Direct Action or Terrorism – A Critical Analysis of the Squamish Five and their Disreputable Place in Canadian History

Terrorism for most people is captured more in images than in words. Whether it is hostage-taking, piracy, or indiscriminate bombings and shootings, the victims are typically described as having been innocents or non-combatants. And always, those labeled as terrorists are identified as the force which threatens democratic order (Perdue, 1989). Terrorism is a hot button issue and it is not my intention to regard its occurrence flippantly; however, I do believe that terrorism is not as prevalent as legislators would have us believe. In the following critical analysis of the Squamish Five and the hoopla surrounding their various exploits, I hope to further your knowledge on the criminalization of dissent by illustrating how the state constructs a terrorist threat and uses it as a tool of fear and social control.

Ulrich Beck’s Risk Society, Towards a New Modernity states that new knowledge of risks promotes more knowledge creating anxiety which the knowledge intends to mitigate and this endless paradox is befittingly illustrated by the culture of fear. In a culture of fear, the state’s coercive power increases as it feeds off the emotions, insecurities and perceived vulnerabilities of society. The common sense logic becomes that certain liberties must be surrendered in the name of security, however, as Neocleous (2008) puts it, “liberty becomes [only] part of the deployment of security rather than a political end in itself” (p.26). Indeed, constantly being bombarded with the notion that terrorists are everywhere, immigrants are invading our occupations and culture, and that our youth are becoming increasingly violent, media outlets and public policy quickly bring violent persons into sharp focus and offer grand, comforting solutions (Starr, Fernandez & Scholl, 2011, p. 1). Forcibly removing undesirables from public space is one such solution. Otherwise known as social control, Karl Marx described it as a tool of class struggle, whereby the state’s use of force is used to protect elite power (as cited in Starr, Fernandez & Scholl, 2011, p. 3).  “Criminalization” acts as the instrument through which social control is exercised and it is the process of labelling and treating dissenters as deviants – affirming their deviant character and denying  political status of acts” (Starr, Fernandez & Scholl, 2011, p. 8).

Now before I go any further, I’d just like to offer a distinction between the often conflated terrorist and anarchist. The Bush report defines terrorism as “the unlawful use or threat of violence against persons or property to further political or social objectives… generally intended to intimidate or coerce a government, individuals, or groups to modify their behaviour or policies” (Perdue, 1989, p. 2). Anarchism, on the other hand, is a philosophy that advocates for complete liberty, freedom, and equality (Rimke, 2011). The nuances are many and complex but what distinguishes terrorists from anarchists is the fact that anarchists view anarchy itself as the main objective for which they advocate and may employ tactics .i.e. Direct Action and Blac Bloc which serve as a means to an end (Borum & Tilby, 2005, p. 202).

“Direct Action”, a.k.a. the Squamish Five, were as their name would suggest an anarchist group. Convinced that the more traditional methods of political activism were ineffective, they resolved to go underground to fight for their cause (Sudlow, 1995). However, as a result of their highly publicized stunts (see overview), the term “terrorist” became all too prevalent in the news resonating with viewers and leading to  an undermining of the legal rights of the group during their trial (see media analysis). Truly, the ability to name and to have that name accepted by an audience is an amazing feat. As Bhatia (2005) asserts, “to name is to identify an object, remove it from the unknown, and then assign to it a set of characteristics, motives, values and behaviours” (p. 8). It fulfils two primary functions: 1) propagating a discourse of belonging and opposition, and 2) to justify action through labeling (p. 12). Kinsman, Buse and Steedman (2000) all seem to agree with this assertion stating that through the long-time use of ‘national security’, the state has been able to take action against persons and groups seen as threats to those in power. From enemies to those in power, these groups become transformed into enemies of the state (p. 278). The construction of the ‘other’, ‘deviant’, or ‘savage’ becomes the prerequisite of intervention and once a successful claim is made on grounds of national security, much like the Squamish Five, individuals and groups are denied their human, civil, and legal rights. Furthermore, “the processes of ‘inclusion’ and ‘exclusion’ from these rights become key to the maintenance of hegemony” (Kinsman, Buse, & Steedman, 2000, p. 283). If someone identifies with ‘Canada’ they will be inclined to support the defence of its national security, especially if they have no reason to be critical of that particular sphere of activity. For the state and the associated media, referring to those who attempt to challenge the status quo as ‘subversive’, ‘terrorists’, and/or ‘extremists’ is an attempt at “denying the legality of their opponents and emphasizing the need to maintain law and order” (Bhatia, 2005, p. 14).

Michel Foucault once said that knowledge equals power. However, he also said that power is fluid. It is repressive, productive, dispersed and widespread and because resistance exists in relation to power it can be considered a counter conduct (as cited in Dearth, 2010). The Squamish Five were prompted by their moral duty to act against nuclear war, environmental destruction and the exploitation of women. Violence served as a tool for resistance, a tool that enabled them to intervene in the enactment of what they presumed to be illegitimate laws and the reproduction of hegemonic norms (Starr, Fernandez & Scholl, 2011, p. 17). Any harm caused to civilians was an oversight on their part, however, anarchists oppose property rights and so the destruction of property has symbolic value and is not seen as a violation of an individual’s rights (Borum & Tilby, 2005, p. 205). This ideology directly opposes what the Law aims to maintain – that is, the interests of the ruling class and private property (Clarke, 2003, p. 492). This explains why anarchists and many other direct action led groups are policed and punished so vigorously.

Hoping that their actions would spark a new wave of militancy and accelerate the class struggle the Squamish Five desperately wanted to inspire people to take more direct actions (Ward, 2002). Litton eventually lost its contract to build cruise missile components and many Red Hot Video outlets in B.C were eventually closed therefore one can contend that they were successful. However, it is important to note that  “the minute we recognize that it is possible to target people who are dissenters for control, whether or not they commit specific illegal acts of dissent, we are ready to see that ‘crime control’ and ‘dissent control’ can never be disentangled” (Starr, Fernandez & Scholl, 2011, p. 9).


Bhatia, M. V. (2005). Fighting words: Naming terrorists, bandits, rebels and other violent actors. Third World Quarterly, 26(1), 5-22.

Borum, R., & Tilby, C. (2005). Anarchist direct actions: A challenge for law enforcement. Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 28(3), 201-223.

Clarke, J. (2003). Commentary: Social resistance and the disturbing of the peace.  Osgoode Hall Law Journal, 4, 491-503.

Dearth, C. (2010). Counter conducts: A foucauldian analytics of protest. Social Movements Studies, 9(3), 235-251.

Kinsman, G., Buse, D. K., & Steedman, M. (2000). How the centre holds national security as an ideological practice. Whose National Security? Canadian State Surveillance and the Creation of Enemies (pp. 278-286). Toronto: Between the Lines.

Neocleous, M. (2008). ‘The supreme concept of bourgeois society’: Liberalism and the technique of security. Critique of Security (pp. 11-38). Montreal/Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Perdue, W. D. (1989). Terrorism and the state: A critique of domination through fear. New York: Praeger.

Rimke, H. (2011). Security resistance. In G. Rigakos & M. Neocleous (Ed.), Anti-Security (pp. 191-215). Ottawa: Red Quill Books

Starr, A., Fernandez, L., & Scholl, C. (2011). What is going on? Shutting down the streets: Political violence and social control in the global era (pp. 1-18). New York: New York University Press.

Sudlow, R. (1995, Jul 24). Urban guerrillas of the 1980s deny they were terrorists; B.C. mail bombs revive memories of squamish five. The Ottawa Citizen Retrieved from

Ward, D. (2002, Jan 19). Life after anarchy: She lives peacefully now, but former squamish five member ann hansen hasn’t abandoned her political ideology. The Vancouver Sun Retrieved from



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