An NPR member station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

After Shootings, Canada Takes Steps To Balance Security With Tradition


Canada has been through a horrible week. A suspected militant armed with a shotgun killed a soldier before storming right through the Parliament buildings in Ottawa where he was killed in a gun battle. Just two days earlier, another soldier was killed after being run over by a car driven by another suspected militant. If you think these incidents are at odds with the idea that you have of Canada, well, many Canadians would agree. NPR's Jackie Northam reports from Ottawa.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Ottawa may be the capital of Canada but it has a small town feel. It's clean and low-key. People are friendly and oh so polite.

GEORGE PETROLEKAS: You know, we were really shocked as a country and what happened here. There was always a sense here that that wouldn't happen to us.

NORTHAM: George Petrolekas, a former advisor to Canada's Chief of Defense staff, says the violence this week has been a cold slap in the face for many Canadians. Police believe both attackers were recent converts to Islam and that their actions may have been inspired by foreign terrorist groups. Petrolekas says many Canadians are struggling to understand who would want to harm them.

PETROLEKAS: Because Canadians have this sort of benign reputation around the world. And that is our own view of ourselves - that's how we see ourselves in the mirror. And that's one of the things that this attack exposed, that maybe we're not viewed as such a benign country overseas.

NORTHAM: The Canadian government recently signed onto a U.S.-led air campaign against militants of the so-called Islamic state in Iraq, and the country's intelligence service warned that the terrorism threat could increase as a result. But there are already more than 90 people on a high-risk watch list, says Bob Paulson, the Commissioner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Some of them are in Canada, others overseas. Paulson told a press conference that he's not expecting any imminent arrest. He says it takes time to gather evidence and it's a drain on resources. Paulson said he's already pulling officers from organized crime cases and other important cases to work on the terrorism issue.

BOB PAULSON: You know, I've had suggestions - people saying on our high risk travelers - why don't you just put surveillance on them all 24 hours a day? You know, OK. There's not going to be anybody else doing anything else.

NORTHAM: But there are calls for strengthening the ability of the police and intelligence agencies to track suspects. For example, at the moment, the security services are restricted from placing surveillance on Canadians in Canada or tracking them overseas, making it harder to monitor which countries they visit and who they meet.

The government was already trying to push through legislation to change that. Prime Minister Stephen Harper, speaking before Parliament one day after the attack, said all necessary steps need to be taken to identify and counter threats.

STEPHEN HARPER: And as you know Mr. Speaker, in recent weeks, I have been saying that our laws and police powers need to be strengthened in the area of surveillance, detention and arrest. They need to be much strengthened. And I assure you, Mr. Speaker, that work, which is already underway, will be expedited.


NORTHAM: Former Defense Official Petrolekas says it's not surprising things are going to change. But he says there needs to be a balance between security and liberty.

PETROLEKAS: In general terms, the natural preoccupation, if you will, of the country, is to not give up what we are. And what we are tends to lean towards liberty, leans towards accessibility to our public institutions. And we just really do not want to be cowed to a police state.

NORTHAM: The bill to increase the powers of Canada's security services is slated to be introduced in Parliament next week. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Ottawa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.