How will PM tackle terror? Just watch him

by Paul Wells

So far on terrorism, Justin Trudeau is more or less the prime minister Stephen Harper told us he would be.

On the very day Trudeau became leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, in April 2013, he sat in Ottawa for an interview with Peter Mansbridge of the CBC. Two bombers had just detonated their home-brew contraptions at the Boston Marathon, killing three and wounding hundreds.

How would you respond if you were prime minister, Mansbridge asked. “Over the coming days,” Trudeau replied, “we have to look at the root causes.”

That language seemed custom-designed to ruffle Conservative feathers. But Trudeau was not done. “There is no question that this happened because there is someone who feels completely excluded. Completely at war with innocents . . .

And our approach has to be, where do those tensions come from?”

That was all Stephen Harper needed. In London he told reporters: “When you see this kind of violent act, you do not sit around trying to rationalize it or make excuses for it or figure out its root causes. You condemn it categorically.”

A week later in Ottawa, Harper piled on. “This is not a time to commit sociology, if I can use an expression,” he said. “I don’t think we want to convey any view to the Canadian public other than our utter condemnation of this kind of violence.”

Two years later Trudeau won the election. And then last week the RCMP shot and killed Aaron Driver in Strathroy, Ont., before he could kill anyone else, and we have had a chance to see how Trudeau handles terrorism.

To a great extent, in any public sense, he doesn’t. The prime minister returned from three weeks of vacation to a series of regional infrastructure announcements. It’s Ralph Goodale, his minister of public safety – who was first elected to the Saskatchewan legislature when Justin Trudeau was 3 years old – who has been the government’s face in the aftermath of Strathroy.

So if you’re looking for a prime minister who personalizes the government’s fight against terror, who is depicted by his staff working on it alone late into the night, Trudeau may disappoint.

The other thing that’s striking is how much time Goodale has spent talking about sociology.

In a long weekend news release, Goodale first reassured Canadians that the police had done their job well and that Canada’s threat level is no higher than it has been for a year and a half. Then he added: “We have also budgeted for a new national office and centre of excellence for community outreach and counter-radicalization.

“We need to get really good at this – to preserve our diversity and pluralism as unique national strengths.”

So if you want a government that conveys any view other than utter condemnation, this new Liberal government’s language will seem wildly complicated.

Goodale remains unbowed. “We need to know how to identify those who could be vulnerable to insidious influences that draw certain people – especially young people – toward extremism leading to violence,” he wrote. “We need to understand what positive messages can counteract that poison.”

This could have been expected. Trudeau wrote public mandate letters to 30 ministers last autumn. Goodale’s mentions terrorism precisely once – in a list of “threats to public security” that includes, in this order, “natural disasters, inadequate regulations, crime, terrorism, weather-related emergencies, and public health emergencies.”

There is very little of the lone leader standing strong against a dark world in all of this. But inconveniently for fans of political caricature, the academic work into counter-radicalization that turns Goodale’s Liberal crank is already well begun – thanks to Stephen Harper.

On June 23, 2011, Harper announced the Kanishka Project, a $10-million research program on terrorism.

“We will engage Canada’s best and brightest minds,” Harper said then, “and we will provide funding for publications, conferences and research projects – anything that can help us build the knowledge base we need to effectively counter terrorism.”

Work funded by the Kanishka Project included the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society (TSAS), whose co-director, Lorne Dawson, has said “the actual research has consistently shown that sociology is the better way to go.”

The differences between the Harper and Trudeau governments are less stark than Harper might have preferred to wish. Harper low-bridged the sociology and playing up the law and order, but he did both.

Trudeau reverses the emphasis. But he does both. “We’re the only ones who don’t get to do Sunny Ways,” a source in Goodale’s office told me. But Driver is far from the only menace Canada’s security forces have faced since last October.

Sociology offers no guarantees, as utter condemnation didn’t either. Trudeau’s record on terror will be told over four years at least. But his way is no accident. His government’s behaviour this week is in a straight line from those remarks he made in 2013.

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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