POLITICS

What Makes An Attacker A Terrorist In Canada?

01/31/2017 05:04 EST | Updated 02/01/2017 01:06 EST

Alexandre Bissonnette, 27, has been charged with six counts of murder for a mass shooting at a Quebec City mosque — but so far, not any terrorism-related offences.

Six Muslim worshippers were killed and 19 others wounded.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did call it a "despicable act of terror." Quebec provincial police are "treating the attack as a terrorist act," CBC News reports, but RCMP have only said that the suspect could "later face terrorism-related charges, depending on the outcome of the ongoing investigation."

Meanwhile, Twitter users are pushing back against Bissonnette being called anything but.

alexandre bissonnette Alexandre Bissonnette is escorted by authorities after appearing in court in connection with the Quebec City mosque shooting. (Photo: Canadian Press)

So who is actually considered a terrorist in Canada?

You might answer the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ), the separatist group that carried out dozens of attacks from 1963 to 1970, resulting in eight deaths, including Quebec deputy premier and cabinet minister Pierre Laporte. While politically motivated, FLQ members were charged with kidnapping and murder — not terrorism.

That's because prior to 9/11, it wasn't in Canada's Criminal Code — not until Dec 18, 2001 when the Anti-Terrorism Act went into effect.

According to a RCMP terrorism guide, terrorism is considered:

Activities within or relating to Canada directed toward or in support of the threat or use of acts of serious violence against persons or property for the purpose of achieving a political, or religious or ideological objective within Canada or a foreign state.

"The key differentiation between other aspects of the Criminal Code and an act of terrorism is the focus on intention," explained Lorne Dawson, director of the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security, and Society.

"So a murder is a murder. What degree of murder it is will focus on issues of intention but for terrorism, the very definition of the act that makes it a terrorist act, as opposed to just a murder, is that it is done for an ideological reason."

"The key differentiation between other aspects of the Criminal Code and an act of terrorism is the focus on intention."

According to the Globe and Mail, Bissonnette wrote social media postings in support of U.S. President Donald Trump and far-right French politician Marine Le Pen, as well as against immigration to Quebec.

Dawson said police need to have enough evidence to prove in court that the crime was motivated by ideology.

The law is written in such a way that a person acting entirely alone is unlikely to face terror charges "unless they were giving money to or leaving to participate in a terrorist group," said Kent Roach, a law professor at the University of Toronto.

bissonnette Alexandre Bissonnette wrote social media postings in support of far-right French politician Marine Le Pen and Donald Trump.

"A truly lone wolf attack cannot result in most terrorism offences, which require participation or support of a group or commission of an offence for a group," Roach said in an email to The Canadian Press.

Even if a person consulted materials from a terror group, that would not justify a terror charge, he said. "Inspiration alone is not enough — you would need some form of active participation or direct instruction or incitement to commit a terrorist act," he said.

ecole polytechnique Fourteen women died in a shooting at the École Polytechnique in 1989. (Photo: Canadian Press)

Many people have objected to the mosque killings being labelled the largest terrorist attack on Canadian soil, citing the 1989 Montreal massacre in which Marc Lépine killed 14 women. His suicide note included rants against feminism.

He wasn't charged with terrorism at the time because that offence didn't exist, but would Lépine fit under the current definition?

"It's the answer you don't want but it is the answer — it's all a matter of interpretation," Dawson told The Huffington Post Canada. It would also depend on authorities deciding whether or not anti-feminism is a movement, and even what the definition of a movement is, as far leadership, organization or goals.

There's also a distinction between a hate crime and a terrorist act: "The difference between them is the degree to which you can demonstrate that some kind of ideological orientation played a significant role in the motivations for the act, and it's all a judgment call on the degree."

justin bourque The RCMP released this image of Justin Bourque armed with two guns in June 2014.

The current discussion is also about race and religion. Dawson noted that Moncton shooter Justin Bourque, who killed three RCMP officers and was known for far-right views, was never called a terrorist, while Parliament Hill attacker Michael Zehaf-Bibeau was immediately labelled as one.

"The primary difference between the two cases is a Muslim and a non-Muslim," he said "There is a bit of 'othering' going on here. That it is the tendency of all human beings to take people that are different from themselves and be more readily willing to assume the worst about them."

Bourque, who pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and attempted murder, is serving life in prison with three consecutive 25-year parole ineligibility terms. Zehaf-Bibeau died in a shootout with authorities after he stormed Parliament.


Faisal Bhabha, an associate professor at York University's Osgoode Hall Law School who is also involved in anti-discrimination initiatives, said it's impossible to ignore the political and social context in which these decisions are made.

Men of colour and Muslim men in particular are more likely to face terror charges than white male mass shooters like Bourque, he said.

Should prosecutors decide to lay terror charges against Bissonnette, it would carry symbolic weight but have little other impact on his fate if convicted, said Roach. First-degree murder already carries a life sentence with no chance of parole for 25 years — the harshest possible sentence.

"Yes, a terrorism charge would send a political message, one that terrorism comes in all forms, but it would likely not add anything tangible in terms of sentence and would complicate the prosecution process," he said.

quebec Quebecers gather at a vigil for the victims of a mass shooting at a Quebec City mosque. (Photo: Amru Salahuddien/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

In many cases there is a "powerful political dimension" behind the decision to lay terror charges, though the evidence determines how prosecutors ultimately proceed, said Wesley Wark, a national security expert at the University of Ottawa.

"That background calculation would be to send a message to Muslims in Canada that they are not being treated any differently when they become victims of terrorism themselves — in other words, terrorism offences are not just offences conducted by Muslim jihadists but they can be offences conducted against Muslims themselves," he said.


Dawson warned that we need to recognize terror threats from wherever they emerge. Norway's focus on Islamic terrorism, he said, led police to miss the warning signs of Anders Breivik, an anti-Muslim, anti-multiculturalism extremist who killed 77 people in 2011.

"It's not as pronounced. There's no two ways about it, the data does show that. But there is a real threat, always has been, and it may be rising from the so-called far right."

Last year, a federal report found that the terrorist threat level was "medium," meaning that a "violent act of terrorism could occur in Canada."

With files from The Canadian Press

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