Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard were quick to call the deadly shooting at a Quebec City mosque a “terrorist attack,” but formal terror charges against the 27-year-old alleged gunman will be difficult to pursue and have little impact on his sentence, according to one legal expert.

Alexandre Bissonnette has been charged with six counts of first-degree murder and five counts of attempted murder after the Jan. 29 shooting rampage at the Centre Culturel Islamique de Québec that left six dead and another 19 wounded.

Police say they are considering filing terror-related charges against Bissonnette. But Ian Carter, a lawyer with Bayne Sellar Boxall, says the law is written in such a way that a so-called “lone wolf” attacker is unlikely to be convicted without clear ties to a terrorist group.

“For many of the terrorism offences you need some kind of group element,” he told CTV’s Your Morning on Tuesday.

Canada’s criminal code defines a terror attack as an act committed “for political, religious or ideological purposes, objective or cause,” with “the intention of intimidating the public, or a segment of the public with regard to its security.”

Carter says applying terror charges to the Bissonnette case presents a unique set of challenges since little is known about his motivation.

While Bissonnette has expressed support for far-right, nationalist, and anti-immigration ideologies on social media, none of his known online activities advocated violence. In order to lay terrorism charges, prosecutors would have to prove such motivations beyond a reasonable doubt.

“We just haven’t seen any of those yet,” said Carter. “We don’t know what the motivation is on this attack, and that is a key element of with respect to any of the terrorism offences.”


Ultimately the symbolism of terror charges would carry more weight than the impact on Bissonette’s sentence, argues Carter.

A first-degree murder conviction carries an automatic life sentence with no chance of parole for 25 years. Under the Protecting Canadians by Ending Sentence Discounts for Multiple Murders Act legislation, Bissonette will not be eligible for parole for 150 years if convicted of the six first-degree murder charges.

“Any punishment he would get from a terrorism offence isn’t going to be more than that,” said Carter.


Canada’s terrorism offences have primarily been applied in cases where attacks were planned but never carried out, says Carter, a primary example of which would be the so-called “Toronto 18” plot where counter-terrorism raids prevented a series of planned attacks in Southern Ontario in 2006.

“These are cases where they (would-be terrorists) are stopped short. It’s what we call a ‘conspiracy-type offence,’” said Carter. “They are normally caught on wire taps before they act.”

Bissonnette appeared in court on Jan. 30, but did not speak or enter a plea. He will remain in custody until his next appearance on Feb. 21.