11/25/2014 02:45 EST | Updated 11/25/2014 03:59 EST

Canadians Split On Michael Zehaf-Bibeau's Motives For Ottawa Attack, Poll Suggests

Canadians are deeply divided over whether Michael Zehaf-Bibeau's October attack on Parliament Hill was an act of terrorism or the result of mental illness, a new poll suggests.

On Oct. 22, Zehaf-Bibeau gunned down Cpl. Nathan Cirillo at the National War Memorial before storming Parliament minutes later, where he was killed in a gunfight with the RCMP and House of Commons security.

Conservative MPs — including Prime Minister Stephen Harper — immediately called the attack an act of terror.

Days later, RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson said Zehaf-Bibeau’s attack was "driven by ideological and political motives." Paulson told a Senate committee the shooter made a video of himself before the attack in which he appeared "lucid" and described Canada's foreign policy and his own religious beliefs as "the basis for his actions."

While Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau supported Paulson's characterization, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair sparked headlines by proclaiming the shooter a criminal, not a terrorist.

"I don't think we have enough evidence to use that word," Mulcair said of the terrorist label, adding that Zehaf-Bibeau, 32, had obvious mental issues.

Now, an online poll by the Angus Reid Institute for the Vancouver Province, shows Canadians are just as uncertain as their political leaders about what may have motivated the shooter.

According to the survey numbers released this week, two-in-five Canadians (38 per cent) viewed the attack as "an act by a person with a mental illness," while 36 per cent said it was a terrorist attack. Twenty-five per cent said they weren't sure.

But opinions also varied according to regions. Though Ontario and Quebec respondents were almost evenly split, respondents were most likely to see the attack as a result of mental illness if they lived in British Columbia (46 per cent) and Atlantic Canada (46 per cent).

Respondents were more likely to see the shootings as a terrorist attack if they were from Alberta (42 per cent), Saskatchewan (43 per cent), and Manitoba (38 per cent).

The survey also presented some interesting numbers about how Canadians perceive the issue of homegrown terrorism. Sixty-two percent of Canadians told Angus Reid homegrown terrorism is a serious threat to Canada, while 38 per cent said politicians and the media have "overblown" the risk.

The poll was conducted online between Nov. 10 and 12 among 1,609 Canadians, with a margin of error of plus or minus 2.4 per cent, 19 times out of 20.

Quebec-born Zehaf-Bibeau, who converted to Islam shortly before the rampage, had a criminal record in both his home province and British Columbia.

While living in Montreal in 2004, Zehaf-Bibeau pleaded guilty to possession of the drug PCP and was sentenced to 60 days in jail. In 2011, he was charged with robbery and uttering threats in Vancouver. Zehaf-Bibeau pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of uttering threats and was sentenced to a day in jail, with 66 days credit for time served.

Court records show Zehaf-Bibeau was seen by a psychiatrist while in jail in Vancouver and found fit for trial.

Yet, Zehaf-Bibeau's mother told Postmedia in a written statement last month that she believes the attack was the "last desperate act" of a mentally unstable person and was not driven by ideology or politics.

Susan Bibeau says her son was infuriated that federal officials would not grant him a passport so he could travel to Saudi Arabia to study the Qu’ran.

"He felt cornered, unable to stay in the life he was in, unable to move on to the next one he wanted to go to," she wrote.

Harper's spokesperson, Jason MacDonald, responded at the time by saying Zehaf-Bibeau's attack was that of a terrorist.

"He attacked two Canadian institutions - the soldiers standing guard at the War Memorial, and Parliament - had espoused extremist ideology, was, as the police have indicated, radicalized," MacDonald told The Canadian Press via email.

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With files from The Canadian Press

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