CNN by Veronica Kitchen 23 April 2013

News that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s “Project Smooth” foiled an alleged terrorist plot in Canada was greeted in some quarters with the usual tongue-in-cheek surprise that violent extremists would target a “nice country” like Canada. But the fact is that Canada has long been concerned with its status as a potential terrorist target.

Terrorism in Canada (and the United States) is a rare event. In the 1960s, the FLQ, a group of violent and revolutionary Québec separatists, launched a bombing campaign that culminated in the 1970 October Crisis, when they kidnapped and murdered the deputy premier of Québec, Pierre Laporte; Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau controversially enacted the War Measures Act and declared martial law. Canada’s most deadly terrorist attack came in 1985, when Sikh militants orchestrated the bombing of Air India flight 182, which exploded near Ireland killing all passengers, including 268 Canadians. Twenty-six Canadians were killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

More recently, it was revealed last month that two young Canadian men from London, Ontario travelled to Algeria and allegedly participated in a terrorist attack on a gas plant that resulted in the deaths of dozens of workers, as well as most of the terrorists. Soon after, it became clear that two others from the same high school were also suspected of involvement in terrorist activities. Coming from different ethnic backgrounds – and not all from Muslim or even particularly devout families – these young Canadians have forced us to confront our stereotypes about what a terrorist looks like. While Prime Minister Stephen Harper tried to score political points by arguing that Canada doesn’t spend time figuring out root causes, understanding domestic radicalization is imperative both to avoid attacks on Canadian soil and to help stop Canadian citizens travelling to other countries to participate in terrorism. (And indeed, as the journalist Paul Wells has pointed out, the Canadian government funds research into precisely that question).

Canada’s response to terrorism has evolved with the terrorist threat. The response to the Air India attacks was generally considered to be poor, marred by a lack of co-operation between the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the RCMP. Now, intelligence and law enforcement officials co-operate on national security matters under a strict set of guidelines through the Integrated National Security Enforcement Teams (INSETs) located in Vancouver, Alberta, Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal.

The Toronto and Montreal INSETs led the investigation in to the plot against VIA rail. Information is also shared beyond Canadian borders; in this case, the FBI was closely involved. Such co-operation can yield excellent results, as it appears to have this week. But we should also be conscious of cases such as that of Maher Arar, where information shared by the RCMP with American officials without the correct qualifications and restrictions led to the detention, rendition and torture of an innocent individual.

This week, the Canadian House of Commons is debating Bill S7, the Combatting Terrorism Act, which would re-introduce controversial provisions allowing for preventive arrest and investigative hearings that expired in 2007. The Canadian Bar Association argues that such provisions duplicate existing laws; the charges in Montreal and Toronto this week would lend credence to that view. While Bill S7 has made its way rather slowly through the legislative process up to now, Harper’s Conservatives now have a majority. The bill is also likely to gain momentum from the arrests in Project Smooth. Indeed, some critics have suggested that the last-minute scheduling of the Combatting Terrorism bill debate is suspicious.

Yet despite a few missteps, the Canadian government has largely avoided excess in its domestic governance of counter-terrorism, as befits the comparatively small magnitude of the terrorist threat relative to other public policy concerns. In some cases, Canada has been able to learn from American errors, for instance, in a more prudently designed no-fly list with clearer provisions for removing names. In others, Canada has bent too much to perceived American priorities. Delays in returning Abfousian Abdelrazik, a Canadian citizen, to Canada after charges of terrorism were dropped seem to be influenced at least in part by concerns about the American reaction. The reality is that terrorism policy in Canada is shaped by what happens in the United States. Our shared continent and the fact that threats can come from anywhere at home or abroad make this inevitable.

As the rhetoric of terrorism inevitably ramps up in Canada and the United States in the wake of the Boston bombings and the VIA rail plot, we should avoid drifting back into the intense culture of fear and division that characterized the years after 9/11. While the Boston bombings show the impossibility of perfect security from attack, they also demonstrate the superior preparedness of our first responders.

The Canadian arrests demonstrate that our security agencies have the tools they need to work together to investigate and charge violent extremist plotters. Trying Tsarnaev as an unlawful combatant or routinizing extraordinary measures such as those proposed in Bill S7 would be a step backwards. We can’t end terrorism, but we can address it without unduly changing the fabric of our societies.

News that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s “Project Smooth” foiled an alleged terrorist plot in Canada was greeted in some quarters with the usual tongue-in-cheek surprise that violent extremists would target a “nice country” like Canada. But the fact is that Canada has long been concerned with its status as a potential terrorist target.

Veronica Kitchen is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Waterloo and the Balsillie School of International Affairs.