Two decades after 9/11, Canada provides little support to victims of terrorism

Click to play video: 'Canadian terror survivors, victims’ families say government support is inadequate, disorganized' Canadian terror survivors, victims’ families say government support is inadequate, disorganized
WATCH: The federal government does not track how many Canadians have died in terror attacks. As Jeff Semple reports, survivors and victims' families are feeling abandoned and calling for more support from Ottawa – Sep 7, 2021

The driver of a pickup truck rams a Muslim family in London.

An ISIS supporter knocks down a woman on a Toronto sidewalk and bludgeons her to death with a hammer.

A Canadian woman is among eight killed when pro-ISIS attackers run down pedestrians with a van on the London Bridge.

Between attacks abroad and a surge of deadly incidents at home, the number of Canadian victims of terrorism is on the rise.

Read Part 2 , Part 3 and Part 4 of this series.

But government support for Canada’s terror victims is disorganized and inadequate, according to victims and advocates.

Following Sept. 11, 2001, Canada began stepping up its counter-terrorism programs, made dozens of arrests and disrupted a handful of planned attacks.

Left largely unaddressed, however, were terrorism’s growing number of victims.

In interviews, they said Canada needed to do much more to deal with the corrosive impacts of terrorism — the traumatized survivors, families devastated by loss, and targeted communities left looking over their shoulders.

While the United States, the United Kingdom and European countries have made strides towards supporting victims, Canada lags far behind, they said.

Heidi Illingworth, federal ombudsman for victims of crime, at her office in Ottawa, Jan. 10, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick.

“I think we need to look at how do we do something similar to these other jurisdictions that are ready, they’re on alert. They’re watching for these incidents. They’re ready to respond and provide support to folks,” said Heidi Illingworth, the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime.

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“I think it’s time that we do it here.”

Illingworth is calling on the federal government to create a national office that would help Canadians in the aftermath of incidents of terrorism and mass violence.

“What we’re lacking is an office that can provide consistent response and support, and get people connected to what help they may need,” she said in an interview.

The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police made the same recommendation last year, and more recently former public safety minister Ralph Goodale’s report on Iran’s downing of Fight PS752 backed the idea.

The report noted that the U.S. and European Union have “consolidated support systems for victims,” and that Ottawa should look into establishing a “centre of expertise” to prepare for emergencies such as terrorist attacks.

“It could also assess the value of having standing programs in place in advance to offer financial, legal, mental health and other assistance of various kinds to the families of victims as circumstances may require,” Goodale wrote.

As it stands, however, it’s unclear that any federal agency even keeps track of Canadians who are victims of terrorism, let alone whether they are receiving adequate support.

Global News asked Global Affairs Canada, Public Safety Canada and the Department of Justice Canada for details on the number of Canadian terrorism victims.

None were provided. GAC would only say that 35 Canadians had been kidnapped by terrorist groups since 2005.

Maureen Basnicki with her husband Ken, who was killed in the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

“We’re invisible,” said Maureen Basnicki, whose husband Ken was killed 20 years ago when followers of Osama bin Laden flew hijacked planes into the World Trade Centre.

But a database compiled by Global News shows the numbers have been climbing.

Twenty-four Canadians died in the 9/11 attacks. Since then, another 80 Canadian civilians have died in terrorist attacks and 86 were injured, according to the database.

Fifty-five Canadian citizens and 30 permanent residents also died when Iran’s Revolutionary Guard shot down a passenger flight in what the Ontario court has ruled was an act of terrorism.

Canada is also home to refugees who were victims of terrorist groups, notably more than 1,000 Yazidis who were targeted by ISIS in Iraq, and more recently Afghan victims of the Taliban.

If Canadian Armed Forces members killed in Afghanistan — many by Taliban bombs — were included, the numbers would swell by 158.

Read more: How many Canadians have fallen victim to terrorism?

While most of the incidents involving Canadian casualties occurred outside Canada’s borders, terrorism has taken an increasing toll within the country in recent years, the database shows.

Global News identified 16 attacks in Canada since 2012 that caused deaths or serious injuries, and that were at least partly motivated by extremist ideology.

Twenty-nine died and 54 were injured in the attacks, which occurred in Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Alberta, the figures show.

The trend has become more pronounced since 2017. Just in the past four years, 22 have died and 44 were injured in attacks in three provinces.

Terrorism has come home, and its victims are a growing cohort with unique needs that are not being properly addressed, victims, advocates and community leaders said in interviews.

Susheel Gupta’s mother was killed in the 1985 Air India bombings. He now works for the RCMP and is an advocate for victims. Global News

Susheel Gupta has been trying to make changes from within.

Gupta was 12 when terrorists blew up Air India Flight 182 off the coast of Ireland on June 23, 1985, killing his mother Ramwati, 37, along with 328 others, most of them Canadians.

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The B.C.-based extremists who planted the bombs, in an attempt to advance their fight for independence from India, got away with it, and the families were largely abandoned.

“Almost nothing was provided to the families, tragically. We were just left to deal with it on our own,” Gupta said. “And my family certainly was in that boat as well. We were left on our own to make do as best we can, without any interaction with government officials.”

A former prosecutor, Gupta now works for the RCMP, where part of his role is to prepare the government to respond to incidents of terrorism and mass violence so that victims can be better supported.

“There certainly is recognition that there needs to be a more co-ordinated response among various levels of government,” he said. “So we’re starting to see that change.”

“But I would say that there is more that needs to be done.”

He said Canada needed “a more enhanced, a more improved, more co-ordinated approach to how we respond to the needs of victims in these types of incidents.”

Training is also required so government officials and police are ready, he said. Certification and accreditation of victim support workers should also be introduced, Gupta said.

“What I would like to see is a national centre that can draw upon experts, learn from best practices from some of our fellow nations around the world, including the U.S. and U.K.

“I pick on them as they have very robust support programs, co-ordinated programs in place to support when their citizens are involved in such tragic events.”

“And I think we can do that here in Canada as well.”

Illingworth, the federal ombudsman for victims, told Global News she would be taking the proposal to federal cabinet ministers.

Meanwhile, she has commissioned a study on the policy gaps that exist when Canadians are harmed by terrorism abroad.

The study, by Toronto lawyer Sarah Teich, proposes a “comprehensive, federal, victims-centred policy with respect to Canadians victimized abroad in acts of terrorism, war, and mass violence.”

“With multiple jurisdictions involved, these Canadians often report experiencing immense difficulty having their needs met and struggling to deal with officials who do not seem to know what to do with them,” it said.

In an interview, Teich said it was challenging to criticize the federal government’s policy. “There’s really just no policy,” said Teich, who represents the Canadian Coalition Against Terror.

The study recommended that victims be assigned a case manager to help them in the aftermath of attacks — something the U.S. and Netherlands are already doing.

It also called for a national policy to compensate victims, pay their medical expenses, keep them informed and help them take part in court proceedings stemming from attacks.

The federal justice department has set up a fund that may provide financial assistance to Canadians who become victims of serious violent crimes abroad.

But to be eligible, Canadians must show they are in “situations of undue hardship” and have no other sources of financial assistance.

And it will only cover up to $10,000 in hospital and medical expenses, while counselling is also capped at $10,000.

Teich’s study called the existing fund “limited in both the items it covers, and its eligibility criteria,” and noted it only applies to incidents after 2007, meaning 9/11 and Air India victims are left out.

Justice Canada declined to respond to questions about how many Canadians had used the fund, or how much had been dispersed.

Terrorism is unlike other types of crime, Teich said. Attacks can be mass-casualty events involving a large number of victims who need emergency help.

“And then you also have potentially different, if not deeper, psychological needs because you’ve been a part of this mass attack that’s random and designed to terrorize you. So that has a different impact,” she said.

“Canada absolutely needs policy about this and we don’t have it. And it’s crazy that we don’t.”

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Two decades after 9/11, Canada provides little support to victims of terrorism - image

Victims of attacks that have occured within Canada are also struggling with the long-term impacts of having been targeted by terrorists.

Some terror victims have had to file civil suits to help pay for expenses resulting from attacks. One of them alleges no less than 20 injuries the female victim has endured, ranging from a fractured skull to depression and anxiety.

Others have relied on online fundraising campaigns.

Following the deadly 2017 shooting that killed six worshippers at a Quebec City mosque, Taha Ghayyur worked with the non-profit organization DawaNet to help victims and survivors.

“One of the things we realized when we were on the ground was there was just absolute lack of direction from the government, no communication from the government, or any level of the government,” he said.

DawaNet raised an initial $400,000 for victims, and later another $400,000 so a survivor of the attack left in a wheelchair could buy an accessible home, but Ghayyur was left wondering about the government’s role.

“It should not be just left on the community to actually cover those costs,” he said.

“Really what’s needed in such cases, especially involving any terrorist attacks or any crisis of this sort, is really robust long-term support for the surviving victims, and their families in particular.”

In the aftermath of the attack, some schools offered trauma counselling, he said.

“But none of that was organized, and none of that was co-ordinated, so it was just all over the place and some families got it, some didn’t.”

Better rapid response is needed, but also a long-term strategy to support victims, in culturally sensitive ways, so they are taken care of and don’t feel abandoned and left to suffer alone, he said.

“It’s a very targeted hate, which brings a lot of ongoing fear throughout their lives, and they live through it and live with it,” he said.

“That’s a critical and major difference between all other forms of crisis, because you still live with that fear of somebody is coming after you or targeting you.”

Aymen Derbali, who stands with members of DawaNet, was left paralyzed after the Quebec City mosque shooting. DawaNet

He also supports the idea of creating an office for terror victims.

“I think that’s exactly what’s needed,” he said. “You need a body that, first of all, knows what these crimes are about and they know what kind of services to dispatch when, they would know who to contact in what region.”

“It has to be something co-ordinated because that’s exactly what the problem is: the communication from the government has been so dismal and has been so dis-coordinated.”

A Public Safety Canada spokesperson said the provinces were responsible for helping crime victims. He also cited the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act, which allows victims to sue state sponsors of terror like Iran.

“The act complements Canada’s existing counter-terrorism measures, including the deterrence of terrorism, and is aimed at responding to the unique concerns of victims of terrorism while demonstrating Canada’s leadership against those who support terrorism around the world,” Tim Warmington said.

“That said, the Government of Canada recognizes that victim-informed approaches to policy and legislation are important for building trust and developing resilience in our overall system to respond to terrorist and mass casualty events.”

Read more: Iran’s downing of Flight 752 was intentional act of terrorism, Ontario court rules

The government’s response to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s downing of a passenger plane on Jan. 8, 2020, showed some improvement, Illingworth said.

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The Canadian government pushed Tehran for answers and compensation. A Global Affairs Canada PS752 task force updated families, partly using a web portal. Mental health services and counselling were made available, as well as a telephone support line.

Illingworth said the government response was better than in the past, but that instead of dealing with attacks like PS752 on a case-by-case basis, the government needed a consistent policy for such incidents.

Hamed Esmaeilion, who lost his wife and daughter in the attack, said when the victims’ families returned from Iran, group meetings were held, and a counsellor suggested spending time in nature and reading.

But while he once read two or three books a week, he could no longer concentrate long enough to finish.

He said he had received phone calls from victims services workers checking up on him on Christmas and Father’s Day.

“I’ve brought it up several times with the government here, that the families, they need support and that’s the best they can do?” said Esmaeilion, spokesperson for the Association of Families of Flight PS752 Victims.

He said he had spoken to victims of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, shot down by pro-Russian militants in 2014, and they seemed to have better support from their governments than Canada was providing.

The victims of PS752 suffered horribly, and it was over quickly, he added.

“But for us, it’s for the rest of our lives.”

Stewart.Bell@globalnews.ca

Next: In Part Two of this series, the story of what happened to a Canadian family after their daughter was killed in a terrorist attack in Nairobi.