Politics·Analysis

Michael Zehaf-Bibeau case invites contrasts to Australian experience

Friday's airing of Michael Zehaf-Bibeau's video will be the first information on the case Canadians have received from police or the government in months. In Australia, an inquiry into a deadly hostage-taking in Sydney weeks after Ottawa's Oct. 22 attack has already shared its findings.

MPs set to see video made by gunman Michael Zehaf-Bibeau for the first time

Australia has already released the findings of an initial inquiry into a deadly hostage-taking Dec. 15 at the Lindt Cafe in Sydney, and a public coroner's inquest is underway. (Rob Griffith/The Associated Press)

Last week, an official inquiry delivered its findings on December's deadly attack on the Lindt Café in Sydney, Australia. Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced the review two days after the attack.

Meanwhile, Canadian MPs are getting their first look Friday at a video made by Parliament Hill gunman Michael Zehaf-Bibeau before his Oct. 22 attack, when RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson appears at the Commons public safety committee. CBCnews.ca will have live coverage, starting at 11 a.m. ET.​

The Australian inquiry not only examined police actions, but also the mental history, motivations and past affiliations of Iranian-born gunman Man Haron Monis.

But that wasn’t the only public review in Australia.

More than four months after Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, 32, shot and killed Cpl. Nathan Cirillo and attacked Parliament, little about his past or the attack has been disclosed by official sources. Today, MPs get their first look at a cellphone video he made moments before the Oct. 22 attack. (Vancouver Police Department)

The day after the siege, the New South Wales coroner announced a public inquest "to determine how the deaths occurred, the factors that contributed to them and whether they could have been prevented." That inquest began Jan. 29 and continues.

Coroner Michael Barnes broke with tradition on the first day of the inquest by laying out publicly what was already known. The inquest is also using social media to keep the public abreast of developments.

And so within nine weeks the Australian people knew in great detail about what happened in the Lindt Café, and about Monis’s life, from his arrival in the country in 1996 until the day he died.

They know that Australia’s security intelligence service ASIO received 18 calls from the public about the gunman over the years, that he bought his gun illegally and even that he had travelled to Canada on more than one occasion.

They also learned one of the hostages was killed by shrapnel from police bullets.

Australian transparency, Canadian secrecy

How different the story is in Canada.

Although more than four months have elapsed, the public has learned little from official sources about the Oct. 22 shooting that left Cpl. Nathan Cirillo and the gunman dead.

Here, a coroner examined the body of gunman Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, but the results have not been made public. The body was quietly released to his father and whisked out of the country for burial late last year — a fact that was only revealed by an Ottawa Citizen report this week.

We still do not know whether Zehaf-Bibeau — a crack addict — was high or sober when he shot Cirillo at the National War Memorial and the stormed Parliament.

What we do know about him comes almost entirely from reporters digging into his past.

We know from people who spent time with him in homeless shelters he had a serious drug problem. We know from court records in B.C. that he asked to be imprisoned to get clean, and from those same records we know he believed he had an undiagnosed mental illness, but that a court-appointed psychologist didn’t concur.

We also know from former co-workers he expressed sympathy with the Taliban, and that he was watching and sharing jihadi videos as early as 2007. We know he was a hard worker who made good money at that point in his life.

And we know the story of his longing to emigrate to Libya, where he had spent happy times as a teenager, and of the passport struggles that stood in the way.

But we don’t know any of that thanks to official sources.

News conference, a committee hearing — then silence

RCMP commissioner Bob Paulson gave a news conference the day after the attack, one committee appearance a few days later with much the same information, and then the force essentially fell silent.

Video of Michael Zehaf-Bibeau carrying a gun while running towards Parliament Hill was released by the RCMP a few days after the attack, but little else has been officially released. (RCMP/Canadian Press)

The news conference itself was marred by misinformation. Commissioner Paulson said "We have learned through the current investigation that this individual …. was hoping to leave for Syria."

In fact, that was wrong. But the RCMP would be in no hurry to correct the error. They only did so after Zehaf-Bibeau's mother went public to say her words had been misrepresented, that she had asked the RCMP to set the record straight, and that they had not done so.

With the suspect dead, there is no prospect of the RCMP ever presenting the evidence it has collected at a criminal trial.

CBC has asked the RCMP how and where it will be released.

Sgt. Greg Cox answered: "We appreciate your patience in this matter and undertake to share with you what we can as soon as we feel that the potential for evidence collection has run its course."

But there is no indication of when that might be.

In the meantime, politicians and the public are left to speculate about facts and motives.

The government has cast Zehaf-Bibeau into the frame of a jihadi terrorist, and hinted at possible overseas connections. The NDP preferred to push a version of Zehaf-Bibeau as a man driven by mental illness, although no such illness had ever been diagnosed and a court-appointed psychologist said in 2011 that he didn’t believe there was one.

In the absence of information rumours — and agendas — flourish.

Perhaps the much-delayed release of the gunman’s video will bring a ray of Australian-style sunlight, after a long Canadian winter of silence and secrecy.

Corrections

  • This story has been edited from a previous version that incorrectly stated the Lindt cafe manager was killed by a police bullet. In fact, one of the hostages was killed by shrapnel from police bullets. The manager was shot and killed by the hostage taker.
    Mar 06, 2015 12:00 PM ET

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