An earlier version of this post appeared as an op-ed in the Edmonton Journal.
It has been a difficult week in Canada. The shocking deaths of Patrice Vincent and Nathan Cirillo while in uniform, the images of gunfire in Parliament, the sense that a new violence and hatred has struck at the heart of our nation, has left us resolute but shaken. In the days since these tragedies various narratives have taken hold about the new threats and changed realities facing Canada. Some have wondered whether this is the end of Canada’s innocence.
In such a moment, we should remember that our political history has encountered and overcome moments of violence before. Although the present circumstances offer particular challenges and unique and troubling ideological elements, we should resist the impulse to believe that we now live in an unrecognizable world, that we are adrift in a sea with no past. In taking a longer view of our history, we can find the lessons of tolerance and strength, thoughtfulness and perseverance, openness and security that have helped to define our country in previous moments of threat. Terror succeeds when it causes us to forget our history, and our best selves.
The attacks at the federal building outside Montreal, at the War Memorial, and in Parliament last week obviously require us to take stock, evaluate security measures and mental health responses, and assess information sharing among intelligence, police, and the criminal justice systems. But history will remember the fairness, proportionality, and effectiveness of our legal responses as much as the terrible events that gave rise to them.
This is not the first time that a Canadian politician and government institution has been attacked. Some of those threats have been politically motivated; others the products of breakdowns of individual mental health. Often motives are not so easily disentangled. In addition to the domestic and foreign terrorist plots against Canada over the last decade, there is a longer history of threats and violence involving Canadian political figures. Two years ago, gunfire shattered the post-election celebration of Pauline Marois, killing Denis Blanchette and seriously injuring another man. Prime Minister Jean Chrétein faced a knife-wielding intruder in Sussex Drive and, on another occasion, a fake bomb placed near his office in Parliament. You can still see the bullet holes in the Alberta legislature from an armed rampage twenty-five years ago. The FLQ brutally assassinated Quebec Cabinet Minister Pierre Laporte. In Canada’s early years of nationhood, Thomas D’Arcy McGee was shot dead a short walk from Parliament Hill.
Canada’s record when faced with threats to its political leaders and political order has not been perfect. To learn from the past is not only to follow its shining path, but also to avoid its previous mistakes. Discriminatory suspicion and security over-reach negatively influenced law and policy in the wake of the September 11th attacks. History has judged the invocation of the War Measures Act during the October Crisis – tanks and soldiers in the streets and a wide suspension of civil liberties – unkindly. Pierre Trudeau retorting that “weak-kneed” “bleeding hearts” should “go on and bleed” was not his finest moment. The fairness of the trials of those convicted of murdering D’Arcy McGee remains the subject of historical disagreement. And yet, more often than not, outrage and over-reaction have given way to confidence in the rule of law, respect for individual rights, and faith in the due process of criminal procedure.
We have, of course, wisely increased security for politicians and government institutions alike in recent decades, but we have also refused to build security fortresses around our public leaders and houses of government. No legal order provides absolute security from violence. Our constitutional instruments are premised upon individual rights and freedoms, but also a parliamentary democracy in which people have access to their political representatives and the places which make our law.
Three years before he was killed, Thomas D’Arcy McGee argued passionately for the virtues of Canada. “We of the British North-American Provinces,” McGee proclaimed, “want to be joined together, that, if danger comes, we can support each other in the day of trial.” Hopefully the lasting legacy of this terrible week shall be just that: facing down danger together, by refusing to abandon what makes this country great.