Four Muslim names spanning three generations slain by an act of terror in London, Ont., now also belong to those we memorialize on the National Day of Remembrance for Victims of Terrorism this June 23. Sixteen years since it was first enacted, the list of victims continues to grow longer. Surprisingly, this is happening in one of the safest countries in the world, despite Air India Flight 182’s bombing in 1985 and the 2014 attack on Parliament Hill.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s statement on this occasion last year took note of the horrific events in 1985, yet the measure of actions taken to confront extremism remains a project of politics, not national security.
The 1985 terrorist attack on Air India, killing 280 Canadian citizens, should have catalyzed the creation of a top-tier security system. The attack constituted the biggest aviation terror event until 9/11, and today, 38 years after the tragedy and more than a decade after the John Major report, Canada still seems incapable of confronting extremism.
Hard questions have to be asked. What has been learned since 1985? Do security professionals have the mandate to do their jobs, or do politics prevail over the security of Canadians?
A 2018 CSIS report explicitly described Sikh radicalism, Islamic radicalism, and far-right fanaticism, as among the top five terror threats to Canada. The report created an uproar in certain segments of the Indo-Canadian diaspora, resulting in it being watered down – not due to new facts or errors, but under political pressure from vote banks decrying discrimination. Indeed, Canadian politicians interfering with national security reports is the natural product of decades of growing identity politics.
Despite the Air India bombing, the Canadian terrorists behind the attack continue to be hailed as heroes at parades in Canada, widely attended by elected Canadian representatives. Canadian politicians also happily attend events glorifying the banned LTTE terrorist group pandering for votes in Tamil communities.
Identity-based vote banks play a significant role in partisan politics. Politicians prioritize their own ambitions over the values of our nation and at the expense of fallen victims, elevating these brokers of extremist ideologies. A select few of our national leaders refuse to compromise on these values, like Bob Rae during the 2006 Liberal leadership race. Yet they too, often, learn the hard lessons of the extent to which extremist agendas dominate Canadian politics.
At times, pandering to diverging extremes produces dark comedy. All of Canada’s national leaders rightfully condemned Islamophobia after the London terror attack, while contradicting themselves by refusing to condemn the naked Islamophobia of Quebec’s Bill C-21.
NDP leader Jagmeet Singh is a case in point. In delivering a thundering speech – in English – on Canada as a “racist country,” he failed to deliver the same sentiment – in French – to the Quebec legislature. He is unfortunately also known for his controversies in describing Khalistani separatism.
The Conservatives are also experiencing their own issues, having rejected MP Derek Sloan for associating with far-right extremists. One can also point to Alberta MP Garnett Genuis, who is the party’s self-appointed champion of Punjab – read: Khalistan – independence.
Even today, the majority of politicians in Greater Vancouver and Toronto will not openly condemn banned terrorist organizations in Canada, fearing reprisals from extremist vote banks. Extremists groups have learned to exploit membership-driven nomination processes, even as our security agencies fail to confront these metastasizing threats.
On this 16th National Day of Remembrance for Victims of Terrorism, it is not the victims whose memory are guiding our national debate, but the agendas of the extremists who killed them. The victims themselves are often immigrants, from the Air India bombing to our murdered Muslim family, leaving us to wonder how? Why? These murders slip so easily from national memory.
In elections to come, politicians would be wise to discover courage in going beyond the platitudes of unprincipled pandering and explicitly refuse to platform extremism. It would be refreshing to see Canadian leaders whose political outreach is more informed by terrorism’s victims, than those who celebrate their murderers.
Vijay Sappani is a board member for the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.
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