Canada needs a comprehensive, victims-centred, federal policy on cross-border victims of terrorism, write Sarah Teich and Daniel Eisen.

By Sarah Teich and Daniel Eisen, August 30, 2021

It has been 20 years since the 9/11 attacks – the terrorist attacks that changed the world. This anniversary is a painful one, but we cannot shy away from it. We must use this as an opportunity to reflect on what we are doing well, what we are doing not-so-well, and how we might improve.

Too often, when we discuss matters relating to national security or counterterrorism, we brush aside the needs of the victims. These counterterrorism matters are viewed as so all-consuming and full of national interest, that we relegate the victims to a lower-priority concern. It becomes about the state and not the people. That needs to change.

Especially ignored are Canadian cross-border victims: those Canadians who were victimized in terrorist attacks abroad. This includes the Canadian victims of 9/11.

Despite the passage of 20 years, the Canadian government still has no federal policy in place with respect to Canadian cross-border victims of terrorism. This leads to confusion, disappointment, and a whole host of unmet needs. A policy must be put in place, it must be victims-centred, and it must happen now.

To be victims-centred means that any Canadian policy on cross-border victims of terror must address the specific and dynamic needs of these victims over time. The needs of cross-border victims of terrorism can be broken down into six categories: emergency response, respect and recognition, protection, support (including information), access to justice, and compensation and restoration.

Using these categories as a framework, we conducted an extensive research project, at the request of the Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime, to discern best practices for Canada. The resulting two-part, 100-page publication, to be released in the coming months, contains almost 50 concrete, specific policy recommendations that can underpin a comprehensive, victims-centred, federal policy on cross-border victims of terrorism. What follows is a short summary of victims’ needs and some of our recommendations.

Victims’ Emergency Response Needs

All victims, especially cross-border victims of terrorism, must be provided with emergency services. Victims’ safety and security must be immediately addressed, and this includes the provision of emergency physical and psychological care. The successful provision of emergency services to victims has had a demonstrated and positive impact on victims’ long-term psycho-social outcomes.

Currently, Canadian policy with respect to emergency services is not terrorism specific. Instead, it is captured by the Canadian Consular Services Charter. Unsurprisingly, it does not do enough to address the needs of cross-border victims of terrorism.

Among other things, Canada should facilitate cross-border victims obtaining appropriate emergency medical and psychological care abroad; reimburse immediate medical expenses; provide family members of victims with local information or support coming out to the scene; and ensure that foreign affairs representatives are present at Family Assistance Centres.

Victims’ Respect and Recognition Needs

Victims have a need to feel respected and recognized, particularly from the government and other support providers. They need to be treated with respect and empathy. This is essential for the healing process. This is also something that numerous cross-border victims interviewed describe as lacking. Many did not feel adequately respected or recognized.

A victims-centred policy on cross-border victims should explicitly provide for and ensure that these victims are treated with respect and recognition. Canada should also make sure to commemorate attacks involving Canadian victims, even where they occurred abroad, and assist in establishing and supporting peer support groups.

Victims’ Protection Needs

Victims have a need to be protected, both from re-victimization and from secondary victimization. Re-victimization refers to the possibility that the victim will suffer from a new offence. Secondary victimization may occur if government officials or other support providers engage in insensitive or victim-blaming behaviours. Secondary victimization can result from repeated or insensitive interviews, for example, or having to come face-to-face with the offender in a courtroom.

Among other things, Canada should explicitly address protection from re-victimization; prevent secondary victimization by officials by implementing mandatory sensitivity and trauma training; and secure locations, as appropriate, to prevent secondary victimization by media.

Victims’ Support Needs

Victims require support in a variety of areas – practical, medical, psychological, and informational – and this support should be extended into the long-term.

Practical support needs may include having a point-person to assist with navigating the maze of information and resources; translation assistance; and travel assistance to get home from abroad. Victims may also need specialized medical and psychological support, which may have to start immediately in the foreign jurisdiction and transition to long-term care back in Canada. Finally, victims have a need to receive up-to-date information, including information on what resources are available in each jurisdiction involved.

To address these needs, Canada should, among other things, assist cross-border victims in dealing with any language-barrier issues; assign each victim a case-manager; ensure that a victim is provided with specialized medical and psychological care, as needed; and meet with victims and families and regularly provide them with information.

Victims’ Access to Justice Needs

Victims have a need to see justice done (distributive justice) as well as a need to be confident about how it is achieved (procedural justice). The provision of legal aid is an important element of access to justice.

Even where an attack occurs abroad, Canada should work towards meeting their victims’ access to justice needs. Among other things, Canada should continue to request investigations where possible; pursue extraditions and domestic criminal proceedings where possible; assist victims with foreign proceedings, including by advocating for victims to obtain information and participate in foreign criminal proceedings; and work with civil society to establish and support robust legal aid initiatives.

Victims’ Compensation and Restoration Needs

Finally, victims need financial compensation to assist with the financial impacts of a terrorism event. They may also need restoration measures to facilitate restorative justice processes and overall recovery. Compensation and restoration measures might include monetary payments, reimbursements, medical assistance, payment of phone bills, heating payments, and/or mortgage payments.

Presently, the Canadians Victimized Abroad Fund provides some compensation for cross-border victims. However, it does not do enough. Aside from miniscule amount caps (for example, only up to $10,000 for counselling services), the Fund does not cover expenses incurred for crimes that occurred prior to April 1, 2007. This means that all 9/11 victims are ineligible, and they consequently may bear huge costs out-of-pocket.

The Bottom Line

Terrorism creates victims, and it is time that Canada properly take care of theirs. Canada needs a comprehensive, victims-centred, federal policy on cross-border victims of terrorism – one that ensures that victims’ needs are addressed. This cannot wait another 20 years.

Sarah Teich is an international human rights lawyer, a senior fellow at MLI, and a legal advisor to the Canadian Coalition Against Terror (C-CAT). Daniel Eisen is the co-founder of C-CAT and lost a family member on American Airlines flight #11 on 9/11.

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