“One-man war”: A History of Lone-actor Terrorism in Canada, 1868-2018

TSAS WORKING PAPER

Using primary source material obtained through archives and other open sources, this working paper examines, through a series of qualitative case studies, nineteen lone-actor terrorist attacks that occurred in Canada across a 150-year period, specifically between 1868 and 2018. The next section addresses methodological issues, including in connection to definitions. That is followed by an historical overview of lone-actor terrorism in which the nineteen case studies are introduced (full details appear in the appendix). Finally, focusing on commonalities of the attacks and the backgrounds of the perpetrators, along with their motivations and tactics, techniques and procedures, analysis is provided, including through the use of templates from other work on lone-actor terrorism.

This working paper is significant for two reasons. First, it historicizes lone-actor terrorism as a practice and shows that it is not a contemporary phenomenon, even if there has been a greater prevalence of such attacks since 9/11. By applying a longue durée to lone-actor terrorism, the paper reveals that a range of motivations have sparked violence over the 150 years examined and that no single explanation accounts for such an outcome, let alone simple “individual life stories.” The paper supports sociologist Ramón Spaaij’s contention that the violent extremism of lone-actor terrorists “tends to result from a combination of individual processes, interpersonal relations and socio-political and cultural circumstances.” More significantly, by deploying a longer temporal exploration of lone-actor terrorism, the paper illustrates that violent actors emerge from a variety of communities and backgrounds. This decentring of the present counters the dangers of a short-term approach in which marginalized groups face overrepresentation among perpetrators, consequently fuelling wider political discourses that encourage discrimination and the securitization of “suspect communities.”

Ultimately, however, the paper argues that one key variable connects eighteen of the nineteen attacks: the perpetrators were men. Although this paper does not argue that masculinities as a social construct led directly to the attacks discussed, it proposes that there is some correlation between certain masculinities and lone-actor terrorism, specifically when extreme violence is viewed as an acceptable reply to an intersection of personal and societal grievances. This relationship needs additional and urgent attention, not only by academics, but by politicians, the media and security agencies as well.

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PUBLISHED IN 2021

WP 2021-01