During the last two weeks of July, two young Canadian men kept people in Canada and around the world in a state of terror, holding their breath for what would be next. First, the pair went missing from their native town of Port Alberni, British Columbia. Then they were formally charged by the RCMP for the killing of a sessional lecturer in UBC’s botany department and became suspects in the killing of two tourists in northern B.C. Then they disappeared into the wilderness of northern Manitoba.
For weeks, the residents of the surrounding community in Gillam, Manitoba were scared. They kept their children inside. The entire population in the area was waiting for the RCMP to catch these fugitives and presumable killers. But they weren’t captured. It was as if they vanished. It was an embarrassing failure for the national police and military forces who used drones, special gear and satellite GPS in a failed attempt to track the two men. Their bodies were finally retrieved near the same search area. A report from the autopsy concluded that the pair died by suicide.
It is a sad and troubling story. First, it’s sad for the families and friends of the victims affected by this tragedy, as it seems very unlikely that they will learn the real motives of the killers. And it’s troubling because it is a story that’s happening more and more often in these days filled with hate, violence and misinformation.
I followed the story and found myself asking, what if these two young men had names with Arab or Islamic connotation? How would the media be reporting about the tragic case? Would they still publish nice mug shots of them? Would they call them “teenagers” and describe them as avid video game players (a way, in my opinion, to diminish the gravity of their acts), despite the fact that both of them were adults? How would the families of the accused be treated in the eyes of the public? And most importantly, how would police and law enforcement be reacting to these violent murders and the consequent escape of the perpetrators?
First and foremost, I believe that this tragic case showed that the RCMP and CSIS have no mechanism of surveillance when it comes to “lone wolves” with family names like McLeod or Schmegelsky, sympathizing with violent groups like neo-Nazis or holding a fascination with violence. Some reports mentioned at least that one of the men had a picture of himself in military attire holding Nazi paraphernalia and yet they were left alone, unbothered. No CSIS visits to their parents, no surprise visits to their workplaces. At least nothing of that sort that was reported in the media.
A few days ago, we learned from the news that several Muslim student leaders had been visited by CSIS and asked questions about their fellow Muslim students. In that news report, an RCMP spokesperson explained that the motive behind this obviously racially profiled act was “to build a relation of trust and educate them on different forms of criminality,” including “radicalization signs and behaviours.” When I was the national coordinator of the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group in 2016, I got a phone call from a Muslim student leader. He explained that he had been harassed by CSIS agents who even approached him at his relative’s house where he was living. They wanted to ask questions probing what he knew about other Muslim students on campus.
Imagine today if CSIS agents had done the same thing with the two B.C. murder suspects. What if they visited the pair at the Port Alberni Walmart where they both worked and asked their coworkers what they knew about them? What video games did they play? What were their ideologies? Were they sympathizers of neo-Nazis groups? Did they have intentions of going on a killing rampage?
When the father of one of the suspects was interviewed by the TV program 60 Minutes, he unashamedly mentioned that he once offered his son a replica gun. He didn’t feel at all complicit in feeding his son’s fascination with guns and violence.
It is a known fact that in France when a Muslim man commits or is suspected of having committed a terrorist act his parents or siblings may be arrested, interrogated and in some cases even convicted. Here in Canada, the parents of Alexandre Bissonnette had the guts to publicly call on Prime Minister Trudeau to stop calling their son a terrorist, despite the fact that he has been convicted of killing six Muslim men in a place of worship.
Imagine for a second a Muslim parent saying the same thing to the media. Omar Khadr’s mother and his sisters both dared to publicly criticize Canadian society and explain the motives behind their decision to live in Afghanistan. They were vilified in public opinion and never forgiven. Khadr paid the price with 10 long years of incarceration in Guantanamo for being the son of his father and his mother, and being the brother of his sister.
It is not a secret among young Muslim men that going to play paintball can lead to a visit by CSIS agents and a profile as a suspected terrorist. A passion for martial arts by certain young men can also be seen as a “sign” of radicalization or sympathy for “jihad.”
Why as a society do we tolerate certain actions when it comes to spying on Muslims or other marginalized groups, but groups like neo-Nazis, white supremacists or incels get a free pass no matter how violent the acts they applaud and even commit, and no matter how violent the ideologies they espouse?
In 2015, when Michael Zehaf-Bibeau killed a Canadian soldier at the National War Memorial, and despite an emotional public plea from his mother explaining how her son suffered from the divorce of his parents, drug addiction and mental health problems, no mosque accepted Zehaf-Bibeau’s body for burial. Everyone was scared that by giving a final service to the killer, they would be accused of “sympathizing with a terrorist.” He was buried in Libya.
Today, in the media, the community of Port Alberni is portrayed as being in solidarity with the families of the suspected killers and no media reports accused anyone there of sympathizing with the killers.
On the contrary, it is understood that this is a sign of a good, tight-knit community. And most of all, there is no word about who is giving the final service for these two young men suspected of terrible murders.
Until the racism and double standards of surveillance and law enforcement agencies are denounced by Canadians and until the media adopts the same scrutiny of “white” terrorism as they do of “brown” terrorism, we will not be a just and fair society. Our silence and complacency for some will send the wrong message to elements who will kill and spread terror and fear.
Monia Mazigh was born and raised in Tunisia and immigrated to Canada in 1991. Mazigh was catapulted onto the public stage in 2002 when her husband, Maher Arar, was deported to Syria where he was tortured and held without charge for over a year. She campaigned tirelessly for his release. Mazigh holds a PhD in finance from McGill University. In 2008, she published a memoir, Hope and Despair, about her pursuit of justice, and recently, a novel about Muslim women, Mirrors and Mirages. In 2017, she published Hope Has Two Daughters, a novel about the Arab Spring. You can follow her on Twitter @MoniaMazigh or on her blog www.moniamazigh.com