Saperia: Let us memorialize 9/11 in ways that uphold Canada’s best values 

The Sept. 11 anniversary, and other terrorist attacks on Canadians, are being remembered through individual actions that transcend people’s differences. We should treasure that.

By Sheryl Saperia

Septermber 8, 2023

With another year passing since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the memory and memorialization of the 2001 tragedy are fading in the Canadian public arena.

But for the family members of 9/11 victims with whom I have been privileged to work, its import is resistant to the erosion of time. Over the years, they have watched terrorist incidents occur around the globe, with Canadians counted among the dead, the injured and the forever bereaved.

Terrorism has been rightly described by the Ontario Court of Appeal as “a crime unto itself. It has no equal. It does not stop at, nor is it limited to, the senseless destruction of people and property. It is far more insidious in that it attacks our way of life and seeks to destroy the fundamental values to which we ascribe — values that form the essence of our constitutional democracy.”

Twenty-two years later, terrorism remains a tool of choice for certain malevolent state and non-state actors. With the advent of artificial intelligence, a new horizon of opportunity for terrorists will create unprecedented dangers.

Yet there seems to be some component within the Canadian national consciousness that has reverted to the view that terrorism is a function of someone else’s wars — an essentially foreign phenomenon that on occasion inconveniently seeps into our peaceable kingdom and disturbs our Canadian equanimity.

Vincent Rigby, the Max Bell School of Public Policy’s McConnell Visiting Professor for 2022-2023, has correctly noted that “neither Canadians nor their governments take national security seriously on a consistent basis. This has led to widespread complacency. Canada’s position on national security seems little changed since 1924, when Senator Raoul Dandurand told an international gathering that Canadians ‘live in a fireproof house far from inflammable materials.’ … Canada’s peers … possess not only a deeper appreciation of the threats facing the West but also a more sophisticated national security culture. Canada is falling behind.”

The dispassion of our political echelons may reflect that of the broader public. A 2016 Ipsos poll found Canadians less concerned about the threat of terrorism than people in most other countries.

It is unsurprising in this context that the anniversary of Sept. 11 will not receive much political attention this year.

But Canadian 9/11 family members should not assume that they have been singled out for erasure from our current discourse on terrorism.

On June 23, I attended an event at Queen’s Park to commemorate the 38th anniversary of the 1985 Air India bombings, a made-in-Canada atrocity that killed 329 people aboard, including 268 Canadians. It was a quiet memorial, organized and attended by family members of the victims. They had long ago come to grips with the fact that Canada was not going to be of meaningful assistance in bringing those responsible for the attack to justice or appropriately compensating the families, despite the enormity of the failure of Canadian authorities in preventing the bombings.

Nor have the families of the Flight PS752 shoot-down been spared. Hamed Esmaeilion, who lost his wife and daughter in that attack and went on to be a founder of the Association of Families of Flight PS752 Victims, has expressed his incredulity that the families have had to undertake such onerous measuresto pressure Canada to take even minimal action following the tragedy that a Canadian court found to be a deliberate act of terrorism by Iran.

But there are glimmers of inspiration in this rather dim assessment of Canada’s security sensibilities, and they take the form of the Canadians impacted directly by terrorism. Susheel Gupta was 12 years old when his mother was killed in the Air India bombings. He now works in national security with the RCMP and volunteers his time to support victims in various capacities. Maureen Basnicki, whose husband Ken was killed in the 9/11 attacks, co-founded Secure Canada (formerly known as the Canadian Coalition Against Terror) and successfully lobbied for the designation of September 11 as a Day of Service nationally and in Ontario.

The Day of Service is intended to promote a spirit of volunteerism and express gratitude to our first responders. This concept should be appealing to a Canadian political palate resistant to the disquieting realities of the unending threat of global terrorism.

But the concept should also be appealing because Canadians have a track record of unfettered generosity that deserves to be embraced. Indeed, there were lasting Canadian legacies in relation to that terrifying day in September 2001: residents in Gander, NL. opened up their homes and hearts to stranded air travellers, as portrayed in the hit musical Come From Away; hundreds of Canadian firefighters and paramedics travelled to New York City to support the recovery efforts; and Canadian soldiers bravely fought in the battle against al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan in the years to follow.

Despite their losses, Canadian 9/11 families have provided us with a framework for memorialization that transcends our increasingly polarized differences. Their initiative seeks to transform one of the darkest days in contemporary history into a celebration of some of our most cherished values, and provides Canadians with an opportunity we would be wise not to squander.

Sheryl Saperia is chief executive of Secure Canada, which was founded by Canadian 9/11 victims and is dedicated to combatting terrorism and extremism through innovative laws, policies and alliances.

First published at: