What did we learn about Canada in the wake of the Quebec massacre?

It has now been a few weeks since Alexandre Bissonnette walked into the Islamic Cultural Centre in Quebec City armed to the teeth and carried out his cowardly slaughter of six Muslims at isha prayers (yes, this attack, unlike a suicide one, was cowardly since Mr. Bissonnette’s victims had no way to defend themselves AND he didn’t have the temerity to take his own life).  The country reeled at the wanton loss of life and struggled to comprehend why – why a young Quebecois de souche would do such a thing.  As is wont in media, the story has faded from the front pages although for the families of the victims – the widows and fatherless children – it will never fade.

What do we know about this incident at this juncture?  When it comes to the perpetrator the answer is: surprisingly little more than we knew three weeks ago.  To the best of my knowledge he has not yet been charged with an act of terrorism (not that it matters in some ways, but the debate goes on) and he has not told the police much about his motivations (at least not that we can discern from open source).  As I wrote in the days following the murder we may never learn more about why, as frustrating as that may be.

We did learn something else though, something much more valuable.  We learned something about Canadians.  And that something was very positive – a silver lining on a dark day.

Governments worry a lot about resilience, a society’s ability to bounce back from a tragedy.  Whether it is man-made, like a terrorist attack, or natural like a tornado or (more likely in Canada) a major snowstorm that knocks a city sideways for a week or so, we never really know how people will react.  Will all hell break lose?  Will people turn on each other?  Or will the better angels of our nature step in?

I think we have an answer, albeit a partial one.  The response by Canadians to the tragedy was, well, very Canadian.  Politicians of all stripes put aside their politics, at least for a while, to express their profound sadness over the loss of life.  Random people with no links to the victims turned out in the thousands to share their grief and offer assistance to the affected community.  People of other faiths opened up the doors of their places of worship to Canadian Muslims.  Even some of the purveyors of hate on Quebec radio confessed that their vitriol – anti-immigrant, anti-Islamic – is not helpful and should be toned down.  All in all a very heartwarming reaction.

There was no baying for blood, no calls for revenge, no demands for changes in legislation or policy, no ultimatums, no clamour to bomb someone.  Yes, we learned that an underbelly of our land exists and is violent, but no one with any knowledge of what is actually going on raised the spectre of this being a worrisome new trend and the harbinger of more violence.  In other words, we reacted calmly and in a measured way.

Some might say that if six ‘white folk’  had been killed by a ‘brown person’, the reaction would have been vastly different.  Maybe – no one can say with any certainty what would have happened in these counter-factual exercises – but I beg to differ.  The last time a ‘brown guy’ killed ‘white folk’ (back in 2014 when Michael Zehaf-Bibeau killed an unarmed Corporal Nathan Cirillo at the National Cenotaph) the reaction was similar: national mourning and a return to normalcy pretty quickly. Some may argue that the then Harper government took advantage of the killing to rush through draconian security legislation, and they may have something there, but this time feels different.

It is inevitable that in the wake of a tragedy of this magnitude the feeling of togetherness and unity will dissipate. That after all is human nature.  It is also inevitable that more acts of serious violence or terrorism will occur: thankfully those are really rare in our country.  But for a short while Canadians showed each other – and the world – that we are made of sterner stuff. We are not perfect and we have a lot to work on in this nation.  And yet the spirit we demonstrated after January 29 was incredible and we should do what is necessary so that it shines forth the next time this happens.

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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