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UFV professors discuss the consequences of Ottawa attack on national security and civil liberties

One week to the day after the deadly shooting on Parliament Hill, UFV students and faculty gathered at a roundtable discussion to hear three professors speak about national security, the definition of terrorism, and how Canada should respond to the violence in Ottawa and Montreal.

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By Valerie Franklin (The Cascade) – Email

Print Edition: November 5, 2014

Three UFV professors offered different perspectives on Canadian reactions to sudden violence. (Image:  Valerie Franklin)

Three UFV professors offered different perspectives on Canadian reactions to sudden violence. (Image: Valerie Franklin)

One week to the day after the deadly shooting on Parliament Hill, UFV students and faculty gathered at a roundtable discussion to hear three professors speak about national security, the definition of terrorism, and how Canada should respond to the violence in Ottawa and Montreal.

Political science professors Edward Akuffo and Hamish Telford were joined by professor Scott Sheffield from the history department to address a crowd of approximately 50, packing boardroom A225, with audience members perched on side tables and extra chairs when they ran out of room.

Islamophobia is definition-changing

Telford began the discussion with a 10-minute talk titled “Lone-Wolf Terrorism is About Lone Wolves, Not Terrorism.” He noted that “homegrown terrorism” is nothing new. The history of terrorism in Canada stretches back to the rebellions of Upper and Lower Canada, and has often shaped the way the country is governed — yet today the word “terrorism” has been sensationalized, and is used inconsistently. He compared the case of Justin Bourque, who this week was sentenced to life in prison for killing three RCMP officers in Moncton, New Brunswick this summer, to the situation in Ottawa.

“We’re not calling what happened in Moncton terrorism. But we’re calling what happened in Ottawa terrorism,” Telford said. “I don’t think there is a big difference between the two.”

Telford went on to note that terrorism is a “notoriously problematic” term to define, but it’s generally agreed that terrorism is a violent act perpetrated to achieve larger political or ideological goals. In contrast, the killers in Montreal and Ottawa last week were “lone wolves acting out violent fantasies, dressed up with some religious or political rhetoric.”

“Why are we so anxious to classify what happened last week as terrorism, when other horrible events [that] happen with a lot of killing and evidently some political motives are not terrorism?” Telford wondered.

The difference between the two, he argued, is Islamophobia.

“We are afraid of radical Islamic jihad. And that’s why we’re so quick to classify what happened as terrorism … but we can’t allow ourselves to be driven by this fear.” He pointed out that misdiagnosing the problem does nothing to enhance national security, because “we have to get the diagnosis right to get the prescription right.”

Attacks are symbolic

Akuffo offered a different perspective: that perhaps the attacks in Ottawa and Montreal should indeed be “diagnosed” as terrorism. He noted that although the attacker in Ottawa acted alone, the attack took place at two “symbolic locations of state power” (the War Memorial and Parliament Hill), that government officials were the targets, and that the Canadian and American governments are both treating it as an act of terrorism.

[pullquote]“I think it’s easier to harness the fear within people of the terrorism than it is for us to look critically at what causes it.”[/pullquote]

Although Telford noted that the international definition of terrorism is hazy, Akuffo quoted an abbreviated version of the Criminal Code of Canada’s lengthy definition of terrorism as stated in Part II.1, which begins by defining it as “[a violent] act or omission in or outside Canada that is committed in whole or in part for a political, religious, or ideological purpose …”

By this definition, the attack on Parliament Hill may be defined as terrorism. Akuffo also pointed out the role of the government in protecting the public: “[Terrorism] does require a military response because it is linked to the survival of the state and the people,” he said.

But Sheffield expressed concern that the Canadian government may overreact to these attacks, resulting in a loss of civil liberties for individuals.

“Canada’s government is taking on more powers as we speak: to conduct surveillance, to collect intelligence, to arrest and incarcerate its own citizens, to expand security around our public institutions,” he said. “There may be reasonable cause to do so — but we need to maintain our perspective.”

Power can be abused

Sheffield compared the government’s response to the War Measures Act in WWI, which allowed for more efficiency and quicker decision-making, but also sacrificed civil liberties and was used by the government to attack immigrants and organized labour, which were seen as counter to national security.

“We have to be careful,” he warned. “These powers can be abused.”

After the three speakers had each delivered a 10-minute presentation, the floor was opened to comments and questions from the audience.

One audience member suggested that as information about these attacks is filtered through the media, sensationalistic reporting builds fear and Islamophobia. Telford replied that while the media does sensationalize stories in order to draw an audience, this reflects the public’s appetite for that type of reporting. Akuffo agreed.

“It is up to us … to process whatever information is put out there, but we also have to be very aware that there seems to be … a link between government policy and whatever the media [reports],” he said.

Another audience member emphasized the threat of ISIS, stating, “It’s not right to dismiss it as Islamophobia because that is the ideology they’re representing themselves on.”

Privacy and peace at stake

Sheffield responded that while CSIS may need more power to investigate those people, that power should not be used to delve into the private lives of Canada’s citizens. In addition, he noted that instead of blaming ISIS, the government should turn its attention to the failure of the Canadian mental healthcare system to provide treatments like talk therapy to vulnerable individuals before they radicalize.

“ISIS did not mobilize those individuals and get them to attack us,” he said, noting that the media and the government have characterized it that way because “it fits their narrative and helps support the policies they’ve adopted.”

“I think it’s easier to harness the fear within people of the terrorism than it is for us to look critically at what causes it,” observed one student. “I think this is the simplest way for the government as well as the media to deal with it.”

In response, Sheffield advised the audience to read beyond the headlines and think deeply about the situation for themselves.

“Trying to get beyond headlines, beyond provocative questions [on TV], is the best course we have,” he said. “Get multiple sources for your information, and think it through.”

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