Maclean’s SPECIAL REPORT

NERVOUS ENERGY

Chemical suits, jet fighters in the skies-Canada gets a case of the jitters

ROBERT SHEPPARD October 22 2001
Maclean’s SPECIAL REPORT

NERVOUS ENERGY

Chemical suits, jet fighters in the skies-Canada gets a case of the jitters

ROBERT SHEPPARD October 22 2001

NERVOUS ENERGY

Chemical suits, jet fighters in the skies-Canada gets a case of the jitters

ROBERT SHEPPARD

John DeMont

Benoit Aubin

Brian Bergman

Ken MacQueen

Fear, it seems, knows no boundaries. It crosses borders on little cat feet, a whispered threat here, a tainted letter there. And last week, Canada—we're at war, don’t you know?—took a full shot of it right in the snoot.

No sooner had the FBI ramped up a criminal investigation into anthrax poisoning at a lurid tabloid in Florida than an employee at a sister publication in Montreal received a suspicious substance in a letter from Florida. Police cordoned off six city blocks along downtown Sherbrooke Street during rush hour and evacuated buildings as firefighters in chemical suits scoured offices for the deadly bacteria. All this before the FBI issued a terse two-sentence warning on Thursday that another terrorist attack could come within days. Welcome to the free world in the midst of an international war against phantoms.

By week’s end, Canadian health officials determined there was no biological agent in the Montreal letter. But the anthrax scare—it’s a lethal bacteria that has been used without success by terrorist groups before—continued: one man dead in Florida, two co-workers at The Sun infected, and a fourth, apparendy unrelated case confirmed in a woman working at NBC Nighdy News in New York City. On Saturday, there was yet another confirmed Q anthrax letter, this time in Nevada. Police | didn’t seem to know which way to turn. áa Montreal had its letter scare on Tuesday. I On Wednesday, two border crossings to the U.S. just south of the city closed for several hours because of bomb threats. On Thursday, a suspicious envelope forced the evacuation of the Quebec provincial police headquarters, provoking Montreal police Chief Michel Sarrazin to implore Quebecers to get on with their lives and to muse: “Dormant [terrorist] ceils are the worst nightmare of any police organization.” On Friday, there was another border closing, this time for four hours at Queenston, one of the busiest crossings between Ontario and New York, after a loose substance was spotted in a U.S. customs office. Another frightening scenario emerged on the weekend when The Globe and Mad reported that the RCMP are investigating the discovery of box cutters on an Air Canada plane that was grounded on Sept. 11, just before its scheduled 9 a.m. takeoff from Toronto to New York City.

Such scares shut office buildings and transit lines in at least nine cities in Canada and the United States last week. A lunch bag inadvertently left on a subway bench in Toronto halted a commuter line during morning rush hour. In Winnipeg, a relative visiting from California raised the spectre of anthrax—police and environmental officials were called—when a family of five fell ill after opening a package of latex gloves from Malaysia. It turned out to be an allergic reaction. An unmarked parcel shut Halifax’s main naval yards briefly, while in the same city, a deaf and mute Kuwaiti man on his way to visit family in Montreal was turfed off a plane: crew and passengers panicked as he tried to go to the washroom before takeoff.

Hysteria? No, but certainly evidence of mass anxiety, says Martin Antony, chief psychologist at the Anxiety Treatment and Research Centre at St. Joseph’s Healthcare in Hamilton. And while it is not healthy, he adds, it may be unavoidable: major traumatic events often create an expectation of something similar happening again. “Our referrals at the centre aren’t up noticeably,” he says. But the fallout from the terrorist attack on Sept. 11 “is all anyone talks about. There is a sense of uncertainty, an inability to plan, a fear of travel.”

Perhaps compounding the anxiety, federal and provincial authorities lurched into action with promised plans to bolster domestic security. The most unnerving: Canadian fighter jets flying over major cities, prepared to shoot any hijacked airliner out of the sky at the call of the federal minister of defence and the Prime Minister. Intentions were to be reassuring. But Alberta Premier Ralph Klein put off a trip to New York to ease American concerns about energy supply because he said he felt it was more important to stay by the home front. Ontario, meanwhile, though saying a terrorist threat was extremely remote, began stockpiling vaccines and antibiotics. Federal Health Minister Allan Rock announced a similar pooling of vaccine and health resources with the United States, Mexico and Britain.

Rock’s initiative was part of a $250million federal plan that includes beefing up police and security operations at airports, and creating a more tamper-proof photo ID for immigrants. Some airports and border crossings will get new bombsniffing equipment and fingerprint scanners. Biometrics—the ability to accurately identify individuals through fingerprints, eye scans or facial configuration—“is the coming wave,” says Roy Maguire, president of ADT Security Services Canada, the country’s largest provider of commercial and residential security systems. “It will be cosdy, it will affect personal privacy, and it will slow things down. But that’s the way things are going.”

For the moment, however, the solution is largely low tech: bodies on the ground. Yellow-jacketed private security officers make themselves visible at Vancouver’s port and the cruise-ship terminal at Canada Place. Dow Chemical Canada stepped up security at its facility near Edmonton to “Level 3 alert”—more personnel at the gates, employee ID cards inspected by people rather than machines and increased patrols along the perimeter. “We are not trying to instil a sense of panic,” says spokeswoman Nancy Fullerton. “We just want to make sure everyone feels safe on-site.”

Of course, one person’s safety is another’s anxiety. Since Sept. 11, Canada’s Muslims have been subjected to at least 90 incidents of harassment and threats, according to the Council on American Islamic Relations (Canada), an Ottawa-based human rights group. In at least seven cases, mosques were defaced or firebombed. Someone who has seen it firsthand is Clarissa Masters, a Muslim from Surrey, B.C., who wears the scarf-like hijab. “I’ve had notes written in blood on my door, on my car,” she says. “I’ve had a knife stuck in my tire. I’ve had people confront me in the grocery market and the mall. We Muslims have the same fear of going into big tourist attractions as you do,” she says. “But we also have the fear of walking down the street as soon as it goes dark, when creepy people feel it appropriate to attack us.”

Many Canadian Jews also feel themselves on the front line because Israel has been a historic target of Islamic extremism. “We’ve had death threats,” says Keith Landy, president of the Canadian Jewish Congress. “My synagogue in Thornhill [Ont.] was vandalized. Someone spraypainted ‘Jews must die. Long live bin Laden.’ ” Those with family and friends in Israel have become accustomed to living with the spectre of suicide bombings. “One never really gets used to this,” he says. But he is starting to see Canadians of other faiths grappling as well with the fanaticism and fears that know no border.