Radicalism and Diaspora in Canada

January 15, 2010 § 2 Comments

Yesterday, the ring-leader of the Toronto 18, Zakaria Amara, apologised to Canadians for his role in plotting to blow up U-Haul trucks outside of the Toronto Stock Exchange, the Toronto CSIS HQ, and a military base just outside the city.  It is worth noting that the Toronto 18’s goal was specific, to convince the Canadian government to pull out of Afghanistan.  Amara said that he “deserves nothing less than [Canadians’] complete contempt.”  At least according to The Globe & Mail, he went onto to explain how it was he was radicalised in suburban Mississauga.

Starting off by quoting the Quran, in hindsight, [Amara] said his interpretation of Islam was “naïve and gullible,” and that his belief system made worse by the fact he had “isolated himself from the real world.”

Today he told the court he has been rehabilitated by his time awaiting trial in jail – mostly through his interactions with fellow prisoners who challenged his hate-filled ideology. He promised he would change from a “man of destruction” to a “man of construction.

He also apologised to Canada’s Muslim community, noting that he had brought unwelcome attention and scrutiny.

The Globe also reports on Amara’s accounting of his radicalisation in suburban Mississauga, a multicultural locale with a population larger than all but a handful of Canadian cities (Toronto, Montréal, Vancouver, and Ottawa-Gatineau), one that sounds not all that dissimilar than what Marisa Urgo describes in Northern Virginia, a suburb of Washington, DC.  As she notes, Northern Virginia has produced a fair number of radicalised young men.  Mississauga, on the other hand, has not, other than the Toronto 18.  In Mississauga, Amara isolated himself from all but a small handful of radicals, and they fed off each other.

In prison, Amara claims to have seen the light, befriending a former stock broker who worked at the very exchange Amara had planned to blow up.  He, a Sunni Muslim, also befriended both a Jew and a Shi’a Muslim.  In his radical era, Amara had nothing but contempt for Jews and Shi’a.  But now, he says, he’s seen how wrong he was.

Amara’s psychiatric examination in prison suggests that he became radicalised as a means of escapism, the drudgery of life, of having had to drop out of university to help support and raise a daughter, as well as the pain from his parents’ divorce.

One thing that strikes me the most, though, about the discourse surrounding the Toronto 18, is this horror that Canada might have produced radicalised terrorists from a diasporic community.  Canadians seem genuinely befuddled that this could happen in his multicultural nation where immigrants and their progeny are generally welcomed (not that there isn’t racism in Canada, there is.  A lot).

But, this is where being an historian is kind of fascinating. As I have argued over at the CTlab, historians get to take the long-view, we see context, and depth.  We don’t, or at least we shouldn’t, engage in knee-jerk reactions.  And so, I would like to point out that this isn’t the first and only time that diasporic radicals have trod on Canadian soil.

Indeed, the neighbourhood I study, Griffintown, here in Montréal was once one of the hottest of hotbeds of radicalism, in the 1860s, 150 years ago.  Then, it was the Fenians, a group of Irish nationalists who were always more successful in the diaspora than in Ireland itself.  Indeed, their plan wasn’t all that different than that of the Toronto 18.  The Fenians in the United States and Canada dreamed of seizing and conquering Canada and holding it as ransom against the British in return for Irish independence.  And Griffintown was the centre of Fenianism in Canada.

The Fenians met secretly around Griffintown and Pointe-Saint-Charles, plotting how to act as a 5th column when their American brethren invaded, and how they would then take over the country.  The Griffintown Fenians were also the ones responsible for the first political assassination in Canadian history (there have been only 2 in total), that of Father of Confederation and Member of Parliament for Montréal West, Thomas D’Arcy McGee on 7 April 1868 on Sparks St. in Ottawa.  McGee had been a radical in his youth in Ireland, a member of the Young Ireland movement there in the 1840s, but, after relocating to Montréal, he had become convinced of the Canadian cause, and during the particular contentious 1867 federal elections (the first Canadian election), McGee had outed the Fenians in the pages of The Gazette.  Not surprisingly, this didn’t go over well, and the Fenians, acting, it seems, independently of their American counterparts, and Patrick Whelan shot him.

Then, as now, there was all sorts of anguish over the thought of terrorists (though this word wasn’t used for the Fenians) on Canadian soil.  Anglo-Canadians couldn’t understand why the Irish would wish to carry their old world battles into the new Dominion, and they tended to see Irish-Catholics as a singular whole.  Not unlike how Canadians in the early 21st century have responded to the Toronto 18, in fact.  Not that this exonerates either the Fenians or the Toronto 18 as radicalised diasporic terrorists, but the long view is always interesting in and of itself.

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§ 2 Responses to Radicalism and Diaspora in Canada

  • Mike Innes says:

    Matt, I’m too wiped to read this whole post, but before I flake out I wanted to nitpick part of the first paragraph. You wrote:

    “It is worth noting that the Toronto 18’s goal was not necessarily to create terror for the sake of terror, as the likes of al-Qaeda do, but to convince the Canadian government to get out of Afghanistan.”

    This doesn’t mesh with what’s known about either group. AQ, whatever we might think of it, actually has a strategic aim – it’s not just a bunch of bored nihilists; the Toronto 18’s goal was still meant to be achieved using terrorist methods, regardless of the political change it wanted to affect.

  • John Matthew Barlow says:

    Yeah, you’ve got a point, I suppose that’s too blunt a statement. AQ does have larger aims, but a major part of that is the creation of terror for the sake of terror, not to suggest that that’s not part of a larger aim, it just is what it is. The T-18 had one particular goal in mind, that’s all.

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