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Attack on Canadian Parliament Fuels “Anti-Terror” Laws, Ignoring Ties to Mental Illness, Drug Abuse

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As Canada mourns the death of a soldier gunned down while standing guard at the National War Monument in Ottawa, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is pushing new antiterrorism legislation that would expand surveillance and intelligence sharing with foreign governments. In the days since the shooting, the gunman, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, has been identified as a convert to Islam with a history of drug abuse, criminal activity and mental illness. The incident came two days after another violent attack on Canadian troops in Quebec. Martin Couture-Rouleau, also identified as a “radicalized” Muslim convert, drove a car into two soldiers, killing one of them. The incidents have sparked fears of blowback shortly after Canada joined the U.S.-led war against Islamic State militants in Iraq. But the violence has also raised questions about Canada’s treatment of the mentally ill and others on the margins. Zehaf-Bibeau had been dealing with a serious crack-cocaine addiction and living in and out of homeless shelters. On Monday, the Canadian government introduced an antiterrorism measure that was to have been unveiled the same day as the Ottawa attack. We are joined by two guests: Ihsaan Gardee, executive director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims; and Harsha Walia, a social justice activist, founder of No One Is Illegal, and author of the book, “Undoing Border Imperialism.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AARON MATÉ: We begin in Canada, as it grapples with the aftermath of last week’s gun attack on the nation’s Parliament in Ottawa. On Wednesday, a gunman named Michael Zehaf-Bibeau shot and killed Corporal Nathan Cirillo, a soldier guarding the National War Memorial. Zehaf-Bibeau entered the nearby Parliament, where he was shot dead in a gunfight. The attack occurred as Parliament was filled with lawmakers, journalists and staffers, who were forced to hide for hours. The Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper, was just one door away when the shooting broke out. Corporal Cirillo was buried Friday in a national ceremony. A Canadian soldier read a statement from his family.

CAPT. ROBERT ANDRUSHKO: On behalf of our family, we want to say thank you to the entire nation. On October 22nd, we lost a son, a brother, a father, a friend and a national hero. We are not only mourning as a family, but also a country. When we lost Nathan, we all mourned as one. There are no words to express the sadness that has fallen upon us all. We take comfort in knowing Nathan has done our country proud. The support of the nation in this devastating time provides a measure of comfort and helps make this almost bearable.

AMY GOODMAN: In the days since the shooting, the gunman, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, has been identified as a convert to Islam with a history of drug abuse, criminal activity and mental illness. The incident came two days after another violent attack on Canadian troops in Quebec. Martin Couture-Rouleau, also identified as a “radicalized” Muslim convert, drove a car into two soldiers, killing one of them. The attacks have sparked fears of blowback shortly after Canada joined the U.S.-led war against Islamic State militants in Iraq. One witness said Zehaf-Bibeau yelled about Iraq during the shooting. On Monday, Canadian police said Zehaf-Bibeau had made a video referencing Canadian foreign policy and the Islamic faith.

AARON MATÉ: But the violence has also raised questions about Canada’s treatment of the mentally ill and others on the margins. Zehaf-Bibeau had been dealing with a serious crack-cocaine addiction and living in and out of homeless shelters in the weeks before. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has attempted to link the violent incidents to foreign terrorism. In a speech the day after the Ottawa attack, Harper called on lawmakers to increase government powers on surveillance and detention.

PRIME MINISTER STEPHEN HARPER: Last week our government proposed amendments to the legislation under which the Canadian intelligence—Canadian Security Intelligence Service operates. And as you know, Mr. Speaker, in recent weeks I have been saying that our laws and police powers need to be strengthened in the area of surveillance, detention and arrest. They need to be much strengthened. And I assure you, Mr. Speaker, that work, which is already underway, will be expedited.

AARON MATÉ: On Monday, Harper introduced an antiterrorism measure that was to have been unveiled the same day as the Ottawa attack. The measure includes a bolstering of information sharing with foreign intelligence agencies. In an appearance before lawmakers, the head of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Bob Paulson, also called for greater authority to detain and monitor suspects, saying the standards for evidence should be lowered.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we go to Canada. We’re joined by two guests. In Ottawa, Ihsaan Gardee is with us, executive director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims, which helped publish a guide book titled United Against Terrorism: A Collaborative Effort Towards a Secure, Inclusive and Just Canada. And in Victoria, British Columbia, we’re joined by Harsha Walia, a social justice activist, founder of No One Is Illegal, and author of the book, Undoing Border Imperialism.

Let’s go first to Ottawa to Ihsaan Gardee. Can you talk about the attack and the response to it, Ihsaan?

IHSAAN GARDEE: Thank you for having me on the show. The attack came, obviously, as a shock to everyone, including the RCMP, our national police service here in Canada. As the events unfolded, you know, we started getting calls at the office, text messages and so forth. Like everybody else, we were watching with a great deal of concern. And to their credit, for the most part, media, as well as most politicians, were very restrained and balanced in their commentary, because as information came out, there was very little that was known in the early, early hours of the attack—of the attacks, including the one at the War Memorial and the attack on Parliament Hill, about who the shooter was, their background and so forth. Of course, as the hours went by, more information slowly started to trickle out, and we found out, you know, a little bit more about the background of the perpetrator. And it was something that was very scary and that, as I said, came as a shock to all Canadians. There was a shared sense of grief, anger, you know, just these mixed emotions as things developed.

AARON MATÉ: I want to go to Harsha Walia in Victoria. Harsha, you live in Vancouver. You work and organize in the Downtown Eastside. That’s the community where the gunman, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, battled drug addiction and was in and out of homeless shelters. What’s your take on the response to the shooting? And what do you think has been missing from the discussion?

HARSHA WALIA: Thanks, Aaron. Thanks for having me. I think there’s a few things that have been operating. One, of course, is that the dominant discourse is one that’s really racialized and Islamophobic. You know, Stephen Harper, as well as various media pundits, came out right after the shooting and really emphasized that this was Canada’s 9/11, this really hyperbolic, fear-mongering-type response, which led to, you know, really Islamophobic responses, including a number of hate crimes on mosques. And, you know, now we see, as you’ve mentioned, the passing of legislation that’s clearly trying to connect the Ottawa shooting to the war on terror, as well as Canada and other countries’ re-entry into northern Iraq.

At the same time, there’s this parallel reality and equal reality of the fact that Michael lived throughout homeless shelters, spent a brief time in the Downtown Eastside in Vancouver, which is Canada’s poorest neighborhood, where people battle with drug addictions, mental health issues and other barriers related to poverty and being on the street. And so, you know, that’s definitely connected to the fact that there’s a decreasing amount of supports around mental health and for people living in poverty to be supported in their different struggles.

But even in that, I do want to mention that, you know, that kind of lone wolf who’s suffering and battling with mental health issues is really racialized, because Michael—Michael’s adoptive father was from Libya. So, some of the stories that are more explicitly racist tend to emphasize his dad’s connection to Libya, the fact that he was apparently radicalized into Islam, all of those other kinds of narratives that try to link him to so-called radical, political Islam in that Islamophobic response. But even the stories that emphasize his struggles with mental health and addictions, in those stories, because his biological mother is white, they tend to frame him as the lone white man, the white wolf, who’s suffering with mental health. So even that story, I would argue, even though it presents him in a more holistic way, in a more sort of sympathetic light, battling with his different mental health and addictions, even that tends to emphasize a kind of racist discourse as, you know, the lone white man who was lured into radical Islam due to his mental health struggles.

So, I think regardless of the kinds of stories that have come out about Michael, underpinning it is a racialized narrative of how the war on terror has played out, which is a really racist one, one that immediately targets Muslims, you know. And my news feed the day of the shooting was actually filled with a whole lot of speculation about his appearance. And we had reporters reporting on, you know, the fact that apparently witnesses said he looked dark, or he was wearing an Arab scarf. It was almost comical, because some reporters said he looked indigenous aboriginal, others said he looked Latino, others said he looked Arab. So, right away, the kind of racialization and racism that underpins this story, I think, is actually what’s missing, which is, what are the ways in which we as a society and media and government immediately, almost intuitively, tend to link attacks such as this one as quickly as possible and as opportunistically as possible to the war on terror and to Islam?

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to John Horgan, opposition leader with the New Democratic Party in British Columbia. In remarks warning about a rush to expand security laws, Horgan called the Ottawa shootings, quote, “a loss of innocence for our country.”

JOHN HORGAN: As we reflect upon the loss of life today and the loss of innocence for our country, I think we also have to recognize that our democratic institutions must—must—be open and accessible to the people who send us here. As important as security measures will be over the next number of hours and days and weeks, not just here and in Ottawa, but in every legislature in this country, we have to always keep in the forefront of our mind, in the forefront of the decisions that we make around security, that this institution belongs to the people.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to get your response, Ihsaan Gardee, to the media coverage, whether there’s a backlash against Muslims. The Daily Beast said, “Terrorist Ends Canada’s Innocence.” The Telegraph newspaper published a story following the attack, “How an Oasis of Tranquility Became a Breeding Ground for Terrorists.” So, how has this affected the Muslim community? And in your handbook, you have tips for Muslims on how to identify so-called “radicalized” Muslims.

IHSAAN GARDEE: Well, this obviously has affected the Canadian Muslim community, like it’s affected our fellow Canadians. It’s something that we take extremely seriously. And, of course, there’s a natural concern, as you said, regarding a backlash. And as your other guest mentioned, there have been some incidents that have been reported, including vandalizing of mosques. There’s been a mosque in Cold Lake, Alberta, that had bricks thrown through its window and the words spray-painted on it, “Canada” and “Go home,” which the feedback we’re getting from our fellow Canadians is that this is the most un-Canadian of responses to these kinds of events.

As you mentioned, our handbook, which is the United Against Terrorism handbook—I have it here with me—which is available on our website at for download, so any of your viewers and listeners can read that for themselves, really it’s split into five sections. It talks about, for example, as you mentioned, signs and symptoms of individuals who could be becoming radicalized towards extremist violence. It talks about the RCMP and what their role is in national security, helping Canadian Muslim communities across this country understand what their role is in national security and the role of other security agencies. And there’s a section, as well, from our organization, the NCCM, talking about what are the rights of Canadian citizenship, but equally, what are the responsibilities. So there’s a balance there.

Now, this is just one response to this phenomenon, and it was something that actually took place over 14 months, started with conversation cafes that were held in Winnipeg discussing this issue of radicalization towards extremist violence. And it really collected and put together in a handbook all the discussions that came out and the questions that came out to act as a guide for communities across this country. Other initiatives that have and continue to take place include, for example, a conference was held last month in Calgary called ”OWN IT,” directly looking at this topic of radicalization towards extremist violence.

And we have to remember that, you know, the discourse and the dialogue, it’s important—the terminology and how we phrase these things is important, as well. Radicalization, in and of itself, is not necessarily the issue. It’s radicalization towards extremist violence, when the individual makes that distinction that their only choice in terms of expressing their grievance or frustration or venting that is through violent action. Others in the past have been called or perceived as radical. For example, Martin Luther King was called a radical. The protesters in the Vietnam War were called radical. So it’s important that we distinguish between the two and ensure that the conversation is clear.

Again, as your other guest mentioned, as well, there are a number of facets to this issue of radicalization towards extremist violence. You know, search for identity, belonging and so forth certainly seem to play a role. As your other guest mentioned, as well, these individuals, they both seem to come from troubled backgrounds. So, social services has to be a part of the conversation. There’s been indications of mental health issues, so mental health services need to be brought in. And again, we want to be careful there, as well. As was mentioned, we don’t want to stigmatize an already stigmatized community by laying the blame at the feet of any particular cause, until we actually have more research and study into this phenomenon. The Internet and the role of the Internet, certainly not as possibly a causal factor, but it absolutely plays a facilitating role in allowing those who would push out extremist messages of extremist violence and propaganda that targets our most vulnerable and those who are most impressionable.

And we have to remember that while there has been a focus, for example, on converts or on the young, what we have seen from individuals who have been radicalized towards extremist violence—those who have left Canada, for example, to fight overseas—is that they don’t seem to come from any single profile. They’ve come from different socioeconomic backgrounds, different ages. So, as tempting as it is, as tempting as it is—and we understand that desire to have sort of a silver-bullet, magic-potion solution to be able to say, you know, this is the issue—this is a multifaceted problem, a multifaceted challenge, and it’s going to require a multipronged, short-, medium- and long-term approach.

As was mentioned, our government has introduced new legislation to expand the powers of our security agencies, and obviously we’re watching that with a great deal of concern. There’s actually a conference being held in Ottawa tomorrow called “Arar +10,” or 10 years after the Arar inquiry, to discuss how issues of national security and human rights have been dealt with in the wake of 9/11, in the wake of the Arar inquiry, and how we are seeing—

AMY GOODMAN: And just to say—

IHSAAN GARDEE: —greater and greater encroachments on civil liberties and human rights in the name of security—

AMY GOODMAN: Just to say, Ihsaan—Ihsaan, just to—

IHSAAN GARDEE: —and making sure that that discussion is alive and well.

AMY GOODMAN: Just to say, Ihsaan, Arar, you mean Maher Arar, the Canadian citizen who the U.S. ultimately, through extraordinary rendition, got at a U.S. airport, took him when he was coming back from vacation, just transiting through the U.S. to Canada, and sent him to Syria, where he was tortured for almost a year. Ultimately, he was sent back to Canada, and they awarded him millions of dollars, and the U.S. has never apologized for what they did to him.

IHSAAN GARDEE: That’s correct. And that’s just one case, the case of Mr. Arar. There are other cases of Canadians who were detained overseas and tortured—Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad El-Maati, Muayyed Nureddin in the Iacobucci inquiry with Justice Iacobucci; other Canadians like Abousfian Abdelrazik; Canadians who are still being detained abroad, like Huseyincan Celil, who’s being held in China, or Bashir Makhtal, who’s being held in Ethiopia. And these are all cases that we’re continuing to follow and there’s continuing concern about.

And actually, at this conference tomorrow, Justices O’Connor, Iacobucci and Major will be speaking together on a panel, the first time Justice O’Connor will be speaking publicly after the Arar inquiry. And one of the key recommendations that he made, Justice O’Connor, in his report that was produced as result of this inquiry, was for the creation of a comprehensive oversight body for our security agencies. And we’ve received, you know, a lot of assurances from government that the recommendations have been looked at and implemented, but there’s been no transparency, no reporting to ensure that that takes place.

It’s important to remember that, you know, we are—obviously, national security affects all of us, and violent extremism affects all of us. So, we need to all be a part of this discussion, and it can’t be viewed that this is something that is simply or solely the issue or problem of the Muslim community or Muslim communities alone to solve. We need government to be involved in this discussion, security agencies, as I mentioned, mental health services, social services and other levels of society. For example, as I mentioned, this conference in Calgary, we had the University of Calgary participating and saying that they were there, they were wanting to help, wanting to research this phenomenon better so we have a better understanding and so that the solutions and the strategies that are proposed are not simply Band-Aid solutions that will make us look or make us feel better, but may not be effective at all in actually addressing the issues.

AMY GOODMAN: Harsha Walia, as we wrap up, have you seen this attack on the Canadian Parliament being used to justify Canada joining in the U.S. attacks in Canada—in Iraq and Syria?

HARSHA WALIA: Yes, absolutely. I mean, right shortly after the shootings, right after, you know, there was statements by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, as well as the statements by the RCMP, that essentially linked this attack to ISIS and attempted to link it to fighting for the Islamic State, suggesting that Michael wanted to travel to Syria—in some reports, it said Libya, some reports said Syria—although it turns out he wanted to travel to neither country. But so, despite the facts, there’s been an attempt to link the Ottawa shooting to ISIS.

And, of course, this is right at the same time as Canada, as well as the United States, is entering and re-entering into northern Iraq. Canada has sent combat troops on at least a six-month mission to fight in Iraq. And so, there’s no doubt that the Ottawa shooting has provided a really necessary pretext, an ongoing pretext, to justify war and occupation in the Middle East, Canada’s foreign policy in the Middle East, as it follows the United States to go to war, as well as the ongoing war at home, if you will, right, to continue to curtail civil liberties, to continue to surveillance and spy on people.

And I think we really do have to question the logic and the justification given for these security measures, right? Like, it becomes really easy to become apologists for state surveillance. It becomes really easy to play into fear mongering, to play into racism and to really believe this right-wing opportunistic moment, that this is Canada’s 9/11. This is not Canada’s 9/11. You know, the shooting is not Canada’s loss of innocence, if you will. Canada has not been innocent for a very long time in terms of its foreign and domestic policy when it comes to settler colonialism and empire. And so, I think we have to be really attuned and vigilant to the ways that even we, as social justice activists, reproduce and justify the surveillance state. There is absolutely no need for increased surveillance measures. There’s no need to be working with security agencies. I think we need to reject that logic, you know, because violence, in all of its kind of abhorrent forms, exists within a social political context.

AMY GOODMAN: Harsha Walia—

HARSHA WALIA: And so, the root issues—

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much for being with us, founder of No One Is Illegal, author of Undoing Border Imperialism. She has joined us from Victoria, Canada. Ihsaan Gardee is the National Council of Canadian Muslims head in the CBC studios in Ottawa. Thank you so much for both being there.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’ll go to Jakarta, Indonesia. The new president of Indonesia has been inaugurated, and he’s holding his first Cabinet. Who did he choose as his Cabinet members? Stay with us.

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