Mr. Bourque got a life sentence with no chance of parole for 75 years.

This was the stiffest criminal sentence a Canadian court had imposed since the death penalty was abolished in the 1960s. So in such cases, laying terrorism charges may not make sense to prosecutors because "there's very little prospect you could enhance the sentence that's already on the table," Mr. Forcese said.

Laying terrorism-related charges is often a complex undertaking. RCMP-led national-security squads have, over the past 15 years, launched long operations that were specifically designed to catch snippets of conversation uttered by suspects, by bugging homes and cars, or by paying undercover agents hundreds of thousands of dollars to infiltrate various organizations.

As such, police in Canada have often been more successful in branding members of large organizations as terrorists than lone wolves.

However, RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson made it clear two years ago that Michael Zehaf-Bibeau would have been prosecuted as a terrorist had he survived his attack on Parliament Hill on Oct. 22, 2014. The key was a recording made shortly before the shooting of Corporal Nathan Cirillo at the War Memorial, in which Mr. Zehaf-Bibeau specifically vowed to seek vengeance for Canada's foreign military deployments.

At this point, there is no public indication the shooter in Quebec City left a similar message ahead of the attack.

Members of the mosque in Quebec City where a shooting took place say they are grateful to have support from so many people in the community.
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