What should be the price of terrorism in Canada?

Countries treat first degree murder seriously, as they should: why doesn’t Canada when it comes to terrorism?

In earlier periods of our collective human history serious crimes, like murder, were treated seriously – and sometimes swiftly.

Sometimes, in some societies, texts such as ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ (from the Jewish Old Testament) were used to justify the death penalty for those who elected to take another’s life.

These days, the death penalty for crimes of this nature is applied unevenly worldwide. There are nations that still use it – our neighbour to the south (the US) is a good example – while others, like we here in Canada, have elected not to for decades. The last Canadians executed at the behest of the judicial system were Arthur Lucas and Ronald Turpin, who gave up their lives on December 11, 1962 for having killed police officers.

The actual abolishment in Canada of the death penalty was not until 1976, although a moratorium had been put in place since 1967. We have been execution-free since nigh on 60 years.

Interestingly, an early 2020 poll conducted by Research Co. found that 51% of Canadians support the return of capital punishment for murder convictions.

Even those among us who are not in favour of the reinstatement of the death penalty would undoubtedly agree that murder, as well as the conspiracy to commit murder, should be treated seriously in our justice system. Surely there can be no crime more serious than the taking of the life of another human being? In addition, what do we do with mass murder (or conspiracy to commit mass murder)? What about mass murder married with a terrorist motivation? Should THAT offence not receive maximum punishment?

Tell that to the Canadian courts!

Recent decisions are making many of us wonder just what is going through the minds of judges and review panels. Here are two salient examples:

  • Alexandre Bissonnette, who murdered six Muslims at prayer and wounded another five in a mosque in Quebec City in late January 2017 and was given a minimum 40 year sentence, had that sentence reduced to 25 years by an appeals court a few weeks ago. The judges ruled that provisions in the Canadian Criminal Code granting the possibility of additional penalty for mass murder were “degrading, absurd, and hateful”, as well as “unconstitutional”;
  • Convicted Toronto 18 terrorist Shareef Abdelhaleem, given a life sentence for his major role in a 2006 plot to detonate three one-tonne fertiliser-based truck bombs in Toronto and Trenton, has been granted day parole after ‘apologising’ for planning to kill hundreds and wound thousands, despite an assessment that he still poses a threat.

What’s next?

Freedom for Marc Lepine (the 1989 killer of 14 women at the Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal)? Parole for Paul Bernardo (who killed at least two women and raped several others together with his wife in the early 1990s in the Niagara Peninsula)?

This cavalier attitude of some within the court system may start rattling the cages of Canadians. While it is far from clear that a clear majority want a return of the death penalty, if these decisions continue it is possible we will see a rise in pro-capital punishment sentiment. As support is already at half it may not take much to lift it higher.

There is a larger question here as well. Should murder and conspiracy to commit murder for terrorist ends be seen and treated differently than other forms of this crime? Are there significant differences in the effects of these two on society that warrant a distinct approach?

Great questions.

Terrorism is defined in the Criminal Code as an act “in whole or in part for a political, religious or ideological purpose, objective or cause…with the intention of intimidating the public…that intentionally causes death or serious bodily harm to a person by the use of violence (etc., etc., etc.)” Rightly or wrongly we have elected, as societies, to treat it differently than other forms of crime.

This does not have to be this way of course. Whether I kill someone in a fit of passion, to steal a wallet, because I am a nasty person, or to further a ’cause’, murder is murder. In Canada in the time before 9/11 we did not even have terrorism in the Code: murder WAS murder.

Nevertheless, today there is something about the nature of terrorism, be it the random nature of the killing, the propaganda and boasting surrounding many acts, or the sheer scale of those acts (think 9/11), that has led us to extract it from the ‘norm’ of killing. And, while there are arguments that this approach has been counterproductive and less efficient than earlier strategies, it is what we have to deal with now (the debate over when to use a terrorism charge over a murder one is a whole other issue I’d like to return to at some point).

With all this in mind we are now in a period where terrorism is seen as different.

Hence, it is also likely believed that we must treat it differently within the judicial system. Canadians simply want terrorists, perhaps more than ‘garden-variety’ mass murderers (or those stopped before they could commit mass murder), to receive longer sentences.

This, then, is what is at stake in the Bissonnette and Abdelhaleem cases. Courts and boards have taken it upon themselves to render decisions that in all likelihood go against the grain and the will of the majority of Canadians.

We all want courts and their ilk to be independent of governments and public opinion: that is what makes a true democracy after all. Yet, when such bodies go all ‘activist’ they are likely headed for a backlash. These decision makers might want to reconsider before they invite reactions they would not want to see within Canada.

Terrorism is a very serious offence and should be treated as such. Leniency should not be on the table for those who target Canadians to advance their own views with a goal to seeing us cower. Our courts are not doing us any favour when then exercise such leniency.

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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