Ottawa shooting

Failing social services, not terrorism, the real threat to national security

From Justin Bourque to Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, mental illness is the common thread
Photo: Ralft

In the face of the deliberate and targeted killings of military personnel in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu and Ottawa last week, federal policy makers and governments at all levels in Canada are faced with serious challenges when it comes to how to keep people in this country safe.

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Safety threats in Canada from abroad or those that manifest domestically are not new. Such concerns predate Confederation and have formed part of the political landscape for a century and a half dating back to the Fenian raids (from Irish republicans) facing the North-West Mounted Police in the 1860s.

However, what has historically been true and remains true today is that the legal and public discourse around public safety becomes enigmatically charged and transformed when it is characterized as a national security event. The construction of national security language is politically crafted to reinforce the existing stature and defined priorities of the state by pointing to a serious, pervasive, yet vague problem that requires public deference ostensibly in the interest of preserving the nation.

Over more than a decade since 9/11, Canadian policy makers, politicians and legislators have amped up the discussion surrounding the nature and gravity of “national security” threats and the scope of powers needed to deal with such threats. Yet, from both a legal and pragmatic perspective, there is considerable opacity around what makes something a national security threat and, in turn, how to respond to it.

Take for example the headline story in Canada this week regarding Justin Bourque. Mr. Bourque was charged with three counts of first degree murder for the targeted killing of three RCMP officers in Moncton, New Brunswick, in June of this year. Defence counsel David Lutz recently stated in Bourque’s sentencing hearing, as a mitigating factor, that Bourque was inspired by video game characters such as Super Mario and Megaman.

By contrast, the RCMP assertion that the Parliament Hill shooter, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, made a video expressing his discontent about Canada’s foreign policy in which he used the word Allah has been referred to as an indicator that his crime was carried out for a political or ideological motive. Ultimately, from a public policy perspective, we must consider whether we can breathe a sigh of relief that Bourque’s motivator was a cute violent video game as opposed to the violent reality of foreign wars.

Ultimately, from a public policy perspective, we must consider whether we can breathe a sigh of relief that Bourque’s motivator was a cute violent video game as opposed to the violent reality of foreign wars

The introduction of the “ideological motive” criterion within the Criminal Code definition of terrorism that followed close on the heels of 9/11 doesn’t really assist or inform either a preventative policing approach to the cases of Zehaf-Bibeau and Bourque, nor does it help us better plan infrastructural safety for public buildings or public spaces. What it does do, however, is stigmatize Zehaf-Bibeau’s crime infinitely more than that of Bourque’s — though both are horrendous murderous attacks on national security officers.

The Bourque defence that he did it because of Super Mario is not likely to result in a crackdown on Nintendo as a terrorist organization. To the contrary, Super Mario (who stomps on his enemies) is an example of a fun game that is considered to be innocuous. Indeed, the normalization of violence within our society appears to have a political and legal bearing on how crime is defined and the perception of the tools that are necessary to respond to it.

The categorization of the terrorist as “other” (in this case as a radical Muslim) provides a psychological, political and legal means of abstracting him from his rootedness as a person within Canadian society. Publicly available information that Zehaf-Bibeau was suffering from mental health issues, had a difficult family life, was suffering from addiction problems and had passed through the revolving door of our criminal justice system raises complex social and structural problems about Canadian society that cannot be neatly addressed by increasing security intelligence and police powers.

Our criminal justice system is broken, bail procedures are counterproductive and a tough-on-crime approach is exactly what the Canadian Medical Association has warned aggravates the problems facing mentally ill offenders. The CMHA has argued that mental health in Canada is chronically underfunded, resulting in a lack of transition and basic needs supports for poor and criminalized Canadians facing mental health problems. It is ludicrous to think that the answer to these systemic problems is to increase security intelligence and policing powers.

It is ludicrous to think that the answer to these systemic problems is to increase security intelligence and policing powers.

But creating a narrative predicated on the need to protect Canadians from ISIS is far more provocative and galvanizing as a political message than advocating a prioritization of mental health supports for offenders, rehabilitative diversion programs and implementation of harm reduction policies and social integration strategies for drug users. Moreover, that much popular discussion in the last week has been about Canadian pride is somewhat misplaced given that Canada — not ISIS — created the social preconditions that formed both Zehaf-Bibeau and Bourque.

There is tremendous work to be done to respond to the burgeoning crises in Canadian society — not of terrorism, but of poverty, social alienation and mental health supports for offenders. Such attention is not justified as a measure to prevent future mass murders or another storming of Parliament Hill, but it is what a reflective and responsive social welfare state should be drawn to, more emphatically so when the problem is staring policy makers in the face.

There is tremendous work to be done to respond to the burgeoning crises in Canadian society — not of terrorism, but of poverty, social alienation and mental health supports for offenders.

The government’s recent introduction to Parliament of the proposed Protection of Canada from Terrorists Act will undoubtedly open the public taps to pour copious resources, time, attention and endless legal debate into security intelligence measures justified as forming a necessary defence to protect Canada from the threat of ISIS. But who will protect Canadians from the consequences of utter neglect and underfunding of mental health institutions and the revolving door of Canada’s broken criminal justice system? It is time to replace the discourse of national security with one that is both relevant and responsive to social security in this country.

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