In the wake of Wednesday’s shooting at Canada’s Parliament Hill, experts warned against assuming there are gaps in Canada’s national security policies, but said the shooting highlights a long-term problem of disorganized and lax security at Parliament.
According to various eyewitness reports, the gunman entered Parliament’s Center Block and moved around freely until he was shot and killed by Kevin Vickers, the sergeant at arms and veteran of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). Both reservist soldier Corporal Nathan Cirillo and a suspected gunman are dead.
Heightening anxiety around the attack was the fact that the assault on Canada’s seat of government came two days after one soldier was killed and another critically injured in Québec after being hit by a car in a targeted attack.
Indeed, Prime Minister Stephen Harper in an address on Wednesday evening addressed the worry.
"Let there be no misunderstanding. We will not be intimidated. Canada will never be intimidated," Harper said, adding that security agencies will do everything needed to counter threats to the country.
“Canadians might have become complacent because we have not had overt terror attacks or threats inside our country, whereas obviously the United States has," said Geoff Norquay, a principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group, a Canadian public policy consultancy. "Canada has been surprisingly free of this type of thing until this week. We were perhaps not quite as concerned or vigilant as we might have been.”
While it is understandable that the attack on Parliament is raising questions about Canada’s vulnerability to domestic threats, especially after the national threat level was raised from low to medium after the Monday attack, experts urge cautioned against assuming the nation is facing a new, concerted threat.
“Two things in a very short amount of time don’t necessarily mean they’re related,” says Chris Bronk, a senior fellow in cyberspace geopolitics, at the Canada Centre for Global Security Studies and the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs.
Nonetheless, the government has been aware of the possibility of a terrorist threat. The official 2014 Public Report on the Terrorist Threat to Canada, released less than a month ago, acknowledges the threat of “extremist travelers” going abroad to conflict areas and then returning to Canada.
In the report, the government appears confident in its ability, through multiple programs, to reduce the risk to Canada. The report notes that Canadian intelligence services are aware of 130 people who may pose a threat to the country. Both the assailant in the Québec attack and the gunman in the Ottawa shooting were reportedly known to Canadian authorities.
In raising the domestic terror threat level from low to medium officials cited "an increase in general chatter from radical Islamist organizations."
“When you monitor large amounts of social media, telephone conversations and start to see linkage, that’s when police can establish ground for an investigation or putting resources together to block a major plot," Bronk said. "But in these isolated incidences, when someone acts out violently, they’re very hard to predict. They’re very hard to identify. The best you usually get in these mass shootings that occur is something in retrospect that could have been followed up”
And in retrospect, there are multiple security issues at Parliament, despite the typically strong police presence.
For example, while only vehicles for members of Parliament, government ministers or security vehicles can enter the complex — after passing rigorous security — visitors can use the front lawns freely and without search. The lawns, however, front directly onto the buildings of the parliament complex. Members of tour groups undergo a full security screening similar to an airport search only after they are inside Parliament and downstairs.
With an electronic pass, MPs and guides can walk through an unlocked, guarded door and into the main building. It appears this is how the gunman entered Parliament.
“The reality is, you can take the airline security approach to public institutions and you will spend hundreds of billions of dollars — but this is not sustainable,” said Norquay.
Much of the vulnerability in Parliament appears to be more a function of bureaucratic bumbling and poor coordination than lapses in judgment. “Going back to 2012, Canada’s auditor general said that the security of the Parliamentary district was inadequate,” said Michael Kempa, associate professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa and a specialist in policing and security.
“There are four separate institutions that have jurisdiction over that area," said Kempa. "You’ve got the Royal RCMP responsible for safety on the grounds, you’ve got the House of Commons security services for buildings under the jurisdiction of the Parliamentary House, and Senate protective service for the Senate and the Ottawa Police service for the surrounding streets.”
“We’ve known for years that these things are very poorly coordinated," Kempa said, "and the proposal from the auditor general was for a single unified parliamentary security service. The RCMP has developed a number of integrated security units over the last few years, but we haven’t gotten to that one yet. The men and women involved today did a very brave job, but we probably should have been more prepared for this from the get-go.”
There is an important difference, however, between identifying weaknesses of certain areas, and making broad judgments about the integrity of national security.
“We’re not used to this kind of situation," said Penny Collenette, former director of the Prime Minister’s Office and adjunct professor at the University of Ottawa’s faculty of law. "Therefore, because we’re not used to it, we didn’t assume the worst. In the United States, there have been so many instances like this that everyone immediately asks ‘How many have been shot?’ But we, rightly or wrongly, assumed that it was contained.”