Do Canada’s Police and Spies Need More Power?

A view of Canada’s Parliament Hill taken from above. (Photo: Robert Couse-Baker/flickr/cc)

On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry used the ‘t’ word — terrorism — to describe the violent events of last week in Ottawa and Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu.

It’s not surprising, since the Canadian government itself freely uses that characterization.

Others still insist that these events were the product of severely disaffected individuals, not the work of organized conspirators.

In other words, the violent events of last week were, as the Quebec Health Minister said, more matters of psychiatry than national security.

In a way, it is all a semantic argument.

The folks on both sides don’t really disagree much on the facts.

The Mounties appear to change their story

Take the RCMP, for example.

The day after the Ottawa shootings the Mounties’ Commissioner Bob Paulson said the Ottawa shooter, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, had no known associations with any extremist groups. He appeared to have been acting alone, the Commissioner said, a hypothesis supported by the choice of an old hunting rifle as a weapon and the fact that Zehaf-Bibeau was living in a homeless shelter just before he launched his attacks.

On the weekend, Zehaf-Bibeau’s mother had a letter published that said much the same thing. Her troubled son had acted alone, she said, and was driven by psychological factors, not directed by some terrorist organization.

Then, on Sunday night, the RCMP seemed to have a change of heart. Their new version was that a video Zehaf-Bibeau had made shortly before the shootings showed him to be “lucid” and clearly motivated by “politics and ideology.”

The Ottawa shooter was an extremist, the Mounties now would have it, not merely the disturbed person his mother described.

But the contradiction between the two versions is more apparent than real.

Although the Mounties say they are looking into contacts and associations Zehaf-Bibeau had before he committed his violent acts, they have not come up with much yet. It seems the picture of the Ottawa shooter as a lone wolf, who took orders from no one but his own muddled mind, still holds.

Even if the police were to get more powers to look into people’s private communications, or to preventively detain some folks, it is unlikely those powers would have been helpful in the case of Zehaf-Bibeau.

There is a very good chance that lone wolf, self-assigned “terrorists,” acting out fantasies that might be inspired by Internet propaganda, but not associated with any group, would not show up on police or spy service radar.

The government promises new police and spy powers are in the works

Nonetheless, the Conservatives seem bound and determined to bring in some set of new powers for CSIS, in intelligence, and the RCMP (and other police forces) in enforcement and investigation.

They took one step earlier this week, with new powers for CSIS, which had been in preparation long before last Wednesday’s episode. These new powers include the capacity to protect the identity of informants, and to do overseas as well as domestic spying.

There is nothing necessarily scary in any of that — although, as always, the devil is in the details. Legal experts say they are comforted by the fact that the protection-of-informants provision would also allow accused persons to confront their accusers.

There is more to come — much more — if we believe the government.

And we are not talking, here, about administrative measures to tighten security on Parliament Hill. Virtually everyone who lived through Wednesday’s events would almost certainly agree with such measures.

It is urgent, in fact, that the silos between Senate security, House security and the RCMP be broken down. They are quaint and charming, but have no place in a 21st century security arrangement. In any event, such Hill security measures will not necessarily require new legislation — and if they do, opposition parties and civil libertarians are not girding their loins to object.

Where things can get scary

As for the rest, however, it is a different story. The Conservatives have hinted that they are considering preventive detention and expanded powers to snoop on Canadians with a view to finding out their political views. And that’s where things can get scary.

Giving the spy agency and the police such additional powers can go badly awry.

Those of us who lived through the 1970 October Crisis, during which the Trudeau government imposed the War Measures Act, still remember the massive incarceration of folks whose greatest crime might have been that they had a romantic attraction to revolutionary ideals and heroes, which they enjoyed flaunting at bohemian Montreal bars.

Nick Auf der Maur, who later became a Montreal City Councillor and Conservative federal candidate, was one of those.

He spent time behind bars in 1970, and like most who were swept up under the War Measures Act, was never charged. Michel Brault’s masterful film “Les Ordres” captured something of the spirit of those perilous times. We don’t need a War Measures Act ll in this country.

Above all, we have to hope that those writing new legislation realize that police-state type powers would not be effective against anonymous lone wolves of the sort who committed the acts in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu and Ottawa. Those killers were not, in essence, different from Jason Bourque, who shot and killed three Mounties in Moncton, New Brunswick, last June.

Bourque also makes a garbled claim to higher and more noble political motives. It does not make the Moncton shooter any less — or more — than a criminal, a murderer, whom nobody insists on calling a terrorist.

We had a bad week, last week, in Canada, and two decent, blameless men were needlessly and cruelly killed. But those events do not indicate that we are facing anything resembling an “apprehended insurrection” in Canada.

Any new measures the government might now contemplate must be commensurate with the actual threat.

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