Alexandre Bissonnette, hate and terrorism in Canadian justice

This piece appeared in the Ottawa Citizen on February 14, 2019.

In January 2017 Canada witnessed an event that is thankfully rare, at least in comparison with our southern neighbour. I am referring to a mass shooting, this one at a mosque in Quebec City carried out by a young man named Alexandre Bissonnette. He entered the place of worship during evening prayers and opened fire, killing six men and wounding five, some horribly. He was arrested and charged with several counts of first degree murder and attempted murder. He soon after pleaded guilty and just the other day a judge sentenced him to 40 years in prison.

The judge’s decision, a 246-page verdict which took him nearly six hours to read out, had been criticised on several levels. Many wanted the murder convictions to be carried out consecutively, which would have meant that Mr. Bissonnette would have spent 150 years in prison. As the convict is now 27 he would not have left jail alive had he had his time served consecutively. Others are unhappy with the possibility that a parole hearing will allow Mr. Bissonnette to regain his freedom in four decades (NB parole hearings do not guarantee parole: infamous mass murderer Paul Bernardo had his last October and it was denied).

What I want to focus on is the disappointment that the crime was not labelled as an act of terrorism. Mr. Bissonnette killed those defenceless men out of “a visceral hatred for Muslim immigrants” in the words of the judge. Under Canadian law an act of terrorism is a serious act of violence motivated by political, ideological or religious reasons. Was this mass shooting not a clear example of that? Undoubtedly some are convinced that had the shooter been a Muslim terrorism charges would have been laid under sections 83.1ff of the Canadian Criminal Code.

The matter is more complicated than that. The judge did acknowledge that the crime was one of hate. In Canadian law judges do have the latitude to add to a sentence if s/he believes the crime was motivated by hate (section 718.2 provides that power, while hate speech is covered in sections 318 and 319). Interestingly, I do not think that hate was taken into consideration when the sentence was pronounced: the penalty for first degree murder is 25 years.

The way I see it all terrorism is hatred in one form or another but not all hate crimes are terrorist in nature. It is possible for someone to target another based on gender, ethnicity, creed or race but it is not necessary for there to be an underlying political, ideological or religious motivation.

Secondly, the Public Prosecution Service of Canada (PPSC – also known as the Crown) may have seen no need to enter terrorism charges in this case. That there were six counts of first degree murder was never in doubt. In order to prove that these acts were terrorist in nature the PPSC has to prove that they were carried out for the reasons cited above. This is much harder than it looks. Had Mr. Bissonnette pledged allegiance to a known terrorist group – in this instance far right or neo-Nazi rather than the more often encountered Islamist extremism – that may have altered the Crown’s approach. That evidence does not appear to have been available. Had the case hinged on proving terrorism and the prosecution failed to demonstrate the link beyond a reasonable doubt, the judge may have been forced to issue an acquittal. Imagine what the reaction would have been had a man who killed six people in cold blood been let go.

I understand the feeling some may hold that there is a double standard when it comes to terrorism in Canadian law. Acts of terrorism do cause visceral reactions: fear, terror, anxiety, etc. As a consequence those guilty of such acts should receive the maximum penalty. Mr. Bissonnette’s acts have indeed been punished severely: a 40-year sentence is significant. It was not necessary to introduce the notion of terrorism to arrive at this decision.

Doubtless many will disagree with me and insist that the January 2017 killings were acts of terrorism, and there will continue to be debate amongst security professionals and academics for years to come. In the end, however, the guilty party is paying a high price for snuffing out the lives of six innocent Canadians. There is much merit in the court decision.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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