In the week following the shooting on Parliament Hill, the CBC published 79 related stories online, 72 of which were updated at some point in the hours or days following publication, presumably to include new facts and correct false information. In most cases, no indication was given on exactly which parts of the articles were edited, ignoring one of the most basic and fundamental rules of journalism.
The media ran wild with the story, treating it with all the gravity of 9/11.
While reporters in the nation’s capital were on lockdown immediately following the event, CBS News was already reporting that the gunman had been identified by U.S. government sources as Michael Zehaf-Bibeau. Seven hours later, the story was edited, Zehaf-Bibeau’s name was removed, as well as any mention of government sources. However, later that evening, the shooter’s name and the government sources were added back, with the addition of the shooter’s middle name: Abdul.
How did the U.S. media obtain such privileged information while, as parliamentary reporter Josh Wingrove of The Globe and Mail put it, “Ottawa police tactical officers are here and very kindly pointed their guns at every reporter, ordering hands in the air and us to ground,” a post that has since been removed from Twitter?
Online news agencies can rectify their errors after publication, making it easy to speculate or even report falsities knowing they can be corrected once facts become clear and new information becomes available.
The initial post by CBC news, first published at 1000 hrs on the morning of the shooting, now contains remarks from Stephen Harper in the House of Commons, the names of Corporal Nathan Cirillo and Zehaf-Bibeau, along with a smiling photo of the former and another of the latter, posing under menacing fluorescent light, donning a keffiyeh and a rifle.
But tweets can be deleted. Facts can be added, edited, and taken away. Photos can tell a story when words cannot.
Even the RCMP is guilty of cherry-picking facts. An official statement said Zehaf-Bibeau had plans to travel to Syria, though his mother’s statement clearly indicated her son was bound for Saudi Arabia, a fact that many reputable news publications later corrected.
“They taped my conversation,” said Susan Bibeau, “so there can little doubt about the accuracy of what I said.” This error was never corrected, though RCMP Commissioner Mike Cabana later stated the RCMP did not see the need, since travellers destined for Syria often travel to Saudi Arabia first.
The language used by the media is equally troubling. In their coverage of events in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu just two days earlier, the Canadian Press and CityNews suggested that Martin Couture-Rouleau may have emerged from his overturned car after a high speed chase “brandishing a knife.” The police did not confirm this report, though several news agencies did publish an up-close image of an ornate-looking dagger laying in the grass. Though the likelihood of Couture-Rouleau being a danger to anyone after such a crash, knife or no knife, seems questionable, the reader is left to fill in the blanks.
Is Canada under attack?
Meanwhile, Harper’s language, that of the Prime Minister’s Office, and the RCMP is equally suggestive. Phrases like “violent extremist,” “radicalized ISIS sympathizer,” and “possible terrorist” are being bandied about freely. Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney called Zehaf-Bibeau and Couture-Rouleau “radical Islamic terrorists” in the House of Commons. “Remain vigilant,” the RCMP reminded Canadians in its statement on October 23.
Is such language called for at this time? When Richard Henry Bain opened fire outside the Metropolis theatre two years ago in Montréal, Québec before attempting to burn down the building with a molotov cocktail on the eve of Parti Québécois leader Pauline Marois’ historic victory, no mention of terrorism was made, even though Bain showed signs of religious fanaticism and admitted his motives were politically motivated.
“Jesus sent me to stop separatism,” Bain told a judge. “I am a Christian soldier.” The judge ordered a psychiatric evaluation.
When Justin Bourque gunned down five RCMP officers in Moncton this past June, killing three and injuring two, the issue of terrorism was not raised, though his “strict Catholic upbringing” was often cited by news agencies.
Like the deplorable crimes of Zehaf-Bibeau and Couture-Rouleau, both were uncoordinated acts carried out by Canadian-born individuals with no clear affiliation to any terrorist group. And yet one clear difference is evident: neither Bourque nor Bain had any Islamic connection.
Terrorism was neither mentioned nor implied by the media or the government. The problem, it seems, is the lack of a clear and consistent definition of the word terrorism. As journalist Glenn Greenwald pointed out in an article for The Intercept, published following the incident in Saint-Jean, but before the Ottawa shooting, “The most common functional definition of ‘terrorism’ in Western discourse is quite clear. At this point, it means little more than: ‘violence directed at Westerners by Muslims.’”
The official opposition has been more careful about branding these events as acts of terrorism. “We’re waiting for the full reports on what happened in each of the two incidents before we draw any firm conclusions,” said NDP MP and Public Safety Critic Randall Garrison, echoing the opinion expressed by Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair.
“Obviously it has raised concern about security and safety. We need to know what actually happened so that we don’t draw wrong conclusions and waste resources by putting our efforts in the wrong direction.”
Bill C-13 Rushed Through the House
While Canadians were still shaking their heads in disbelief over the tragic events in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu on October 20, Bill C-13 — a bill that was receiving heavy opposition until only recently — passed its final reading in the House of Commons, and proceeded to pass first reading in the Senate the very next day.
Not only is this controversial bill being pushed through abnormally fast while the Canadian public’s attention is fixed elsewhere, but as opposition MP Charmaine Borg pointed out in the House of Commons, “the government decided to hold the third reading debate on this extremely important bill on a Friday, when everyone knows that most members are not present in the House on Fridays. I think that is appalling.”
Until recently, Bill C-13 was commonly referred to as the “cyberbullying bill.” Today, it is almost uniformly being referred to as “anti-terrorist legislation.” Once passed, this new law would allow Canadian intelligence services like CSIS and CSEC to arrest people who have committed no crime if authorities believe they may commit an act of terrorism.
Considering how loosely our government interprets an “act of terrorism” — a term which now includes a hit-and-run — it’s not difficult to imagine how Bill C-13 could infringe on the rights of all Canadians.
The constitutionality of large portions of Bill C-13 have long been under question, particularly since the Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling earlier this year on R. v. Spencer, where it was decided that internet users have a right to keep their personal information private and that governments cannot obtain this information without a warrant.
Warrantless disclosure and preventive arrests are contrary to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. To date, this issue has largely been ignored by popular media.
Does Militarization Make Canadians Safer?
Canada ranks among the safest places to live worldwide. According to the Global Peace Index (GPI), we are the 7th safest country in the world. Contrast this with the U.S., which stands at 101. It’s thanks to Canada’s ranking that North America is considered the second most secure region in the world, after Europe.
The study looks at internal as well as external factors: ongoing domestic and international conflicts, crime rate, relations with neighbouring countries, etc., including of course, terrorist activity. Significantly, the GPI looks at a country’s level of militarization, its expenditures as a percentage of the GDP, nuclear and heavy weapons capability, ease of access to small arms and light weapons, etc. The more a country spends arming itself against its enemies, both at home and abroad, the less safe its people feel as a nation, the GPI concludes.
And yet we’re safer now than we have ever been. But as author Steven Pinker put it in The Better Angels of our Nature, “No matter how small the percentage of violent deaths may be, in absolute numbers there will always be enough of them to fill the evening news, so people’s impressions of violence will always be disconnected from the actual proportions.”
Are Canadians buying into the hype? A look at the commentary on any of the hundreds of articles published in the week following the incidents shows that reactions are mixed. “The only terrorist act is to allow such crimes to change who we are,” says one commenter on CBC.ca.
“There need be no new laws and no new measures of hate disguised as protection. Canadians prevailed, and despite the shock, we should not waiver or succumb to opportunists.”
Meanwhile, anti-Muslim backlash is everywhere. Another CBC commenter quips, “Ban all Muslim immigration. Enough already. If we did not allow for the immigration then he would likely not have been converted.”
Less mainstream online publications are not as divided. There isn’t as much tolerance for what looks like fearmongering and Islamophobia. “It’s a big leap from one nutbar with a gun to a terrorist attack,” says one Huffington Post commenter.
Others wonder why Harper has made no statement denouncing anti-Muslim hate crimes in Cold Lake, Alberta, while both NDP leader Thomas Mulcair and Liberal leader Justin Trudeau have issued statements showing their support for the Muslim community during this difficult time.
The First Defence Strategy and the Upcoming Election
It is in a government’s best interest to have a nation that feels calm and safe. Societies flourish in times of peace. Arts and culture develop more rapidly and the economy prospers. As Pinker noted, “Across time and space, the more peaceable societies also tend to be richer, healthier, better educated, better governed, more respectful of their women, and more likely to engage in trade.”
The Global Peace Index also reports a symbiotic relationship between peace, business, and national wealth. It draws a link between a nation’s peacefulness ranking and the size of its retail sector, stock market, and tourism industry.
Why, then, are these attacks being branded as attacks on all Canadians, our values and cultural beliefs, in a way that appears to sow fear and discontent, disrupting the peace that defines our very way of life here in Canada?
One possible motive may be to revive public support for the Conservative’s now defunct plan to increase defence spending. The Canada First Defence Strategy (CFDS), first introduced in 2008, would have seen $490 billion in military spending, including a laundry list of new ships, tanks and planes, but taxpayers’ appetite for the plan — and the government’s capacity to live up to their expensive promises — diminished as the recession set in, and even more so as plans for the sole-source purchase of 65 F-35 fighter jets, at a price tag of $45B, were made public. Could the suggestion that Canadians are in some way under threat allow Harper to make good on some of his promises in time for the 2015 election?
Treating Mental Illness in Canada
With both the media and the government working so diligently to brand Zehaf-Bibeau and Couture-Rouleau as terrorists, important facts are either understated or ignored. Let the record show: Three years ago Zehaf-Bibeau tried to rob a Vancouver McDonald’s with a stick. Court workers concluded an undiagnosed mental health disorder.
“If you release me, what’s going to happen again? Probably the same loop and I’m going to be right back here again,” he told a judge in December 2011.
Zehaf-Bibeau spent his final days in an Ottawa shelter for the homeless. This is a man who, by multiple accounts, believed the devil was after him; a man addicted to crack cocaine whose own mother questioned his mental stability. Susan Bibeau suggested that her son felt cornered and called the shooting a “last desperate act,” reminding us that in Islam it is forbidden to take one’s own life.
Whether or not he was driven by ideological and political motives, as the RCMP suggested, these are not the acts of an organized terrorist cell.
Using their deaths to propagate Islamophobia, pass new laws that circumvent the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, increase police presence and justify an increase in defence spending is not honouring the deaths of Corporal Nathan Cirillo and Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent.
Perhaps it would honour our soldiers and serve our country better to take a closer look at the way we treat the mentally ill. A PTSD epidemic in the military has long been ignored by our government. The CBC reported last year that returned soldiers are waiting up to six months for treatment. General Rick Hillier has long been calling for a public inquiry into mental health problems affecting our veterans.
Clearly, it’s not just our veterans struggling with mental health issues.
Moving Forward as a Nation
Any laws we pass that infringe upon the rights of some Canadians will also infringe upon the hard-won rights of all Canadians. It would be naive to think otherwise.
We lost two good soldiers. This is a fact. But it’s important to recognize that, overwhelmingly, the system worked. A madman with a long gun in a crowded public space could have taken the lives of many innocent people, if not for Sergeant-at-Arms Kevin Vickers.
Martin Couture-Rouleau had been placed on a watchlist and denied a passport, with good reason it seems. It is also possible that Zehaf-Bibeau was also denied a passport, though this has not been confirmed. Both were known to authorities. The RCMP had been tracking Couture-Rouleau’s online activity since June 2013, without the aid of the anti-terrorism provisions in Bill C-13.
Small-scale attacks on high-profile targets can be very effective for groups like ISIS, but only if the media, the government, and the people play along. The convenience of two such events happening back-to-back is most troubling given the timing in relation to Bill C-13, also coinciding with Canada’s first airstrikes in Iraq, just as we enter an election year.
As Seth Godin wrote following the incidents, “The media wants us to think that we’re on a precipice, every day ... It takes guts to say, ‘No, we’re not going to go there, even if the audience is itching for it.’”
It takes guts to ask hard questions. It takes guts to ask why police would fatally shoot a man who’d already flipped his car following a four-kilometre high-speed chase, or indeed to question any of the messages we’re bombarded with every day.
All media has an agenda, as do governments, as do people. Maybe it’s time we made some of those agendas a little more clear.