Within 72 hours, two members of the Canadian Armed Forces were attacked and killed on the soil of Canada for no reason other than that they wore the uniform of the Canadian military. That has never happened before.
In the first case, a soldier was killed by a car driven by a jihadi in Quebec. The man had been under watch by Canadian authorities; he seems, at this point, to have been a lone attacker who took it upon himself to murder a Canadian soldier, presumably in retaliation for Canada’s decision to take part in the air campaign against Islamic State.
No one yet knows whether the attack Wednesday morning at the Canadian War Memorial and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was carried out by a lone jihadi or whether he was part of a network. But what we do know is that Wednesday’s attack, coming on the heels of Monday’s killing, will put a chill on the relationship of the Canadian people to their military.
As of Wednesday afternoon, members of the Armed Forces have been told to curtail the wearing of their uniforms in public. Canadian Armed Forces bases for the most part have been locked down. That was and is a prudent measure, because it is not known if the two assailants were connected in any way, whether the second killer was himself tied in to the globaljihadi network or whether some sort of systematic attacks on Canadian soldiers have been planned across Canada.
It is fairly easy for the Department of National Defence to close off access to bases of the regular forces. Since the early 1990s, virtually all military bases in the heart of major Canadian cities have been closed. Units of the Canadian army and squadrons of the Royal Canadian Air Force have been concentrated on large bases across the country, and almost always far from the built-up areas of cities. The move was largely an economy measure, but it did remove the daily contact that people in cities such as Winnipeg, Calgary and Quebec City had with regular Forces members who usually lived in neighbourhoods adjacent to the old bases.
The army reserves are another matter entirely. They are located at armouries that are usually right within Canadian cities and towns. They do not wear uniforms on all occasions but, in fact, are only obliged to do so when they are on duty, such as one night a week or on a weekend. But now they and their regular Forces colleagues will be invisible to the citizens they are obliged to protect and who pay taxes to support them.
One of the most important missions for the Canadian Armed Forces, both regular personnel and especially reservists – army, navy or air force – is to “connect with Canadians,” not only by showing their presence when on duty but at public events that they attend for the prime purpose of reminding this very unmilitary country that the military is still here to protect Canada, Canadians and Canadian interests abroad.
In 1999, Canada sent its air force to join the coalition of nations dedicated to ending the slaughter of Muslims in Kosovo. At that time, the military and the government went to what some journalists and defence analysts thought were absurd lengths to protect the identities of the air crew involved in the campaign. The explanation, often ridiculed, was that it was necessary to guard against retaliation.
Such measures don’t seem absurd any longer. With the globe as interconnected as it is, Canadian soldiers are now clearly in danger at home. But then, U.S., British and other allied nations’ soldiers have also been targeted in their home countries in recent attacks. Now, Canadians may finally realize that our safe and gentle society isn’t quite as safe and gentle as we once thought.
David Bercuson is director of international programs at the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy and a senior fellow at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.
Article originally published in the Globe and Mail on October 23, 2014