Mar 11, 2019

Will increasing political polarisation in Canada lead to an assassination?

This piece appeared in The Hill Times on March 4, 2019.

There is a small plaque on Queen Street in Ottawa, two blocks south of Parliament Hill. It is not that prominent and easy to miss. It commemorates the assassination of Thomas D’Arcy McGee, “considered one of the eloquent of the Fathers of Confederation” (that is what is on the plaque), nearby on April 7, 1868. The event remains, to the best of my knowledge, the only political assassination in Canadian history. Some would cite the murder of Quebec Labour Minister Pierre Laporte by the FLQ in 1970, although that is perhaps better described as an act of terrorism (not that terrorism and assassination are mutually exclusive).

What then to make of recent comments by Canada’s top civil servant, Privy Council Clerk Michael Wernick, when he stated last week (February 21): “I worry about the rising tides of incitements to violence, when people use terms like treason and traitor in open discourse. Those are the words that lead to assassination. I’m worried that somebody is going to be shot in this country this year, during the federal campaign.”

Should we steel ourselves for our second assassination (attempt) in 150 years? Not so fast.

There is no question that politics, always a nasty blood sport at the best of times, is in an even uglier phase right now. We in Canada can perhaps point smugly to the train wreck south of the border under President Trump, as well as the scary populist movements exerting their influence in Europe (from the UK’s Brexit campaign to France’s Gilets Jaunes to whatever it is Hungarian President Viktor Orban is up to these days), but we would be well-advised to look in the mirror as well. We are witnessing a worrying ascent of anti-immigrant, Islamophobic, and anti-Semitic feeling in the Great White North. One need only look as far as the United We Roll protest movement that visited our fair capital last week for such sentiment. The protesters have legitimate concerns about the economy and other issues, but they were infiltrated by those who hold very dangerous views on a number of fronts (to their credit, the organisers of United We Roll did what they could to disavow those views).

But will this rising atmosphere of hate actually lead to violence and even a potshot at a politician during this year’s election cycle? Never say never as a wise person once said. Canadian scholars such as Ryan Scrivens and Barbara Perry have long been warning about the violent words of the far right in Canada and they are worth having a read of, although I do not necessarily agree with their opinion that RW extremism poses a greater threat to our country these days than does Islamist extremism. Our security intelligence and law enforcement agencies would do well to have a scan of the horizon in this regard, keeping in mind the entire landscape of threats and the need to allocate investigative resources appropriately.

It is impossible to rule in or rule out an act of violence during the upcoming election campaign. What is clear is that all Canadians need to take a step back and really think about what kind of society we want to live in. Calls of ‘traitor’ and ‘treason’ leveraged at Prime Minister Trudeau and others are not acceptable and must be shouted down.

In the end, in the unlikely event of an assassination attempt (after all we have not had one in a century and a half) the mantle of responsibility will lie solely on the shoulders of the perpetrator(s). It is difficult to ‘prove’ that a pervasive atmosphere of hate leads anyone to act the way they do. This is not to suggest that we should not work to undermine the aggression and violence-tinged slogans we are encountering. After all, we are Canadians and this behaviour is distinctly un-Canadian.

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting and a former strategic terrorism analyst at CSIS.