Between 2013 and 2016, six Canadians were killed in three overseas terrorist attacks in Kabul and Nairobi. Since then, 19 more died in a dozen terrorism incidents in nine countries, according to a database compiled by Global News. Several others were injured and another four died in the 2017 mass shooting at an outdoor concert in Las Vegas, for which no motive has been found. The 25 terrorist killings of Canadians were mostly the work of members and supporters of Al Qaedaaffiliates and ISIS, while one was killed by a right-wing extremist.
Canadians are hardly the only targets of today’s terrorists, but they lack the government support available to citizens of other western countries, victims and advocates said. In Europe and the United States, governments have recognized that terrorism victims face unique challenges and need help, both immediately after attacks and over the long haul. But in interviews with Global News, Canadian victims and their families spoke about receiving little government assistance following overseas terrorism incidents. They described Canada’s response as unco-ordinated and inadequate. Several felt betrayed and abandoned by their government. “A terror attack is an attack on society. It’s politically motivated,” said Maureen Basnicki, whose husband was killed by Al Qaeda. “And what does it say when society turns its back on their victims? And here in Canada, that’s what happens.”
Terrorism strives to be devastating. Terrorists seek mass casualties. Their targets are often chosen to increase the chances of killing an international cohort. Victims are attacked not as individuals but as symbols of the state and society. Terrorism is a spectacle and a message. Attacks are followed by gloating propaganda. And terrorists are not always brought to justice. All that can make it harder for victims and their families. The lack of information is the first obstacle they face, and with overseas attacks, the challenge can be complicated by language and cultural barriers, which add to the shock and confusion.“There is just so much going on there in the time of crisis, while you’re dealing with trauma,” said Gupta, who spent a month in Ireland with his father following the Air India attack, seeing through the identification of his mother. Post-traumatic stress disorder is common among terror victims and their families. There are financial matters to contend with: travel expenses, funeral expenses, foreign medical bills, lost wages and psychological treatment.One Canadian recalled how the death of her father in the Air India bombing precipitated her brother’s struggle with addiction, the loss of the family home and her decision to move to the United States to find work in her field. “Nobody’s listening, nobody cares,” she said. The United States takes a different approach, with an Office of Justice for Victims of Overseas Terrorism, which guides victims and families through foreign legal systems and refers them to service providers. Americans can also turn to the International Terrorism Victim Expense Reimbursement Program.
In the European Union, a 2017 directive called on member states to “adopt measures of protection, support and assistance responding to the specific needs of victims of terrorism.” Compensation regimes are in place, and the EU is setting up a Centre of Expertise for Victims of Terrorism.
WATCH: Why Canada needs an office for victims of terrorism
Gupta would like Canada to adopt similar policies.
“There needs to be a centralized office established within government that is accountable to provide leadership to support victims when they are victimized overseas as a result of terrorism,” he said. The U.S., U.K., France, Germany, Britain, many other nations have offices that provide support to their citizens when they’re victimized anywhere in the world. “There is no office in Canada that’s taking leadership or accountability on any of these issues,” he said. “There is no office that provides that support that Canadians, I would say, deserve.”
As the number of Canadian terrorism victims has continued to grow, advocates have been trying to convince the federal government to better support them. In 2016, the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime called for a national security strategy that addressed the “needs, concerns and rights” of victims. The Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime, a charitable organization, asked in 2017 for a “federal office or national program to assist/support Canadians harmed by terrorism (both domestic and abroad) and other violent crimes abroad.”
A letter the group sent to Jody Wilson-Raybould, then the minister of justice, said the families of victims of terrorism and mass violence had “complex needs, which are not quickly resolved.” It explained how France dealt with the issue with a legislated compensation package for victims of terrorist acts committed in France, as well as for French victims of attacks outside France. “Will Justice Canada consider similar comprehensive legislation for victims of terrorism since our provincial compensation programs for victims of violent crimes do not cover crime outside their borders?” the letter read. The letter was written by Heidi Illingworth, who was then the group’s executive director. She has since been appointed the federal victims of crime ombudsman and said she would be raising the issue of terror victims once again with the government.
“It would make sense to have an office at the federal level that looks at Canadians who are victimized abroad,” Illingworth said in an interview. “These incidents are long-term impacts on folks, and I don’t think there’s a good enough understanding of that.”
Tax collectors came after her husband was killed on 9/11
Basnicki understands. Every time an attack occurs, she feels it. Most recently, it was the New Zealand mosque shootings. That’s what terrorists do: they terrorize. And all too often, victims feel they suffer alone. Basnicki’s husband, Ken, was at the World Trade Center on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 when Al Qaeda terrorists rammed it with hijacked planes. He was one of two dozen Canadians killed that day. A flight attendant, she couldn’t bring herself to go back to work. Then, just as she received the first shipment of body parts, the Canada Revenue Agency threatened to seize her assets for taxes they said her husband owed. She became an advocate for victims and led the campaign for the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act, which allows victims to sue state sponsors of terrorism, like Iran. She helped make Sept. 11 the Canadian National Day of Service. But Canada has a long way to go, she said.
To attend the court proceedings of the 9/11 mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, she had to get herself to Washington, D.C., at her own expense. The U.S. then flew her to Guantanamo Bay. Canada contributed nothing, she said. The Justice Department recently agreed to pay her airfare and two hotel nights for a 9/11 victims’ event in Florida. But that was done “at our discretion,” an official told her in an email, adding she didn’t qualify for the Canadians Victimized Abroad Fund because her husband was killed before it came into effect in 2007. Victims shouldn’t have to rely on the discretion of bureaucrats or internet fundraising campaigns, she said. “Governments are abdicating their responsibility. GoFundMe accounts lack transparency. They’re open to fraud. They lack fairness. They take a long time.”
The government could help by forgiving the income tax liabilities of those killed in terrorist attacks, she said. Although the U.S. did so after the 9/11 attacks, Ottawa would not extend the same assistance to Canadians. In a letter to the government about the issue, Basnicki’s lawyer, Barry Campbell, called Canada’s conduct insensitive and said it was embarrassing it had offered no aid to victims’ families. “We’re one of the few countries that doesn’t take care of our victims in an adequate way when they’ve been victimized outside our borders,” Basnicki said.
Government took a year to respond to request for help
When he was kidnapped, Frank Poccia was working in southwestern Libya, refurbishing navigational aids at an airport, living the “world needs more Canada” slogan that officials and politicians insert into their speeches. The masked gunmen who pulled over his truck on Sept. 19, 2016 are believed to be from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. They fired into the air as they abducted him along with two Italian co-workers. “They drove us a bit further into the desert where nobody could see us and they put us on the ground. They asked us what nationality we were,” he said. “They tied us up, threw us in the back of a pickup truck.” Blindfolded and concealed under a tarp, the hostages jostled in the truck bed until dark. For the next six days, they were moved from place to place until reaching their destination. They had been held 47 days when they were blindfolded and put into an SUV that took them out into the desert. “We weren’t sure if they were going to kill us,” Poccia said. They were told to sit in the sand. It was dark.
A vehicle appeared, and they were told they were free.
A private jet was waiting to fly them to Rome. Poccia said he doesn’t know if a ransom was paid. The telecom engineer got home to Montreal in November 2016, but he wasn’t ready to go back to work. He had a concussion, the result of banging around in trucks while being moved by the kidnappers. His company paid him to stay home until January 2017. Although he still didn’t feel ready to work and was continuing to undergo concussion treatment, he needed to pay the bills so he managed to work 20 to 25 hours a week.
“I keep saying to myself that I’m OK, but you know, my wife tells me that I do have nightmares. I don’t remember them so maybe that’s a good thing. I get up sweating during the night,” he said. He contacted the Quebec Crime Victims Assistance Centre (CAVAC) for help and was told he was not eligible because the incident had occurred outside the province. CAVAC referred him to the federal Justice Department. It took a year to get a response, he said. “They did apologize, saying that it’s not normal, it must have fallen through the cracks or something,” Poccia said. “We were entitled to some medical expenses, but that’s about it.”
He eventually got about $5,000 for visits to a psychologist, but nobody helped him find one qualified to deal with what he’d experienced. He said the government should have provided a list of specialists with the right expertise. There was no compensation for the wages he lost. “There’s not much out there,” he said.
The ordeal was probably hardest on his wife, who waited by the phone, not knowing, he said. The government should have had someone there from the outset, ready to help his family, not after he had returned, filled out an application form and waited for the government to respond. “It’s gotta come immediately.”
‘$10,000 really doesn’t go very far’
The family of John Ridsdel also said psychological support should come right away. For seven months, the Ridsdels went through hell while Abu Sayyaf militants released videos showing the kidnapped Canadian held by gunmen in the southern Philippines. Abu Sayyaf wanted a ransom, which Trudeau publicly refused to pay. Ridsdel and fellow Canadian Robert Hall were eventually executed. Only after Ridsdel’s death on April 25, 2016 did Canada’s Department of Justice offer to pay for counselling for family members through its victims fund, she said. The government gave them no help finding a specialist.
“It would have been helpful for us to be able to receive some of that support during the incident,” one of Ridsdel’s daughters said in an interview.
The federal funding for counselling stopped at $10,000. Aside from footing the bill to repatriate his body and for some travel, that was the total compensation the Ridsdel family received from Ottawa, she said. “I don’t necessarily think that the government should give me a salary for life because my dad was a victim of something horrible. But definitely the psychosocial assistance, it was really helpful, but the $10,000 really doesn’t go very far.”
There have been a few promising signs.
The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police recently formed a working group “to expand Canada’s capabilities to respond to mass casualty incidents, and mass victimization or terrorist incidents.”
A gathering of senior national security officials from Canada, the U.K., New Zealand, Australia and the U.S. that took place in Toronto in early May included a panel on incorporating victims’ issues into counter-terrorism.
But Sue O’Sullivan, a former Ottawa police deputy chief and Canada’s former crime victims’ ombudsman, urged the government to do more to ensure that victims “have the information and support they need.”
Now the chair of the International Network Supporting Victims of Terrorism and Mass Violence, she called the U.S. office for victims of overseas terrorism “an excellent example of the type of office Canada should implement.”
‘My experience with the Canadian government, it was really frustrating’
The almost two years since the Barcelona van attack have been frustrating for Wilson. Her parents had visited Edinburgh, where her father, Ian Moore Wilson, was born. They then flew to Barcelona to watch her son play soccer. They were carrying their groceries when the attack began. “I think what happened was my dad looked up and saw this van coming towards them and he kind of wrapped himself around my mom,” Wilson said. They both fell to the ground. Her father had a deep cut on his neck and died quickly. Her mother suffered broken bones, likely caused by the fall, but survived. Wilson said people at the scene risked their lives to help them.
“My experience with the Canadian government, it was really frustrating in the beginning because it was a full 24 hours before we actually got the official word that my father had died, which was agonizing,” she said. By that time, a British reporter had already let her know. After seeing a photo of her parents on the television news, she reached out to the reporter, and he sent her another picture, this one showing her father in a body bag. When Wilson arrived in Spain, an officer from the Canadian consulate was assigned to assist her and her mother. She “was lovely,” Wilson said. “But she did not have a lot of practical understanding about the processes that would be put in place or the paperwork that needed to be done,” she said. “I really felt like we had to figure that out on our own. “And I think, from the Canadian government’s perspective, being more co-ordinated at the outset to support families in that first 24 to 48 hours, that would have been really helpful for us.”
The Spanish government compensated her mother, who recalls nothing of the attack. The Canadian government also reimbursed the family for some expenses within the $10,000 limit. But Wilson got little help from Canada getting answers to a most basic question: how, exactly, did her father die?
A Vancouver Police Department officer, Wilson had seen her share of traffic accidents, but she didn’t believe her father’s injuries were consistent with having been mowed down by a van. She spoke to witnesses and visited the scene. She pressed Spanish authorities for information. She did so on her own, with no assistance from Ottawa, she said. “If the tables were turned and any one of us had been killed or in this situation that he was killed in, he would have wanted to know exactly what happened,” Wilson said. “And I really, really want to know.” She returned to Spain this spring and tracked down the coroner, who finally gave her the answer: he had died of massive trauma that was consistent with having been struck by the van’s side mirror. Wilson is upset it took so long. The coroner said she would have shared the cause of death long ago if she’d known the family wanted to know. “Interestingly, none of the answers or disclosure I’ve received was facilitated by the Canadian government,” Wilson said. “From the time I was told by a U.K. reporter that my father was dead to the conversation with the coroner last week — all of the information we’ve received has been a result of us returning to Barcelona, working with Spanish lawyers, engaging the media and repeatedly asking questions of the Spanish authorities.”