Ottawa Parliament shooting: We've known this day was coming

As Canadians, we've been lucky up to this point, Brian Stewart writes. We've been telling ourselves for some time now we could be the object of a terror attack. Now is the time to show our resilience.

As Canadians, we've been lucky up to this point

A view of Parliament Hill security

9 years ago
Duration 4:19
A look as what was and what is to come. Interview with Steve Day, former special operations commander of the counterterrorism unit JTF-2

Perhaps the shock of Wednesday's attack in Ottawa will prove shorter than we expect because, let's be frank, we've all known something like this was coming, right?

We've been warned for years by our combined counterterrorism apparatus that it will stop many plots, but cannot get all. In short, the hits are coming. Brace yourself Canada. Time to be resilient.

The federal government's own  "Counterterrorism Strategy," unveiled three years ago, laid out the reality in words few could question. "Terrorism," it said, "will remain a dominant feature of the national security landscape for the foreseeable future."

As Canadians, we've been lucky up to this point, but inevitably the threat escalated to near certainty when Canada joined the armed coalition against ISIS in Iraq at a time when scores of jihadist supporters and angry wannabes are said to be in Canada. 

Our Western allies in the coalition all braced for attacks as ISIS called on its supporters to go on the offensive inside our very heartlands. Monday's car attack that left a soldier dead in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., looks to be cut from that cloth, at least in the prime minister's view. It is too soon to say about Wednesday's rampage on Parliament Hill, though it has many of the same features, in particular the attack on an unsuspecting soldier.

Almost three weeks ago, the U.S. army's threat centre warned its members and their families to be extra vigilant, and soon after, Washington broadened warnings to include "lone-wolf attacks on police, government officials and media figures inside the U.S." 

Since August, Britain's terrorist threat level has been pegged at its second highest level — "severe," while another coalition partner, Australia, went to "high" alert for the first time since 9/11.

So what now?

In the days ahead, there will undoubtedly be questions as to why Canada's domestic threat level remained at "low" until it was nudged up to "moderate" just days before the Quebec attacks.

There is no guarantee, however, that increased alertness would have stopped any freelance attack, and no certainty that staying out of the coalition against ISIS would have kept us attack-free. 

In any case, the pressing issue for the country right now is how well we respond to the shock of these events, and at the same time how we can best use our police and intelligence assets to thwart future attacks. 

There will be changes to the landscape, of course, and we will certainly see more guards around potential targets in both government and private sectors, while below the surface, more counterterrorism surveillance will be launched.

But we shouldn't want too much to change. Government, police and our intelligence agency, CSIS, have together long studied how society should react after such shock attacks and the underlying theme comes down to that word "resilient."

"A resilient Canada is one that is able to mitigate the impacts of a terrorist attack, ensuring a rapid return to ordinary life," the official counterterrorism strategy declares.

That's not a bad mantra, and it may be useful to remember that Canadians have not always shown the required restraint when our sense of values have been brutally abused by terror attacks.

I will never forget how, during the October Crisis of 1970 in Montreal, the Pierre Trudeau government responded to two kidnappings and vague rumours of an insurgency by throwing nearly 500 people in jail under the notorious War Measures Act, all without due process or access to such legal basics as habeas corpus. 

The vast majority of these "suspects" were later released without charges, and the ones I knew personally were totally innocent.

At the time, most Canadians strongly supported the crackdown, yet only a few years later it was looked on as a national shame more suited to a classic police state. Parliament eventually overwrote the WMA to ensure such extremes were never repeated.

We have the resources

I've sometimes used this example to remind myself that even democratic societies can panic after horrible incidents and then go too far in response.

They can grow fearful, even paranoid about certain groups in their midst, in the process trampling on common notions of justice and making life miserable for any voices of dissent. 

A country that appears badly shaken ensures terrorists win an easy round. So does a society that looks like it can be provoked into extreme responses.

At this time, we need to remember our strengths. Counterterrorism is extraordinarily difficult, but we’re likely better at it than we think, and we have more resources committed to it than is generally known.

The regular police complaints of limited resources have some merit, but in reality there's a very large force of thousands of agents and officers available for counterterrorism in emergencies. And that is not just in the RCMP, for they work alongside specialists from CSIS, military and foreign affairs intelligence, our border services agency, financial intelligence (FINTRAC), to name just some. Plus, there are all the provincial, territorial and city police intelligence units.

There are weaknesses, of course. Intelligence analysis by certain bureaucracies have been found to be sluggish and disjointed, and Canada probably does need more agents abroad looking for threats headed our way.

But the law needs to be considered along with everything else, and Parliament should very carefully test the need for any change in open debate, free of any attempt to use a crisis to stampede a decision. 

That kind of calm approach needs to provide one of those clear moments that stand out from the darkness that envelopes this kind of security breach. 

From the massive international news coverage of the Ottawa attack, it is clear the rest of the world — both friends and enemies — are watching to see how we react. One hopes they see determination without overreaction, or, in a word, resilience. 


Brian Stewart

Canada and abroad

Brian Stewart is one of this country's most experienced journalists and foreign correspondents. He sits on the advisory board of Human Rights Watch Canada. He was also a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Munk School for Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. In almost four decades of reporting, he has covered many of the world's conflicts and reported from 10 war zones, from El Salvador to Beirut and Afghanistan.