Kent Roach is a Professor of Law at the University of Toronto, and the co-author of False Security The Radicalization of Canadian Anti-Terrorism.
Alexandre Bissonnette’s murder of six worshippers in a Quebec City mosque is a Canadian tragedy, one of the worst acts of political violence in Canadian history.
But was it an act of terrorism? Should we care?
The decision of the Quebec prosecutors not to charge Mr. Bissonnette with one of our 15 specific terrorism offences was controversial, but understandable.
These offences apply to those who finance, participate, facilitate, instruct or advocate others to commit acts of terrorism. They do not apply well to “lone wolves.”
When political violence results in death, there is also power and wisdom in the traditional adage that murder is murder regardless of anyone’s motive.
But what is less understandable is why the Quebec prosecutor did not proceed against Mr. Bissonnette on the basis of s.231(6.01) of the Criminal Code, which provides that murder is first-degree murder if the crime “also constitutes a terrorist activity.”
This provision was added to the Code immediately after the Sept. 11 terror attacks in the United States. At the time, I thought it was political theatre, adding yet another section to Canada’s ever-expanding Criminal Code. The section has never been used and I forgot about it.
But the Quebec prosecutors should not have forgotten it. It would have provided them an opportunity to prove, or for Mr. Bissonnette to admit, that his murderous and unspeakable acts of violence and hatred were also a terrorist act. Its underlying concept can still be used as an aggravating factor in sentencing.
In my view, Mr. Bissonnette’s actions clearly satisfy the Criminal Code’s legal definition of terrorist activity. He was motivated by hatred and fear of Muslims and migrants. He intentionally caused death for a “political … or ideological objective or cause” with the intent to intimidate “a segment of the public”, namely Muslims and perhaps all migrants, “with regard to its security.”
The intimidating effect of Mr. Bissonnette’s actions explain why many of the survivors and their families as well as Canadian Muslim groups have called for terrorism charges.
Much has been made about Mr. Bissonnette’s attraction to U.S. President Donald Trump and others on the American far right, but a Canada that produced a zero tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act should not be smug.
Critics of the decision not to specify that Mr. Bissonnette’s actions were both murder and a terrorist activity are also responding to alleged discriminatory double standards that led then-Justice Minister Peter MacKay to dismiss the need for terrorism charges against two people who planned a Valentine Day’s massacre in a Halifax mall because “the attack does not appear to have been culturally motivated, therefore not linked to terrorism.”
Mr. MacKay’s comments were wrong in law – culture is not part of Canada’s legal definition of terrorism. His comments, however, echoed his government’s efforts to combat cultural practices it deemed barbaric.
A surviving member of the Halifax plot, Lindsay Souvannarath pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit murder. Her recently released suicide note with its tribute to the Columbine murderers and its appeal to killing “for principles, not politicians” and that “hate sharpens the mind” seem to speak to political and ideological motivations.
If we are to have terrorism offences, they must be applied equally to all and without discrimination. There is no room for discriminatory double standards.
To be sure, establishing that Mr. Bissonnette’s murders were also terrorism will not bring back the six dead fathers. It might not deter others or make us safer.
But it would help affirm that our terrorism laws apply to all who would use violence to advance or express their politics. And that we should be as vigilant about far-right violence as other acts of terrorism.
Most importantly, it might encourage all of us to pull back from stoking and exploiting the dangerous flames of hate and division that are but a short step away from political violence.