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demonstrators holding signs like UNITE TO END TERRORISM NOW and STOP HATE CRIME
People attend a vigil to honour the memory of the four members of Muslim family that died in an attack on June 6, 2021. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh )

The terrorism charge filed in the London attack is the first of its kind in Canada

One week after the intentional truck attack that targeted a Canadian-Muslim family in London, Ont., killing four members of the same family and orphaning a child, the alleged attacker has had terrorism charges filed against him.

It is significant because it’s the first use of Canada’s antiterrorism laws to prosecute an alleged Islamophobic act.

According to the Public Safety Canada 2018 Public Report on the Terrorist Threat to Canada, there have been 55 people charged with terrorism offences under the Criminal Code. A vast majority of them were charged with international terrorism offences inspired by al-Qaida or the Islamic State, not homegrown domestic attacks.

The addition of terrorism to the murder charges already being faced by the London truck attack suspect is indicative of a pattern of domestic extremists increasingly facing terrorism charges for their violent criminal acts.

Read more: Muslim family killed in terror attack in London, Ontario: Islamophobic violence surfaces once again in Canada

Terrorism charges laid

One day after the June 6 attack on five pedestrians, the London Police Service moved quickly to charge the alleged attacker with four counts of first-degree murder. London police said that it was a premeditated act, motivated by hate, and the victims were targeted because they were Muslim.

In the investigation, London police are being assisted by the RCMP, Canada’s national law enforcement agency. The RCMP has specific duties related to national security that are based on its capability to conduct specialized criminal investigations involving potential terrorism. To that end, the RCMP has deployed its Integrated National Security Team to London.

At some point in the first eight days of the investigation, the joint local and federal investigative team was able to provide evidence to prosecutors making the case that the murders constituted terrorist activity. At that point, both federal and provincial prosecutors consented to adding terrorism charges to the multiple first-degree murder counts.

The London attack suspect appears in court to hear the additional terrorism charges.

On June 14, the suspect made a brief court appearance to have additional terrorism charges laid against him. From a practical perspective, if the alleged attacker is convicted under any one of the four first-degree murder charges, he will automatically face a life sentence with no parole for 25 years. The terrorism portion of the charges will not add jail time to what may already be a life sentence.

The investigation and legal manoeuvring has determined that the original first-degree murder charges can be now more accurately described as “murder — terrorist activity” per Sec. 231 (601) of the Criminal Code.

What terrorism legally means in Canada

Current terrorism laws in Canada can be traced back to the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2001, which enacted Part II.1 of the Criminal Codenow considered today’s Canadian anti-terrorism criminal laws.

For the terrorism charges to be successfully prosecuted, being able to prove the motives of the attack becomes critical. In the June 14 news release outlining the terrorism charges, a key takeaway was the mention of Sec. 2, 83.01(1)(b) of the Criminal Code. That section, defining terrorist activity, reads in part:

“An act or omission, in or outside Canada, that is committed in whole or in part for a political, religious or ideological purpose, objective or cause, and in whole or in part with the intention of intimidating the public, or a segment of the public…”

The implication is that for terrorism charges to legally stick to the alleged London truck attacker, those portions of the case will hinge on the ability of the prosecution to prove that the motive for the attack is consistent with Canada’s definition of terrorist activity.

Important firsts in prosecuting terrorism

In February 2020, a machete attack at a Toronto massage parlour left one woman dead and two others wounded. A 17-year-old was charged with first-degree murder and attempted murder. The investigation uncovered evidence that the attack was motivated by misogynistic incel ideology.

Read more: Why charging incels with terrorism may make matters worse

In May 2020, the charges were updated to include terrorism, a significant first in treating a violent act of incel misogyny as terrorism.

Another first for terrorism prosecution in Canada was the charges against the London truck attack suspect that have linked the incident to Islamophobia.

This shows that both misogynistic and Islamophobic acts are increasingly considered terrorist acts that pose risks to the security of Canada. The Canadian government defines these types of extremist threats as driven by a range of grievances across the traditional ideological spectrum.

After the London truck tragedy, the prime minister’s national security adviser said that such ideologically motivated attacks pose a growing threat to Canadian national security, and is our most deadly extremist threat.

The decision to update the first-degree murder charges to murder and terrorism charges for the London truck attack suspect sends the message that Canadians who kill other Canadians based on political, ideological and religious motivations are, in the eyes of the law, not just murderers but terrorists too.

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