The (Un)Peaceable Kingdom? featured image
Security and Democracy

The (Un)Peaceable Kingdom?

Terrorism and Canada before 9/11

David A. Charters October 30, 2008

Canada has a long history of political violence, and it has not been immune to the major trends shaping terrorism in the second half of the twentieth century: decolonization, the Cold War, and the transportation and media revolutions. Those trends gave rise to terrorism that was motivated mostly by nationalism, inspired by a “cult of the guerrilla,” supported by state sponsors, global in reach and impact, and increasingly lethal. However, with few exceptions, Canada’s experience of terrorism was less frequent, less lethal, and less disruptive than those of many other countries. These exceptions include the Front de Libération du Québec campaign (1963-70) and the Air India bombing (1985). Even so, Canada responded firmly, even harshly, to major campaigns of domestic terrorism, an approach that received wide public support. But with the exception of the period of the October Crisis (1970), before 9/11 the Canadian public did not feel vulnerable to terrorism. Thus, even though the security and intelligence community did not share the view, Parliament and the public did not consider counter-terrorism to be a high priority and therefore it lacked a political constituency. As a consequence, Canada’s organizational, legal, and policy instruments have not always been adequate or appropriate to the task of counter- terrorism and may not have kept pace with the changing character of international terrorism.

This historical experience tells us a number of things. First, in the absence of a serious domestic terrorism threat, it will not matter much if the United States feels Canada has not done enough to reduce America’s vulnerability to attacks from Canada. The Ressam case (1999) was an object lesson in this respect. So, even when the threat is intermittent, Canada has to show the United States that it takes the problem seriously. This means giving attention to all aspects of counter-terrorism preparations before a threat emerges, not while it is occurring. Second, we cannot anticipate all possible threats and cover all possible targets. Therefore, we have to manage risk, investing resources against the most likely threats. This puts a premium on security intelligence, but since terrorism can be inspired or guided from abroad, security intelligence cannot solely be focused inward. Canadian politicians, security officials and the public need to consider seriously whether the time has come to bolster our foreign human intelligence collection capabilities. Finally, the federal government cannot take a “go it alone” approach to counter-terrorism, at home or abroad. On the domestic front it requires a whole-of-government effort across institutional boundaries, through all jurisdictions and in the private sector. This will require collaboration. The federal government must take the lead in setting goals and standards and providing funding. It is also essential that the government continue to engage its foreign partners to contribute to collective counter-terrorism security efforts and to ensure that Canada’s interests are protected.

For a country once referred to as “the peaceable kingdom” (Kokotailo 1998), Canada has a remarkably rich history of political violence. From the rebellions of 1837 to the Oka Crisis of 1990, that history has included outright armed rebellion, violent labour unrest, ethno-religious strife, political assassinations and political terrorism (Morton 1991; Pariseau 1973). It is the latter issue that provides the focus of this study.

The first section of this study examines the trends that shaped terrorism globally in the period since 1945. The second section explores the Canadian experience of terrorism during that period, including both domestic incidents and those “imported” in whole or in part from abroad, and illustrates the influence of the global trends. Next, the study identifies the key responses to terrorism, and finally it attempts to assess the impact of terrorist campaigns and the responses to them on Canadian security and democracy.

Canada was not immune to the major trends shaping terrorism in the second half of the twentieth century and up to 9/11. That said, with three exceptions (the October Crisis in 1970, Armenian terrorism in the 1980s and the Air India bombing in 1985), Canada’s experience of terrorism was less frequent, less lethal and generally less disruptive than that of many other countries, such as those in Western Europe. Some possible reasons for the difference are explored in the study’s second section. The prospects for the post-9/11 era are not addressed in this study, but the experience of the last 50 years suggests that Canada is unlikely to be spared the effects of terrorism’s ongoing and emerging iterations.

Canada has responded firmly, even harshly, to major campaigns of domestic terrorism, using both legal and extralegal measures. This is consistent with its historical experience of dealing with other threats to internal security, and it is an approach that has usually received public support. But the legal, organizational and policy instruments have not always been adequate or appropriate to the counterterrorism mission, and may not have kept pace with the changing character of international terrorism.

Terrorism as a Global Phenomenon since 1945

The strategic backdrop

Terrorism did not emerge suddenly and unexpectedly on the world scene in the late 1960s, although it did not appear to attract a lot of attention among the publics (or scholars) of Western democracies before that period (Sloan 2004). As a political weapon in the hands of both states and substate groups, terrorism has a long history, dating at least to Biblical times (Sinclair 2003). But several factors converged to give terrorism particular salience in the post-1945 era, and in particular from the late 1960s to the present.

The first and most influential of these was the decolonization process that lasted from the 1940s to the 1970s. As the colonial powers resisted the end of empire to a greater or lesser degree, national liberation movements turned to irregular warfare to force the imperial powers to leave. As discussed below, terrorism was central to many of those campaigns. Indeed, national liberation was the most common motivational theme among terrorist groups. It also stimulated separatist movements in established countries (Hoffman 2006).

Overlying this first factor was a second. The Cold War added a layer of ideological conflict and great power politics to terrorist and counterterrorist campaigns, often complicating their resolution. Some radical and national liberation groups defined their struggles within a Cold War context. And, as shown later, in a few cases the Soviet Union lent some practical support to terrorist groups. The rhetoric and the support skewed perceptions about the nature and sources of the terrorist threat and how to deal with it. There was a tendency, especially in the Reagan administration, to focus on the state support issue, to blur the distinctions between international terrorism and indigenous insurgencies and between nationalist groups and ideological terrorists whose rhetoric seemed to mimic the Soviet world view. Western — and particularly American — counterterrorism policies were, to some degree, framed within a Cold War context. So the Cold War helped to shape both terrorism itself and Western perceptions of and responses to it.

Finally, terrorists were aided by two technological trends: the transportation and media revolutions, specifically the growth of international air travel and global television coverage (Dobkin 1992; Wilkinson and Jenkins 1999). The transportation revolution facilitated the globalization of terrorism in two ways. It extended the reach of terrorists from one continent to another, and it provided them with accessible “soft targets”: airliners full of innocent passengers whose lives could be traded for political or practical gain. The media revolution, television in particular, allowed globalizing terrorists to speak to a global audience and enhanced their power to coerce governments into meeting their demands. Dramatic footage of masked terrorists and terrified hostages, whether in a plane or in an embassy, gave new meaning to the terrorist concept “propaganda of the deed.” Terrorist actions are always meant to send messages, and TV serves that purpose well, although not always to the terrorists’ advantage. More recently, TV has been supplanted by the Internet, which terrorists use to intimidate their enemies (for example, with images of beheadings), to impress their sympathizers and to recruit and train new adherents (Dartnell 2005; Kirby 2007; Lentini and Bukashmar 2007; Sloan 2004).

Trends in terrorism, 1946-2001

A number of distinct trends arose from this strategic backdrop. First, given the widespread decolonization process, it is not surprising to find that nationalist and separatist movements predominated among terrorist groups. The struggle to assert or defend national, cultural and ethnic identity proved to be the strongest and most common motivation for conflicts that featured terrorism. While Palestinian terrorist groups garnered the lion’s share of media attention, they were hardly unique. Among the many nationalist movements that employed terrorism were the National Liberation Front (FLN) of Algeria, the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) in Northern Ireland, the Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ) in Canada, Freedom for the Basque Homeland (ETA) in Spain, and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE, or Tamil Tigers) in Sri Lanka. And terrorism’s success in some cases, such as that of the Jewish insurgency against Britain in Palestine in the late 1940s, encouraged others to try the same tactics. In the late 1960s, the Palestinian insurgents moved terrorism onto the global stage, where — along with Mao Zedong and Che Guevara — they helped to create what Bruce Hoffman calls “the cult of the guerrilla” (Hoffman 2005). In spite of terrorism’s spotty record of success, this cult has helped to sustain the continued resort to terrorism by groups of all political stripes.

At a time when opposition to American Cold War policies as embodied in the Vietnam War, the threat of nuclear war and disenchantment with other societal issues had already radicalized a few small groups of young European leftists, that cult may have encouraged these groups to turn to violence. From the early 1970s until the end of the Cold War, groups such as the German Red Army Faction (RAF) couched their terrorist actions in leftist rhetoric that excoriated “Western imperialism” and directed their attacks against its symbols. Groups such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) also framed their struggles in ideological terms, and this provided some common ground, encouraging mutual assistance and joint operations. For example, European terrorists trained in Palestinian camps, and in 1977, PFLP terrorists hijacked a German airliner while the RAF held a German businessman hostage, both acts intended to force the German government to release jailed members of the RAF. Such cooperation served as a “combat multiplier” for terrorist groups by enhancing their power and leverage, but it was not a guarantee of success. In fact, the most spectacular joint operations usually ended in disaster for the terrorists (Hoffman 2006).

A second trend, state sponsorship, was a genuine problem, not simply a figment of fevered imaginations during the Cold War. While Soviet-bloc assistance to terrorist groups never reached the proportions suggested by some observers, it was enough to help some campaigns last longer than might have been the case otherwise. The Stasi (the East German secret police) allowed fugitive members of the RAF to find sanctuary in East Germany under its protection, and Carlos the Jackal was given refuge in Hungary. Semtex explosive manufactured in Czechoslovakia was provided to Libya, whence it was dispersed to bombmakers in the Middle East and Northern Ireland. The Soviet secret intelligence service (KGB) transferred arms directly to the PFLP in 1975, and the Polish government allowed the Abu Nidal Organization to earn revenue from a front company in Warsaw (Naftali 2005; Schmeidel 1993). The Bulgarian secret service was implicated in the assassination of the Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov in London in 1978 and is still suspected of being behind the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II because of his outspoken support for Polish resistance to Communist rule (Popham 2006). But as troublesome as it was, with or without Soviet sponsorship, terrorism was incapable of altering the fundamental balance in the Cold War or of influencing its outcome. The Cold War ended for reasons that had nothing to do with terrorism, but when it did, leftist terrorism in Europe lost its rationale and all but evaporated (Hoffman 2006).

Nor was state sponsorship limited to the Soviet bloc. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps was instrumental in strengthening the operational capabilities of the Islamist movement Hezbollah in Lebanon and elsewhere in the 1980s. Sudan and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan gave sanctuary to al-Qaeda. But sponsorship was a two-edged sword for both sponsor and client. While it might give terrorists sanctuary, funds, weapons, training or political support, serving — just as joint operations did — as a combat multiplier, it could also limit their freedom of action or enslave their programs to the agendas of the host states. Likewise, state sponsors gained some strategic benefits, such as the ability to project power and influence with deniability, but it also made them vulnerable to the consequences of their clients’ actions. For financial and domestic security reasons, the Taliban regime hitched its star to the fortunes of al-Qaeda, and for that it paid the ultimate price — defeat — after 9/11 (Byman 2005).

Attacks on civil aviation skyrocketed in the late 1960s, as one group after another hijacked airliners to gain publicity for its cause or to force governments to meet demands in return for the release of hostages. After reaching a peak in 1969, the number of hijackings dropped dramatically as airport security was increased in Europe and North America. In the 1980s, terrorists altered their tactics. There were attacks on airports themselves, such as the Abu Nidal Organization attack on the Rome and Vienna airports in 1985. While hijackings continued in states with less secure airports, terrorists also placed bombs aboard aircraft. That trend peaked with two spectacular attacks: the 1985 Air India bombing, which killed 329 people, and the Pan-Am bombing in 1988, in which 271 people died. In the 1990s, jihadist militants began to target civil aviation. Ramzi Youssef’s “Operation Bojinka” envisioned 12 simultaneous bombings on trans-Pacific airliners, which would have dwarfed the Air India attack by an order of magnitude. In the wake of that foiled plot, al-Qaeda began to contemplate using airliners themselves as weapons, a line of thinking that culminated in the 9/11 attacks (St. John 1991; The 9/11 Commission Report, 2004; Wallis 1993; Wright 2006).

While terrorism inspired, influenced or justified by religion has a long pedigree, it was overshadowed by nationalist and ideological terrorism until the end of the 1970s. But with the passing of the Cold War and the colonial era, and with the inspiration provided by the Iranian revolution, faith-based terrorism began to displace or co-opt terrorism driven by ideology and even by nationalism, at least in parts of the Muslim world. When linked to disenchantment with a range of social trends or problems, the intensity of deeply held religious convictions (which is not exclusive to Islamist movements) seems to generate a predilection for excessive violence. This can be seen not only in the 9/11 attacks, but also in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, carried out by individuals associated with the extremist Christian Identity movement (Stern 2003).

Although considerable attention has been devoted to the potential for terrorist attacks employing exotic mass-casualty or massdestruction weapons — chemical, biological, nuclear and radiological — since the Tokyo subway nerve gas attack in 1995, terrorists have remained conservative in their technical means and targeting. The Jewish insurgents were the first to use vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) (Charters 2006). Hezbollah introduced the suicide bombing technique to the world in 1982, and it has since been emulated by other Islamist or jihadist groups, such as Hamas and alQaeda, as well as by secular nationalist groups such as the Tamil Tigers (Pape 2005). In terms of innovation, the 9/11 model (using airliners as cruise missiles) has been the exception to the rule, so far.

This brings us to the quantitative and qualitative assessment of the impact of these trends. Generally speaking, there was steady growth in international incidents over the 20 years from 1968 to 1988 (Ross 1991). The decline after 1988 could be attributed to a number of factors: the end of the Cold War and the consequent end of ideological terrorism, the renunciation of terrorism by the Palestine Liberation Organization and the shift of the Palestinian struggle toward a more localized insurrection: the intifada. Statistics on domestic terrorism varied from country to country. In Northern Ireland, for example, violence peaked in 1972 and declined steadily thereafter, effectively ending between 1994 and 1998 (Smith 1997). Terrorism in Sri Lanka has increased since the early 1980s, but has experienced peaks and valleys related to the state of the Tamil Tigers’ and the government’s capabilities and progress or regression in peace negotiations. Hard-liners on both sides used terrorism to derail the peace process (Mason 2003).

Offsetting the downward numerical trend since 1988 has been the rising lethality of incidents: attacks have been fewer but deadlier. Until the 1980s, mass-casualty attacks were the exception; since the 1980s, they have become the norm. It is probably fair to suggest that the trend began with the Hezbollah attacks on the US embassy and US Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983. The Air India and Pan-Am bombings were massive for their time, and such attacks had a dramatic negative impact on air travel and the industry. But, as bad as they were, they were dwarfed by many attacks in the 1990s. The first attack on the World Trade Center (1993) and the attack on the Tokyo subway (1995) each yielded few deaths but caused injuries to over a thousand. The embassy bombings of 1998 killed about 270 but injured 5,000. The 9/11 attacks, in which nearly 3,000 died, were the high point that, in terms of fatalities, has yet to be surpassed (Hoffman 1998; Quillen 2002; Wallis 1993).

The final trend to emerge from the last 50 years is organizational. Terrorist groups have always been difficult to identify, track and disrupt. But the tools of globalization — cellphones, automated banking and the Internet — have enhanced the ability of terrorists to travel, move funds, recruit, train and hide (Charters 2005). They do not have to gather in one place to plan or to train. A group can be dispersed, yet dangerous; its individual members, not just the collective, can pose a threat. And their recruitment, training and operations are not limited to a specific area. They may deploy the members abroad or recruit homegrown terrorists within target countries.

Likewise, it is not just that terrorist groups have more lethal tools at their disposal than was the case a half-century ago. What has changed is the ability of terrorist groups to use those tools to greater deadly effect. Scholars and other analysts have come to see them as “learning organizations” that study their enemies’ tactics, identify their weaknesses and adapt their own means and methods to exploit their opponents’ vulnerabilities — structural, cultural and political (Ariely 2007). By the dawn of the twenty-first century, the best terrorists in the world had become formidable opponents indeed.

Canada’s Experience of Terrorism, 1960-2001

Domestic terrorism

A study prepared for the Solicitor General Canada in 1991 identified 366 incidents of domestic terrorism in Canada between 1960 and 1989. Nationalist/separatist events, which occurred mainly in Quebec, accounted for nearly half (47 percent) of these. Incidents inspired by religious issues, which were limited to British Columbia, constituted the next-largest number (33 percent) (Kellett et al. 1991). There were a handful of domestic events over the next decade that ran the gamut from racially motivated assaults to animal rights and anti-abortion terrorism. This section of the study examines only three high-profile campaigns.

When Canadian domestic terrorism is discussed, the campaign that comes to mind first is that of the FLQ. This is hardly surprising; its political significance is undeniable. But it was not the first postwar terrorist campaign. That “honour” belongs to a faith-inspired group: the Doukhobor-based Sons of Freedom (SOF). The Doukhobors were a religious sect that had migrated from Russia in 1899 and settled first in Saskatchewan, then in the British Columbia interior. The reclusive group emphasized pious, pacifist, self-sufficient communal living and resented outside interference. But divisions over doctrine, land registration and the issue of assimilation led to a split and the emergence of a more militant wing: the Sons of Freedom. As early as the 1920s, they engaged in arson and sabotage, both within the community and against outside influences such as the railway. In 1947, the SOF was expelled from the Doukhobor church and became marginalized. But the provincial government under W.A.C. Bennett in the early 1950s took a more confrontational approach to the problem, making itself the target of violence. When the church decided in 1960 to buy back land confiscated earlier by the BC government, violence revived briefly. It peaked in 1961 at 52 incidents, dropping to 35 by 1963, becoming negligible after that. The SOF fire-bombed the homes and property of other Doukhobors, and bombed the railway and energy transmission networks, but it did not target people. Consequently, while costly in material terms, the SOF campaign inflicted very few casualties.

Although the SOF movement as a whole involved some 2,500 people, only about 200 were involved in terrorism. But the close-knit nature of the community made it difficult for authorities to identify the perpetrators until one member confessed. This led to a series of confessions, arrests and convictions, although some were later overturned. That broke the back of the SOF movement, although terrorist actions continued sporadically over the next two decades (Kellett et al. 1991).

Just as the SOF campaign was winding down, the FLQ launched its first attacks: bombings of mailboxes and armouries — symbols of the anglophone and federal presence in Quebec. The social and political background to the campaign is well known and need not be recounted in detail here. It included the lingering memory of historical injustice arising from the Conquest, the reality of disparity in economic and political power between English and French in Quebec, a growing sense of Québécois national identity, the impact of modernization and urbanization that preceded and accompanied the Quiet Revolution of the early 1960s and the example of national liberation movements overseas. The latter inspired a small number of radicalized nationalists to emulate the Algerian and Cuban revolutions. They formed the FLQ to carry out an armed political struggle leading to the creation of an independent Quebec.

The result was an eight-year campaign (consisting mostly of bombings of symbolic targets) that culminated in the October Crisis of 1970. Carried out by loose networks of “café society revolutionaries,” intellectuals, students and workers whose talk of terrorism and revolution was more threatening than their actions, the FLQ’s campaign might be described fairly as amateurish. Indeed, except for the October Crisis of 1970, FLQ terrorism was notable for the absence of the cold-blooded and determined ruthlessness that was the hallmark of groups like the FLN and the PIRA. It caused few deaths and relatively little material damage (Charters 1997).

However, that it happened at all caused great unease in Canada, especially among Anglo-Quebecers. And because it struck at the central political issue of the day — Quebec’s place in Canada — the FLQ’s campaign gained much greater salience than might otherwise have been the case. The fear that it generated and the political concern that it caused were disproportionate to the FLQ’s size and real capabilities. In that sense, the FLQ succeeded as a terrorist group in spite of its amateurism and incompetence.

Nothing demonstrated this better than the October Crisis. It began on October 5, 1970, when a small FLQ cell kidnapped the British diplomat James Cross in Montreal, then issued demands for the release of jailed members and for the publication of the FLQ’s manifesto. Five days later, a second cell escalated the crisis by abducting Quebec labour minister Pierre Laporte. The crisis reached its apogee on October 15-16 with the deployment of troops to aid the police and to protect vital points; the proclamation of the War Measures Act, giving the police extraordinary powers; and a wave of arrests of suspected FLQ members and sympathizers. The following day, Laporte was found dead, murdered by his captors (following an attempted escape, it was determined later). In spite of the fact that the two kidnappings were uncoordinated, improvised and poorly planned, the FLQ’s singular success was its ability to project an image of strength and power where the substance was completely lacking. Ironically, that very success was its undoing. The two kidnappings, the FLQ’s skilful use of the media to communicate its message, a flurry of rumours and the sense that the situation could spiral out of control persuaded the federal government that the movement was larger, more widespread and potentially more dangerous than it was in fact. The government decided to act firmly to prevent further deterioration of the situation. That, and the group’s grotesque murder of Laporte, brought the crisis to a dramatic end and support for the FLQ evaporated (Charters 1997).

With the exception of a few isolated incidents, the remainder of the decade was free of domestic political violence. Then, for a few months in 1982, Canada briefly experienced a taste of the kind of ideologically driven terrorism that had plagued Western Europe since the early 1970s. A small group, calling itself Direct Action (DA) and known colloquially as the Squamish Five, carried out a few attacks, mostly in British Columbia. DA opened its campaign in May 1982 with the bombing of a BC Hydro substation, causing several million dollars’ worth of damage. Its most dramatic attack, however, was the October bombing of a Litton Systems plant in suburban Toronto, which injured five persons. The campaign ended when the Squamish Five were arrested in January 1983 (Kellett et al. 1991).

Direct Action’s ideology and actions were consistent with trends in terrorism in Western Europe. It articulated a mix of grievances that included the nuclear arms race, environmental degradation, denial of women’s rights and capitalist exploitation. For example, DA attacked Litton because it worked on cruise missiles. There was nothing remarkable in this; it was part of the playbook of radical activism of that time. DA’s actions and targets were similar to those of the “Euroterrorists”; even its name was similar to that of the French group Action Directe, perhaps deliberately. Its members certainly saw themselves as part of a global struggle and were undoubtedly inspired by the words and deeds of similar groups elsewhere, but had no known ties to them.

However, while the two bombs were powerful and showed some sophistication, the group itself, which consisted of a single cell of five people, was amateurish — more hippie lifestyle than hardened terrorists. Once the police identified the members, they followed them for two months without the surveillance being detected, in spite of the fact that the five were certain that they were being followed. For all their paranoia and bravado, they walked right into a police roadblock and were arrested without a struggle. Like the FLQ’s, DA’s singular success was in drawing attention to itself. Media coverage before its capture suggested that Direct Action was a bigger and more dangerous movement than it was. The trial was a media circus but revealed that the group really was small and pathetic. While many people might have identified with the issues the five espoused, they did not have enough support to rebuild the movement. Once in jail, they largely faded from view, and no other group arose to continue Direct Action’s campaign (Bernard 1984; Gray 1983).1

Importation of homeland conflicts

As noted earlier, Canada has not been immune to global trends in terrorism and at various times has served as a battleground for imported conflicts that manifested themselves in terrorism. Between 1960 and 1989, 62 “imported” terrorist incidents occurred in Canada (Kellett et al. 1991). Perhaps a half-dozen more originated within Canada between 1990 and 2001 (Canadian Security Intelligence Service 2000).

The first of these campaigns, which occurred mostly in the 1960s, was ideological in nature, a by-product of the Cold War. The Cuban revolution of 1959 had created a sizable community of anti-Castro Cuban refugees in the United States and a smaller group in Canada. Unlike the US, Canada maintained diplomatic relations with the new regime, a fact resented by many expatriates, some of whom had served in or had benefited from the corrupt and repressive Batista regime that Castro had overthrown. As Cuba became a focus of Cold War tensions, culminating in the missile crisis of 1962, a few anti-Castro extremists (probably based in the US) carried out terrorist attacks in Canada, at least in part to protest Canada’s ongoing relationship with Cuba. The result was three brief waves of attacks: in the mid-1960s, in the early 1970s and in 1980, after which all such attacks ceased. In total, the 12 incidents resulted in one death, several injured persons and extensive property damage on a few occasions but never posed any significant threat to Canadian society or security. A combination of effective police work in Canada and the US, the opening of dialogue between the Cuban government and exile communities, and loss of ideological momentum as the expatriates integrated into their host societies brought the campaign to an end (Kellett et al. 1991).

But just as this campaign fizzled out, another international campaign — this one nationalist in character — reached Canada’s shores. Armenian expatriates had turned to terrorism in the 1970s to demand the creation of an Armenian homeland and to protest the refusal of Turkey and the rest of the world to acknowledge the Turkish genocide against the Armenians during the First World War. Two groups emerged in the 1970s: the left-leaning Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA) and the right-wing Justice Commandos of the Armenian Genocide (JCAG), later known as the Armenian Revolutionary Army (ARA).

Between 1982 and 1985, individuals associated with these groups carried out five attacks against Turkish targets (and one against a Swiss target) in Canada, and attempted one against a Canadian target in the US. There were also reports that individuals claiming to represent Armenian extremist groups extorted funds from Armenian Canadians. Several of the attacks were serious events. The JCAG claimed responsibility for the assassination of the Turkish military attaché in Ottawa in 1982, and its rival — the ASALA — claimed the attempted assassination of another Turkish diplomat earlier that year. That diplomat was seriously wounded. The most serious attack occurred in Ottawa in 1985, when three armed men claiming to belong to the ARA used a van and explosives to smash into the Turkish embassy in Ottawa. They killed a security guard and seized 11 hostages, but the ambassador escaped capture. The attackers surrendered after four hours. The attaché’s assassin escaped, but the embassy attackers and others who had assaulted diplomats, all residents of Canada, were tried, convicted and sentenced to prison for periods ranging from nine years to life. There were no more Armenian-related attacks on Canada (or elsewhere) after 1985, for a variety of reasons, including the loss of their base in Beirut, factional infighting, the arrest of a key leader in France and the assassination of another in Athens, and the creation of an independent Armenia following the collapse of the Soviet Union (Gunter 2005; Kellett et al. 1991).

Although these attacks did not pose a serious threat to Canadian society as a whole, they were (or perhaps, in retrospect, ought to have been) a wake-up call. Although the Armenian dispute was imported, most of the participants in the Canadian attacks were local. In the current vernacular, they were homegrown terrorists fighting in Canada on behalf of one side in a foreign conflict. They were not the last to do so. In fact, it was as the result of other homegrown extremism that Canada experienced its worst terrorist act: the Air India bombing. On June 23, 1985, 329 people, mostly Canadians of Indian extraction, were killed when a bomb brought down their plane off the coast of Ireland. Almost simultaneously, a bomb blew up at Narita airport in Japan, killing two baggage handlers. These bombings, including the single most deadly terrorist attack before 9/11, were allegedly carried out by a small network of Sikh extremists based in Canada, in retaliation for Indian government attacks on Sikh militants, especially an assault on the Sikh shrine in Amritsar called the Golden Temple. The impact on the IndoCanadian community was nothing short of devastating (Rae 2005; Razavy 2006). The Air India bombing was the last major terrorist attack originating in Canada before 9/11 that directly affected Canadians. Plots and alleged plots have been uncovered in the years following 1985.2

Terrorism against Canadian interests abroad

Terrorism against Canadian interests abroad was rare before 9/11. A Department of National Defence study published in 1988 identified only 14 such incidents from 1968 to 1987. A revised and extended chronology (to 1992) doubled the total to 28 (Kellett 1988; Thompson and Turlej 2003). Canadians or Canadian interests were singled out in less than half of these incidents; the rest were attacked incidentally, often simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. That also appeared to be the case in the few attacks from 1993 to 2001. Six Canadians were killed in these incidents abroad, none of which was politically or otherwise significant for Canada. Canada was not the target of any sustained campaign overseas. But the perpetrators, targets and attack methods were consistent with global trends in the period.

Terrorist support activity

Although less visible than violence, support activity has been a regular feature of terrorism in Canada. It encompasses fundraising, recruitment, political lobbying, propaganda, acquiring supplies, operational planning and intimidation of opponents. Terrorist groups such as ASALA, the PIRA, Sikh extremists and the Tamil Tigers used Canada as a base to raise funds and recruit supporters, sometimes quite blatantly, and to launch operations (Bell 2004; Kellett et al. 1991; Second Special Committee of the Senate on Terrorism and Public Safety 1989; Senate Special Committee on Terrorism and the Public Safety 1987). Concern about such activities came to a head in December 1999 when Ahmed Ressam, a jihadist from Algeria who entered Canada as a refugee claimant, was arrested trying to enter the US from Canada. His car held explosive materials, and he later confessed that he had planned to set off a bomb at Los Angeles airport. He was part of a wider effort to conduct a series of attacks on American interests that month. Furthermore, in spite of being in Canada under false pretenses and engaging in criminal activity, he had evaded arrest, had developed a false identity to acquire a Canadian passport and had used it to travel to al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan. Since al-Qaeda had blown up two US embassies in Africa in 1998, and the US intelligence community was on high alert for signs of al-Qaeda activity at the turn of the millennium, Ressam’s plan set off alarm bells in the US. His case would take on added, if misguided, significance two years later as American politicians and media commentators conflated his plot with the 9/11 attacks and suggested that the hijackers had entered the US from Canada (Bell 2004; Roach 2003). In a 2000 report, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) estimated that as many as 50 foreign groups were carrying out support activity inside Canada (CSIS 2000; Thompson and Turlej 2003). However, this number may have been overstated; even the total number of groups officially designated terrorist entities by the United States, Canada, Britain and the European Union does not reach 50. Nevertheless, taken together with the Ressam case, the CSIS report lent weight to the argument that Canada had become a haven for terrorists.

Canadian Government Responses to Terrorism

As suggested earlier, the Doukhobor SOF campaign posed a difficult challenge for the police until individual confessions unravelled the network of conspirators. From that point on, the judicial process took over. A large number were prosecuted and the violence declined to minimal levels, although it did not disappear completely. Likewise, the Cuban exile terrorist problem was solved by police work, mostly in the United States.

The FLQ, however, posed a problem of a different order and significance, since its terrorist campaign was sustained, frequent and directed — at least symbolically — at the very existence of Canada. Initial responses were both defensive (protection of likely targets — federal properties — in Quebec) and offensive in the policing domain. The Combined AntiTerrorist Squad (CATS), drawn from the RCMP and Montreal and Quebec police, was established in 1964 to coordinate investigations of the FLQ, to determine priorities and assign tasks, and to exchange information and evaluate the information obtained. The CATS repeatedly demonstrated its effectiveness in breaking up FLQ cells. However, the very informal nature of the FLQ itself — it was an idea that manifested itself as a movement of like-minded individuals rather than an organization — made it difficult for police measures alone to defeat the FLQ. New cells emerged spontaneously to replace those neutralized by arrests.

That Canada came out of the October Crisis shaken but otherwise relatively unscathed owed as much to good luck as to good management. A 1969 cabinet memo observed that the federal government did not have a policy to counter the separatist movement. Furthermore, uncoordinated intelligence efforts left the government poorly informed on the FLQ and its strategy. It had no contingency plans, and as late as January 1970 the cabinet did not know how to request military aid (Maloney 2000).

Prompted by a grim RCMP Security Service assessment of the FLQ threat in July 1970, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau asked his advisers to prepare a study on a counter-FLQ strategy, which was not presented to cabinet until two weeks after the start of the crisis. The study offered a politically sophisticated three-phase strategy designed not just to defuse the immediate crisis, but to initiate a long-term program to preserve Canadian unity (Maloney 2000). By the time the document appeared and was approved, however, the crisis had already peaked.

Troops had been deployed, the War Measures Act proclaimed and people arrested — all without benefit of an overarching policy or strategy. With the Quebec government under intense pressure and criticism during the crisis (Tetley 2007), the federal Cabinet Committee on Security and Intelligence gradually assumed the lead decision-making role. Since the Chief of the Defence Staff was out of the country, the Vice-Chief, General Michael Dare, fulfilled the military command role and served as the military adviser to the cabinet. The Prime Minister himself set the tone for the federal response. When asked how far he would go to face down the FLQ, Trudeau replied, “Just watch me” (Charters 1997).

Sean Maloney argues that the deployment of troops in Montreal and elsewhere as “a symbolic show of force” (the phrase used in the operations order) was a calculated risk, because the forces were not prepared for a prolonged counter-insurgency campaign — had the FLQ launched a protracted armed struggle. Indeed, the army’s operations revealed a host of operational, communications, training, command and control, and logistical shortfalls, over and above the shortage of troops. Troops in Quebec operated under the authority and direction of the provincial police. But in spite of the creation of a joint police-army headquarters, coordination did not proceed smoothly, since the two organizations had no experience working with each other. Certain army doctrines and procedures developed for conventional and peacekeeping operations were transferable to internal security operations, but the military generally lacked an internal security doctrine (Charters and LeBlanc 1989; Maloney 2000). The army’s capability to deal with any kind of unrest was limited almost exclusively to lethal force, although some riot control training was undertaken hastily. Thus it is just as well that, after whipping up a crowd of pro-FLQ supporters in a rally at the Paul Sauvé Arena, Pierre Vallières then urged them to go home, for a confrontation in the streets with the army could only have ended badly (Charters 1997; Tetley 2007). In short, the October Crisis was a near thing.

Reg Whitaker has effectively demolished the argument that the crisis represented an intelligence failure. He points out that the RCMP Security Service had warned the federal government months in advance about potential FLQ kidnapping plots, and that it was the RCMP’s skilful investigative work that ultimately freed Cross and led to the capture and prosecution of Laporte’s killers (Whitaker 1993).

Still, the intelligence effort was not problem-free. The crisis occurred at an inopportune time within the Canadian intelligence community. The previous year, the Mackenzie Royal Commission on Security had recommended the creation of a civilian security service and a security secretariat. The former would conduct counter-subversion operations (the term counterterrorism was not used in the royal commission’s report) and the latter would devise security policies and supervise their implementation (Royal Commission on Security 1969). The Security Service had just been reorganized into a civilianized branch within the RCMP when the October Crisis occurred, but its first director general, John Starnes, was hospitalized at the outset of the crisis. So the new service found itself leaderless at its moment of greatest need (Starnes 1998). In addition, the intelligence process suffered from a number of problems that reduced its effectiveness. In the spring of 1970, the CATS had begun preparing contingency plans to deal with political kidnappings. But, according to the McDonald Commission, which investigated RCMP actions during and after the crisis, the CATS was marginalized during the crisis by interservice turf wars and ceased to function effectively after Laporte’s abduction. Cooperation was also hampered by RCMP suspicions that the Quebec police had been penetrated by the FLQ and thus could not be trusted with sensitive information, a situation that inevitably hampered investigations.

Furthermore, the decision taken to investigate all possible leads swamped the intelligence system with trivia and false sightings (Commission of Inquiry Concerning Certain Activities of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police 1981). At the strategic level, the federal cabinet seemed disinclined to listen to RCMP Commissioner Len Higgitt, who — before proclamation of the War Measures Act — cautioned ministers not to overstate the size and strength of the FLQ. In contrast to the sobering assessment of the scale of the movement presented during the summer, he asserted that initial arrests could be limited to 68 “hardcore” FLQ members. He also argued that the police did not need additional powers to deal with the crisis. But in all of this he was overruled; hundreds were arrested and emergency powers were used. And in the aftermath of the crisis, the Security Service was effectively given carte blanche to quash the armed separatist movement once and for all, leading to excesses and inquiries whose consequences will be addressed later (Cabinet Committee on Security and Intelligence 1970; Commission of Inquiry Concerning Certain Activities of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police 1981; Whitaker 1993).

If there was one benefit that came out of the October Crisis, it is that it sensitized the government to the need for contingency planning in the counterterrorism field. To fulfill that task, and as recommended by the Mackenzie Royal Commission, a security planning and research group was established in 1971 within the Department of the Solicitor General. The following year, General Dare conducted a study of crisis management capability within the federal government. His principal recommendation, which was accepted, was to adopt the “lead minister” concept — designating a specific cabinet minister to assume responsibility for coordinating government responses to a crisis. As part of a widespread review of the Canadian intelligence community, the government also created two new subcommittees to the Interdepartmental Committee on Security and Intelligence (ICSI): the Intelligence Advisory Committee (IAC) and the Security Advisory Committee (SAC). The IAC would collate, review and disseminate intelligence analyses to appropriate authorities within government, while the SAC would review government-wide coordination and advise the ICSI on security policy and efforts. The SAC had a subcommittee on counterterrorism, on which all the relevant departments and agencies were represented (Davidson Smith 1993; Senate Special Committee on Terrorism and the Public Safety 1987).

These initiatives were given additional salience by the terrorist attack on the 1972 Munich Olympics just as Canadian security preparations for the 1976 Montreal Olympics were getting under way. Consequently, security planning for that event was careful and thorough, including designation of a lead ministry and minister; development of a national security plan; the creation of an inter-agency public safety committee in charge of planning and running the security operation; extensive preparations and deployments of military forces to provide site, border, route and airspace security and secure communications; the creation of forums for intelligence sharing; and training and testing of forces and plans. At least some of the arrangements instituted temporarily for the Olympics were later formally adopted as best practices with the designation in 1976 of the solicitor general of Canada as the lead minister responsible for coordinating the federal response to terrorist and similar incidents (Charters and LeBlanc 1989; Senate Special Committee on Terrorism and the Public Safety 1987).

However, in the wake of the terrorist attacks on Turkish diplomats in Ottawa in the early 1980s, the government conducted another internal review of its counterterrorism capabilities. The review recommended the establishment of a national counterterrorism program and the creation of a single centre that would integrate all federal government interests, policy, planning and coordination activities needed to implement the program. The Department of the Solicitor General was redesignated in 1984 as the focal point for planning and coordinating the federal government’s counterterrorism activities. This made policy and administrative sense given that the department was responsible for both the RCMP and the newly created Canadian Security Intelligence Service, whose mandate included counterterrorism.

The department’s efforts were concentrated in a new Security Planning and Coordination Directorate. And since the department was tasked to coordinate crisis management of terrorist incidents within Canada, a crisis centre was established. In a terrorist incident, it was supposed to coordinate the activities of all federal departments and agencies involved, communicate with political authorities, serve as an intelligence “fusion centre” and handle public information activities arising from the incident. In 1986, the RCMP created a Special Emergency Response Team (SERT) to respond to violent events beyond the capabilities of local police forces. And following the Air India bombing, Transport Canada instituted baggage matching to ensure that bags could no longer travel unaccompanied, thereby reducing the risk of a repeat of that attack (“Baggage Matching System Picked for Airport Security” 1987; Farson 2005; Rae 2005; Senate Special Committee on Terrorism and the Public Safety 1987).

In 1987, in response to a Canadian Senate committee report that suggested serious gaps remained in Canada’s counterterrorism efforts, the federal government appointed a Counter-Terrorism Task Force led by Major-General (Ret.) Ron Cheriton. Its mandate was to examine “machinery of government” issues in the counterterrorism field, including coordination and cooperation within the federal government and between federal, provincial and municipal levels of government. In its April 1988 interim report, the task force identified four major needs: an effective organization to coordinate development of the national counterterrorism program and to manage it; improved integration and coordination of policy direction and police operations during an incident; more intelligence support during a crisis; and testing and improving the response system by means of training and exercises. The task force proposed three solutions: creation of a central coordinating body within the solicitor general’s department; the drafting of a National CounterTerrorism Plan (NCTP) to deal with terrorism and respond to incidents; and the creation of joint intelligence cells during each incident to support on-site commanders and policy-makers (Second Special Committee of the Senate on Terrorism and Public Safety 1989).

To its credit, the government acted quickly on the task force recommendations. First, the National Security Coordination Centre (NSCC) was established in March 1989 within the Police and Security Branch of Solicitor General. It was given the tasks of managing the national counterterrorism program and coordinating responses to a terrorist incident inside Canada. To that end, during a crisis the NSCC would stand up its operations room and serve as the national policy centre to assist the police dealing with the incident. The NSCC also provided secretariat functions for the SAC, a small research section and an exercise division to test and improve the system. Second, the task force drafted the NCTP, which was approved by the ICSI in January 1989 and then sent to cabinet for approval. The plan delineated responsibilities for handling terrorist incidents. The lead minister approach was modified; the solicitor general remained responsible for events occurring inside Canada, while the secretary of state for external affairs was designated to deal with incidents affecting Canada abroad. In that regard, the government recognized that the RCMP’s SERT had no authority to act in terrorist incidents affecting Canadian interests overseas. Given this and a desire to cut RCMP costs, the government decided in 1992 to reassign its mission to the Canadian Forces, which had already created a special counterterrorism unit: Joint Task Force 2 (JTF2). The military unit could be used inside Canada under the “aid to the civil power” provisions of the National Defence Act and could be deployed abroad under routine military operational policies and procedures (“Anti-Terrorist Special Squad to Be Created by the Military” 1992; Davidson Smith 1993; Pugliese 1993; Second Special Committee of the Senate on Terrorism and Public Safety 1989).

Still, several significant gaps in Canadian capabilities remained before 9/11. By the mid-1990s CSIS was devoting greater attention and more resources to counterterrorism efforts, but it was doing so at a time of fiscal restraint and shrinking resources. Between 1992-93 and 199899, CSIS lost 27.5 percent of its personnel, and it had regained only 3.5 percent by 2001. Furthermore, as late as 1999, the NCTP was still in interim status; its authors had not fully resolved jurisdictional issues between the counterterrorism roles of federal, provincial and municipal authorities and their police forces (CSIS 2001; Special Senate Committee on Security and Intelligence 1999).

The Impact of Terrorism and the Responses on Canadian Security and Democracy

Although Canada’s experience has paralleled global trends in terrorism, with two exceptions (the October Crisis and the Air India bombing), it was fortunate to have escaped the worst ravages of the phenomenon itself in the pre-9/11 era. Generally speaking, terrorism in Canada was notable for its amateurism and its relatively minor impact on Canadian society. This raises a significant question: why was that the case?

It is almost impossible to prove why things don’t happen. Attempting to assess Canada’s relative lack of serious terrorism takes us into the realm of speculation rather than hard analysis. Location undoubtedly was a factor. Europe’s proximity to the Middle East probably facilitated the spillover of terrorism from one region to the other; Canada is much farther away. Europe also housed a huge expatriate population among which terrorists could find significant numbers of supporters and safe haven. But it is probably fair to suggest first that the fundamentals of Canadian democracy — tolerance of dissent, freedom of speech, freedom of association, the electoral option — made terrorism unappealing. It is pretty hard to mobilize people to engage in extreme violence in a political milieu that is the very antithesis of oppression. Second, because of the democratic milieu and in spite of having a history replete with episodes of political violence, it can be argued that Canada has never developed a culture of violent militancy. Violent extremism is quite simply an alien concept to the vast majority of Canadians. As a consequence — and this is a third explanation for why terrorism has made little headway in Canada — Canadian political culture is intolerant of political violence and is willing to sanction its suppression, even at the temporary cost of some liberties (Torrance 1986). These attitudes might be explained by the fact that Canada has been populated by many groups and communities that fled extremism in their native countries and do not wish to repeat the experience. Likewise, their descendants have largely assimilated into a culture where extremism and political violence are the exceptions rather than the norm.

These are appealing arguments, but they fail to explain the occasional actions of homegrown terrorists who emerged from the Canadian mosaic during the pre-9/11 era and who sometimes perpetrated terrorist acts on behalf of imported causes. Why did the strengths of Canadian democracy not prevent their turn to violence? First, their wars were not with Canada, but with foreign powers. Their attacks against Canada were incidental to their campaigns, and our democratic strengths actually facilitated their activity. The security authorities do not have the power, resources or mandate to watch all persons at all times. Clandestine groups can operate below the radar without being detected. Second, as an open society, Canada cannot prevent the spread of violent ideas. Freedom of speech means that extreme attitudes about the causes of a homeland conflict, what to do about it and how, can be propagated without interference — especially, for example, within the confines of a religious institution. Third, and related to the previous point, Canada has never insisted that immigrants “park their war at the door” when they arrive; it is simply assumed that they will. Indeed, the vast majority do so.

However, once a sizable expatriate population becomes concentrated in a particular area, cultural and language barriers and, in some cases, mistrust of authorities based on homeland experience can create a sanctuary for extremists that hinders investigation of subversive activity. In such circumstances, a small number of extremists can achieve critical mass while blending in with their cultural community, safe in the knowledge that those who sympathize with them (or fear them) will protect them from the prying eyes of the state. The Air India plot and the difficulties the police encountered during the investigation of it make this point abundantly clear. While this argument might be construed — and criticized — as an attack on multiculturalism or on an open immigration policy, it is neither. It is simply an acknowledgement that an open society is not a risk-free society.

It is often argued that terrorism can be defeated — or at least contained — only by addressing its root causes (“Gephardt” 2004; Richardson 2006). This argument proceeds from the assumption that terrorism is a form of social pathology that is somehow “curable.” The author does not accept this perspective, but takes the view — also widely shared among terrorism experts — that the use of terrorism within a conflict is a matter of rational choice about which tactic or strategy will work. Certainly, there is little evidence from the cases examined in this study to suggest that terrorism involving Canada was contained or defeated by addressing root causes. The Sons of Freedom campaign was effectively ended by the conviction and incarceration of the perpetrators. The same methods quickly stopped Direct Action’s activities in their tracks. The FLQ campaign was defeated by harsh countermeasures during the October Crisis and intelligence and disruption actions afterward. The FLQ’s murder of Pierre Laporte effectively discredited the movement, even among Quebec separatists. To the extent that the Canadian government tried to address the root causes of Quebec nationalist discontent by repatriating the Constitution, by later attempts at constitutional reform and with other measures such as promoting bilingualism as national policy, these occurred years after the FLQ had already disappeared. They may have prevented a recurrence, but in the absence of evidence to that effect, one can only speculate.

Nor did Canada contain imported terrorism by addressing the root causes, since the issues that gave rise to political violence in these instances were beyond the control of Canada. The anti-Castro Cuban terrorist problem faded for reasons explained earlier; these had nothing to do with root causes, and Canada’s contribution to its demise was limited to law enforcement. The Armenian terrorist movements collapsed mainly from internal disputes long before an independent Armenia emerged and 20 years before the Canadian Parliament passed a resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide (“Canadian Parliament Recognizes Armenian Genocide” 2004). The Khalistan (Sikh nationalist) conflict originated and was fought mostly in India, and was contained there largely through a harsh Indian counter-insurgency campaign (Farson 2005). Canada’s ability to influence the Indian response was very limited, and it is not clear whether the Canadian government took a position on the dispute. In fact, allowing Sikh extremists to vent their anger with India openly in Canada and granting the Babbar Khalsa group charitable status actually may have facilitated the Air India disaster rather than preventing it (Bolan 2005; Razavy 2006).

If the Air India bombing was the terrorist act that had the most horrific personal impact on Canadian society, the response to other terrorist activities also exerted a significant influence on Canadian democracy and security. In this regard, the October Crisis stands in a league by itself. Troops were deployed in major cities, civil liberties were suspended temporarily, and several hundred people were arrested and detained without charge (although most were released after only a brief period). Unprecedented in Canadian history, it has not been repeated since. The crisis left the country shaken. The Quebec independence movement did not die but found expression in the election of a succession of separatist provincial governments and a referendum on separation that was only narrowly defeated in 1995. To this day, it is not Laporte’s murder but the sight of troops on the streets that is the enduring image of the October Crisis. If the FLQ itself has become history, the repression of the movement has not been forgotten (Dendy 1989).

The suspension of civil liberties under the War Measures Act probably did not change the day-to-day lives of most Canadians, even during the crisis. But it rightly raised concerns on the part of civil rights groups and political activists, who asserted that the powers were draconian, disproportionate to the threat and incompatible with Canada’s democratic character. These criticisms were legitimate, especially in light of what we know now about the FLQ at the time and what the RCMP was then telling the federal cabinet (Charters 1997). Perhaps the only viable argument that can be offered in defence of using the Act (and it was suggested at the time by federal cabinet minister Jean-Luc Pépin) is that it may have prevented a confrontation — with potentially tragic results — between enthusiastic pro-FLQ activists and troops deployed on guard duties (Whitaker 1993). That said, even the government recognized at an early stage that the Act was a blunt instrument. In December 1970 (ironically, on the day that Cross was freed and his kidnappers were sent into exile), it passed the Public Order (Temporary Measures) Act (Bill C-131, 1970), which continued but limited the powers of the War Measures Act. The new Act remained in force for one year before its powers were allowed to lapse.

Despite the widespread distaste for the War Measures Act, the Trudeau government did not move swiftly to repeal it. To have done so would have amounted to an admission that the government was wrong to use it in the first place. It is unlikely that Trudeau was willing to hand his opponents, especially the Quebec separatists, such potent political ammunition. Consequently, nearly two decades passed before the federal government drafted new legislation to deal with crises. The Emergencies Act came into force in 1988. It described three types of emergencies: “Public Order,” “International” and “War.” The first category was clearly intended to deal with events similar to the October Crisis. Like the War Measures Act, it conferred on the government extraordinary powers: to control or ban public assembly, travel or the use of specified properties; to designate and secure specific locations; and to take control of and operate public utilities and services. But it specifically did not confer powers to detain or intern Canadian citizens or permanent residents. The Act’s provisions would remain in force for only 30 days unless extended by cabinet for another 30 days. Parliament could vote to rescind the declaration of the emergency at any time. The Emergencies Act was also subject to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This was certainly a more constrained emergency powers act than the War Measures Act. Nevertheless, the power to ban public assemblies seemed to be at odds with the assertion that the Act could not abridge fundamental rights guaranteed under the Charter.

The Emergencies Act was the last piece of security legislation passed prior to the 2001 Anti-Terrorism Act. It has never been utilized. Thus, it is impossible to judge its impact on Canadian security and democracy. But it is probably fair to suggest that the fear of another overreaction to terrorism, such as occurred in October 1970, has coloured the debate over counterterrorism laws and policy since 9/11.

With the exception of the Air India and Ressam cases, most of the significant terrorist events occurred before the creation of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, but they are not unrelated to that fact. It was the response of the RCMP Security Service to the FLQ’s terrorist campaign that laid the foundations for CSIS. In the wake of the October Crisis, the federal government in effect gave the service carte blanche to disrupt the remnants of the FLQ. This it did effectively, but it extended its efforts to include the legal separatist movement as a whole. Thus, what began as a counterterrorism operation became a much broader counter-subversion effort unconstrained by proper ministerial guidance and supervision or by sensitivity to the differences between legitimate political dissent and genuine subversion. The resultant excesses, such as arson, break-ins and then a cover-up of the illegal activities, led to a lengthy investigation by the McDonald Commission, which recommended, among other things, the separation of the law enforcement and security intelligence functions and the creation of a separate civilian security service. In response, the federal government enacted legislation that in 1984 established CSIS and its two review bodies, the Inspector General and the Security Intelligence Review Committee (Charters 1997; Commission of Inquiry Concerning Certain Activities of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police 1981; Roach 2003).

If the October Crisis had such an impact, what about the Air India bombing, which took such a toll on Canadian lives? The investigation of the case was prolonged and inconclusive. It was slowed initially by the fact that most of the evidence had to be retrieved from the ocean floor. The simultaneous bomb at Narita airport suggested to the RCMP that the downing of the Air India flight was no accident. But subsequent inquiries have revealed a litany of apparent errors and misfortune before and after the event. Before the bombing, CSIS requests for wiretaps on suspected Sikh extremists were delayed for months over legal procedural matters. Possibly vital tapes were later erased, and many had never been translated. CSIS agents conducting surveillance on suspects did not follow up on some suspicious activities, such as the testing of a bomb. The bag containing the bomb was placed aboard the airliner unaccompanied by the passenger who checked it, and the plane was allowed to depart from Montreal airport before a police bomb-sniffing dog could search the cargo hold as had been planned. The prime suspect left Canada and was later killed by Indian security forces before he could be questioned about the case. CSIS and the RCMP did not effectively coordinate their investigations and did not share information adequately before or after the attack. One person was convicted for his role in constructing the bomb, but two others were later acquitted; the Crown’s case fell apart because of unreliable witnesses. Before the trials, other witnesses had been killed. Stuart Farson argues that the entire Air India episode revealed a “multilevelled failure of government and beyond” (Bolan 2005; Curry 2007a; Curry 2007b; Farson 2005; Rae 2005; Razavy 2006; Sallot and Leeder 2007). Everything that could go wrong did go wrong.

Critics such as Farson have suggested that the Air India bombing did not deliver the same shock to the Canadian security system that 9/11 did for the American system. Nor did it yield consequences parallel to the changes that followed the October Crisis. This probably can be explained by the fact that the attack did not go to the heart of the “Canadian problem”: Quebec. Indeed, some have suggested that racism might have played a role too; most of the victims were of South Asian origin, and therefore the attack may not have been seen as a “Canadian” problem (Farson 2005).

But subsequent events suggested a more systemic problem. Two incidents that occurred in Ottawa after the Air India incident highlighted some real weaknesses in the security community’s capacity to respond to terrorist incidents. A non-terrorist hostage-taking at the office of the Bahamian high commissioner in 1986 revealed a lack of coordination between the RCMP and the Ottawa police in response to terrorist incidents in the capital. The two forces became embroiled in a shouting match over which force was in command of handling the incident. That these problems were not quickly rectified was revealed three years later when a Montreal resident claiming to represent a Lebanese faction hijacked a bus and forced the driver to take it to Ottawa. It drove unchallenged onto Parliament Hill, where shots were fired, though no one was injured. The suspect was arrested, tried and convicted, but the ease with which the bus reached the seat of government called into question progress in counterterrorism policies and preparations (Kellett et al. 1991; Moon 1986; Second Special Committee of the Senate on Terrorism and Public Safety 1989; Senate Special Committee on Terrorism and the Public Safety 1987). But such incidents were rare; in the period leading up to 9/11, there was no Canadian terrorist incident serious enough to require the activation of the NCTP or the deployment of JTF2 for that purpose, so no conclusions can be drawn about their effectiveness. Likewise, in an era of fiscal restraint, security did not have a political constituency or an influential champion; it was not a high priority.3

The 9/11 attacks, of course, immediately affected Canada in several ways. The death toll included 24 Canadians who were killed in the attacks on the World Trade Center. Second. As the US shut down air travel, Canadian airports absorbed hundreds of flights that had to be grounded on short notice and nearby communities took in thousands of stranded travellers. Cross-border travel and trade were disrupted for several days, at huge cost to the Canadian economy (Roach 2003). But assessing the impact of 9/11 on Canadian security and democracy lies outside the scope of this study and will be addressed in other IRPP studies.

The tensions between security and democracy were widely apparent in the pre-9/11 era in Canada, especially during the October Crisis. Then and later, Canada was tested by both terrorism and the response to it, and it was a chastening experience. While on occasion it might be concluded that the Canadian government overreacted to terrorist threats, compensatory instruments were ultimately put in place. The Charter has come to play a significant role in underpinning Canadian civil liberties. The creation of a new civilian security service was matched with the advent of a review body — the Security Intelligence Review Committee — with significant powers. The War Measures Act was repealed and replaced with the Emergencies Act. All of these developments suggest a process whereby Canada learned to temper its counterterrorism responses. On the other hand, the Air India case suggests that allowing extremists to flaunt their violent intentions without subjecting them to effective scrutiny served neither democracy nor security and led to the ultimate violation of human rights: mass murder. Thus, Canada did not come to the post-9/11 era wholly inexperienced or wholly unprepared. But the historical legacy was mixed, and it may be fair to suggest that at no point in its experience of terrorism between the late 1960s and the year 2001 did the Canadian government or Canadian society come to terms with the realities of terrorism or with the difficulties of dealing with it.

Policy Implications

Nearly a quarter-century has passed since the last major terrorist attack directly affecting Canada: the Air India bombing. That could suggest that in the period since, we have been either incredibly effective in our counterterrorism efforts or incredibly lucky. Or perhaps would-be terrorists simply do not see Canada itself as an important target.

Examining the current threat lies beyond the scope of this study. But we can draw some conclusions about the public policy implications of Canada’s experience up to the eve of 9/11. Thirty years after the October Crisis and with the ongoing Air India bombing investigation barely touching public consciousness at that time, the Canadian public was not obsessed with terrorism and neither were parliamentarians. It is fair to say that the Canadian public simply did not feel vulnerable. Other issues had higher visibility and greater priority. In the absence of public anxiety, counterterrorism lacked a political constituency that could lobby for more attention and resources.

The sense of not being vulnerable was not shared behind the closed doors of the intelligence and security community. The Ressam incident and the routine exchange of intelligence with American and allied partners would have sensitized Canadian officials to the growing concern about the jihadist movement. Likewise, in the wake of the Ressam case, attitudes south of the border about Canada’s response to internal security threats were less sanguine. American officials were not hesitant to speak out about what they regarded as shortcomings in the Canadian immigration and security fields. Had they looked more closely at Canadian history, they might have taken some comfort in the vigorous response to the October Crisis and the general Canadian lack of tolerance for political violence. But in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, no one was taking the long view. Instead, short-term memory — Ressam — dominated, and it probably influenced the US decision to harden the security at the Canada-US border, at great cost to Canadians. If there is a public policy lesson in this, it is perhaps as follows. Given Canada’s unequal relationship with the United States, what we think and do about counterterrorism issues will carry very little weight if the Americans perceive a serious threat on their northern border and feel that we have not done enough to contain it. The economic and sovereignty consequences of that could be quite drastic for Canada. And it won’t matter if the threat is more imagined than real.

Therefore, taking complacent comfort in the perceived absence of a threat is not sufficient. The episodic nature of Canada’s historical exposure to terrorism diluted its impact and made it difficult to sustain a strategic, forward-looking policy. The experience of such events as the FLQ crisis and the Air India bombing should have underscored an obvious point. Countering terrorism requires constant vigilance and constant work and attention to detail on all aspects of that task, including organization, planning, people, training, intelligence, security, communication, decision-making, inter-agency and international cooperation, and legal and human rights issues. This applies even when the threat is intermittent. In fact, tackling this long list of requirements is much better done before a crisis or serious threat emerges, when things tend to be done in haste and in anger.

No democratic country can afford to cover all bases, to anticipate and deter all threats. Governments have to engage in risk management, investing resources in the most likely threats and the key counterterrorism weaknesses most relevant to those threats. The need to be well informed, both to sustain capacity and to manage risk, points inevitably to the importance of intelligence. While homegrown terrorism was not unfamiliar to Canada over the 40 years before 9/11 and thus indicated a need for effective security intelligence, by the 1980s the ground was shifting. The line between internal and external threats was blurring; homegrown terrorism could draw inspiration, leadership and other input from abroad. This had significant implications for counterterrorism intelligence. While security intelligence never had drawn a strictly geographical perimeter around its work, the emerging threats suggested that Canada’s intelligence community would have to watch — and perhaps operate — even farther abroad. In the wake of 9/11 and the events that have flowed from it, Canadian politicians, security officials and the public have had to reconsider whether the time has come for Canada to bolster its own foreign human intelligence operations.

A “go it alone” approach to counterterrorism was never an option for Canada. Canada cooperated actively with the US, its other allies and international organizations and regimes before 9/11, and that cooperation has continued since. Since we share a continent with the primary target of the current generation of international terrorists, Canada can — and must — be proactive in reassuring its neighbour and biggest trading partner that it is not neglecting the security realm. Ensuring that hostile groups do not find safe haven in Canada and are monitored if they do take root is, as this study has shown, a long-established Canadian priority. In part because we have not taken stock of our historical experience, such measures are sometimes characterized as slavishly aping an American security agenda. The truth is otherwise. Canadian policy has been rooted in a “defence against help” strategy that serves to deflect pressure to surrender Canadian sovereignty to a notion of a continental security perimeter.

Nor is security solely a federal responsibility, limited to a narrowly defined security and intelligence community. The events of 9/11 confirmed what earlier episodes indicated — that countering terrorism requires a “whole of government” approach, and more. It reaches across and down through levels of jurisdictions and out of government into the private sector. In fact, arguably, it begins at the grass roots, since the first response to any incident — domestic or international in origin — is likely to be individuals, local police and emergency services where the incident occurs.

But if this necessitates interjurisdictional and inter-agency cooperation, the record of the four decades prior to 9/11 does not give much cause for confidence. A host of incidents, from the October Crisis to the bus hijacking, highlighted gaps, lack of preparedness and poor cooperation among levels of government and policing and security agencies that need to work together. And until the 1998 ice storm and the Y2K problem forced government’s hand, there was a tendency to overlook altogether the role of the private sector in critical infrastructure protection. It was clear after 9/11 that these problems could not be allowed to continue. But solving them — delineating roles and responsibilities between the different levels of government and the private sector, developing mechanisms to share sensitive information, funding and improving first-response capabilities — also requires a collaborative effort among all partners. That takes time and will. A constantly shifting political agenda in Ottawa, where partisan politics and rapidly changing priorities prevail, makes the process difficult, although not impossible. But the farther we get from 9/11 without a major incident on Canadian soil, the harder it will be to maintain the momentum for resolving the outstanding issues. Yet, it is in the interludes, not in the aftermath of an attack, that these problems are best addressed. Furthermore, while Canada’s federal system limits the role of the federal government in many areas, at the very least Ottawa has a responsibility to provide leadership, to set goals and standards, and to provide funding.

All of the foregoing suggests that much can be learned from the history of Canada’s experience of terrorism before 9/11. The public policy issues that arose during that period did not disappear after 9/11. Indeed, many of them gained heightened saliency. It behooves Canadians to ask whether that experience has been exploited to its full potential and whether we are now better placed in terms of strategic policy, forward thinking and federal leadership.

  1. The Gregg Centre Archives at the University of New Brunswick holds a file of documents and clippings on Direct Action. See “Statement Regarding the October 14 Litton Bombing” and “Direct Action,” in which the group claimed responsibility for the bombing, in Supplement to Civil Disobedience 3 (Fall 1982), and “Direct Action Communiqué,” Resistance 4 (Fall 1982): 22-24. An unpublished 1985 interview with a peace officer who guarded the group during their trial, titled “The Squamish 5: An Inside Observation,” is in the same file. For the court case, see R. v. Belmas, Hansen and Taylor (1986), 27 C.C.C. (3d) 142 (B.C.C.A.).
  2. There have been more recent cases of alleged involvement in terrorist conspiracies, including those of Momin Khawaja and the Toronto terror cell.
  3. Consequently, at the time of 9/11 there was no one person in the federal government whose sole job was overseeing the security of Canada.

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David A. Charters is professor of military history and senior fellow of the Gregg Centre for the Study of War and Society at the University of New Brunswick. His specialization is the study of terrorism/countering  terror- ism, insurgency, counter-insurgency, and intelligence. He has taught, researched and published in the field for more than 30 years. Professor Charters was a co-founder of the Gregg Centre’s predecessor, the Centre for Conflict Studies, and served as its director from 1986 to 2005. He has  served as a consultant to government and the media and has lectured fre- quently to audiences in the military, police and intelligence communities. From 2005 through 2008 he served on the federal government’s Advisory Council on National Security. His most recent  publications  include Kandahar Tour: The Turning Point in Canada’s Afghan Mission (2008); and “Something Old, Something New…? Al-Qaeda, Jihadism, and Fascism,” Terrorism and Political Violence (2007).

This publication was produced under the direction of Mel Cappe, President, IRPP. The manuscript was copy-edited by Barbara Czarnecki, proofreading was by Zofia Laubitz, production was by Chantal Létourneau, art direction was by Schumacher Design and printing was by AGL Graphiques Inc.

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To cite this document:

Charters, David A. “The (Un)Peaceable Kingdom? Terrorism and Canada before 9/11.” IRPP Policy Matters 9 (4).

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