My new part-time job is as a workshop presenter with Scientists in Schools. My first day visiting a school, the school went into “Shelter-in-Place” mode. Yep, I was in a school near downtown Ottawa last Wednesday while the gunman was on the loose. My first day “on the job,” as it were. And we had a “shooter” situation. Murphy’s Law, right?
Luckily I wasn’t actually giving the presentation. I was just observing. On the job training, if you will. The actual presenter soldiered on like nothing untoward was happening.
As my 2-hour parking permit was about to expire, the principal escorted me out of the school (to move my car) after a while. This school is in a neighbourhood where parking comes at a premium and even the paid municipal lots have a two-hour limit. At the door the lady principal turned to me and said, “I just need to apprise you of what the situation is. Then you can decide whether you want to go out there or not…. at your own risk.” My own risk. Of course.
After listening (and inwardly rolling my eyes once or twice – at this point no one really knew ANYTHING about what was going on, so her warnings were exceedingly vague), I was left thinking “Hmmm, shooter, or parking ticket…. Shooter, or parking ticket…. Shooter or…” A typical City of Ottawa parking ticket is $50. At least. Then the principal informed me that “the situation” she was filling me in on (if you could call it that) was actually happening on Parliament Hill. That’s at least 5 kilometres away, I thought.
Of course, I took the chance and ventured out. I really hate parking tickets. And, really, what are the chances, right? There’s a crazy guy downtown, but I’m a good two miles away.
It was 11 AM on a Wednesday, a day of beautiful fall weather. I was in the Glebe, a gentrified neighbourhood in central Ottawa. And the streets were completely deserted. Nobody was meandering in and out of the trendy shops, toting their shopping. Nobody was out raking leaves. The front windows of the large heritage homes stared at me expressionlessly. Playground swings blew in the wind, empty, while the kids were left missing recess and going squirrely inside the locked schools. The whole neighbourhood was shatteringly silent. It really was scary.
I guess it was about then that I started to clue-in that something pretty big really had happened in my hometown that day. I decided to resist tuning into the news, at least until later. I didn’t want to make myself so freaked out that I’d be too scared to walk back to the school.
When I did get back to the school, the presenter had finished the workshop. The parent volunteers were leaving. The teacher was gone on her lunch break. The group of grade threes we’d been visiting had descended into the chaos of a boisterous (and fairly destructive-looking) indoor nutrition break. I helped the presenter pack up and lug all her stuff back down to the entrance, where I was, once again, shown out by the still vigilant principal.
On the way home I tuned into the radio. I quickly learned why the streets were so quiet. Police asked people in the downtown core to stay indoors and – if at all possible – out of their way. At lunchtime that day most people still didn’t know the full extent of what had happened and the rumour mill was busy filling in the gaps in our knowledge. Was there one shooter or several? Was there a car jacking? After what all sources agreed had happened at out National War Memorial, had someone then subsequently been shot at, or near, the RIdeau Centre?
As it turned, my presenter colleague and I had been lucky to get out of the school at all. At some schools and daycares no one was permitted in or out for several hours. Schools in the heart of downtown Ottawa went into a full-on “Lockdown” mode, with classroom doors locked and students and staff left cowering silently under desks. One friend of mine joked that her son’s class at Lisgar High School (in the downtown core) was finally served leftover sausages (somehow funnelled to his classroom from the cafeteria) at about 3PM.
For those of you who still don’t know what happened here, an unarmed honour guard at our National War Memorial, one Corporal Nathan Cirillo, was fatally shot. The killer then, somehow or another, made his way un-impeded several more blocks to our Parliament buildings, where he managed to enter Centre Block with his rifle and walk quite a ways down the hall before being blown away by House of Common’s Seargent-at-Arms, Kevin Vickers. No doubt Mr. Shooter then immediately ascended to Valhalla or wherever and got right down to business with his seven bearded transversite virgins (the only volunteers they could find for the job). Or whatever.
It is a little difficult to understand the police statement that a person could do something like this “because of their religious views” and not be psycho, ’cause – wow – sorry, Mr. Shooter, we all think that’s craaaazy. In fact, I think having religious views that are psycho probably SHOULD be deemed some sort of mental illness. And I still can’t see 40 dead virgins of any stripe eagerly volunteering to play hide the hotdog and fulfill all this guy’s fantasies.
Do these guys even believe stuff like that or is it just another one of those baseless urban legends, like the white van that kidnaps all the kids? Surely – whether you pray saying Allah or God the Father – it’s the same guy, and we all agree that life is His greatest gift to us. One not to squandered lightly in favour of some half-baked fairytale.
In any event, Parliamentarians, aides, reporters, students, and tourists alike huddled for hours in rooms with furniture stacked against the doors that day. While they stewed, many of them got ready to run the bad guys through with flagpoles, bop them on the head with barrels of apples, or use whatever else at hand to protect themselves and each other. Meanwhile, the RCMP slowly cleared the area, methodically visiting every office and cupboard. A door to door inventory of Parliament. At every turn they checked – friend or foe? Friend or foe?
Later we heard that the whole incident was the work of the lone gunman who died in the hallways of Parliament. But that day, for many hours, no one was sure. Every place that could be a target of any coordinated, concerted effort to attack our nation’s capital was on high alert. That means military bases, government buildings, schools, bridges, and any place else Canadians may congregate in large numbers.
A special point of concern, for all of us, was our schools. I know I speak for every parent in the City when I say our most precious possessions can be found there. Hearing the schools were in “Secure” or “Shelter-in-Place” mode until further notice that day gave us all that extra twinge of anxiety. What if…?
And, of course, we were grateful to know our schools had a plan and our children were with people who care about them every bit as much as we do. So today I’d like to say thank you to my children’s teachers. Thank you for watching over them, explaining what you could, and keeping them safe until they were able to return to us again.
My husband’s in a sensitive industry too. I can definitely imagine terrorists wanting to strike the place where so many smart people invent so much technology to protect our airspace and waters and to aid in monitoring and defending our borders. And so – when I got back and found him still at home – I didn’t want BG to go to work at all . Afterall, I saw Terminator II: Judgement Day in the theatre when it came out! But go to work he did, and, so, I’d also like to thank whoever it was who had the good sense to send everyone home from that office for the day. BG would’ve been too pigheaded to do that on his own. So Thank you too.
And here’s the funny thing about the citizens of Ottawa, and perhaps Canadians in general: we refuse to be cowed by bullies. We learned that our children would be permitted to leave school at the usual time. We met them there and then – taking our cues from one another – the silent decision was that we would all stay and let them play in the park. Just like we always do.
I felt kinda proud to be at the park with my fellow Canadians, my fellow parents, and my neighbours that day. It felt like we were making a statement of some sort.
I will tell you something else. My prediction is – much as there is a lot of discussion about tightening up security on Parliament Hill in the wake of the tragedy – nothing major will change for us. Canadians will still enjoy the privilege of access to our government.
It will still be our Parliament. We will still visit if we want to. Canada remains a free country.
On the weekend I happened to drive by Parliament Hill with the Littles. The pavers around the National War Memorial (also known as The Response) were festooned with wreathes – at least 20 deep. The square was swarming with Canadians wanting to pay their respects to Corporal Cirillo, people wanting to say Thank You somehow. Judging by the number of people, it didn’t appear to me that Canadians felt particularly intimidated in the aftermath of the attack.
Corporal Cirillo, a reservist, was standing as an honour guard – wearing a kilt and carrying an un-loaded rifle – at The Response when the shooter, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, stepped forward and calmly shot him in the chest. Cpl. Cirillo was quickly attended to by multiple passers-by, who administered CPR. 9-1-1 reportedly receive “multiple calls” immediately. All the responders thought first of Nathan Cirillo. Their own safety was a secondary concern.
Ottawa is a centre of intelligentsia. Smart people from all around the world live here. Our city is a centre of government – with embassies and all that, yes – but it’s also the city of choice for many of the best and brightest immigrants from around the world. It’s a high-tech haven. Not long ago a popular nickname for our city was “Silicon Valley North”, although there has been a recession since then.. Still, we have two universities, a great college, and a school of theology, along with world-class hospitals and innumerable “institutes” of all sorts. So, for a city of only about a million people, Ottawa’s got an above average amount of brain power. I’m often amazed when I get talking to someone at a store or bus stop and – after a bit of friendly and often enlightening conversation – learn that they have a PhD in whatever. You do have to be careful how you talk to people in Ottawa. You can’t make any assumptions. The conversation could turn out to be a little humbling if you started out assuming you were the most educated or knowledgable.
But there’s another type of “smart person” in Ottawa, too. That’s the longtime local, the person who can trace their roots back a ways in the Ottawa Valley. The pragmatic sort of person who knows the way to Richmond, Carp, or Kars. The person who knows when deer season ends, and when duck season will start. This type is often some pot-bellied gentleman with a ball hat perched far back on his head and an accent that often fools me into thinking they’re from the East Coast (yup, they fool me into thinking it’s my own accent). That’s the kind of person I always hope will come pulling up in their pickup the day I end up hauled over on the side of the Queensway with that flat tire I’ve been dreading.
I don’t know if Kevin Vickers is from the Ottawa Valley or not, but he reminds me of that kind of Ottawa person. I loved the description of him in an online article by Margaret Wente of the Globe and Mail last week, as she listed the things she had learned about Canada in the wake of Wednesday’s events:
And I learned that I had woefully underestimated our quaint parliamentary traditions. I’d always thought our sergeant-at-arms was just some guy whose job was to re-enact one of our dustier traditions by dressing up in funny clothes and carrying around a mace (whatever that is). Who knew he was also a crack shot?
But Kevin Vickers, who is 58 and looks it, reportedly can aim and fire with deadly precision when his nation is attacked, then go back into his office to reload. He’ll never brag about it, either. That would be un-Canadian.
I love that. Kevin Vickers is 58 and looks it. He can fire with deadly precision, then go to his office to reload. Without bragging. How Canadian is THAT??
So, will Parliament change as a result of these terrible events? Will Ottawa change? Not on your life.
I’ve been seeing a lot of blowhards on the internet complaining about the hashtag “Ottawa Strong”. These people are, for some inexplicable reason, absolutely incensed that the people of Ottawa would choose to represent their city by tweeting out basically the same motto Bostonians used in the wake of the Boston Marathon attack. And these people – aside from having apparently no real problems of their own other than having way too much time on their hands – are missing the point.
People are tweeting “Ottawa strong” because Ottawa IS strong. And we stand in solidarity with our neighbours to the south. We have good neighbours. This isn’t really the time to be niggly about our how we differentiate ourselves as Canucks. That’s a good topic, but for another day.
People are also complaining about patriotism. I guess they feel it’s a bit mindless. But there’s a place for patriotism. It got us through two incredibly awful World Wars. That’s why The Response stands in the heart of downtown Ottawa (and so near our Parliament) in the first place.
People are ALSO complaining that our “warmonger” Prime Minister got us “into” this. Well, to be honest, I’ve never really liked Stephen Harper very much, but I don’t feel he’s to blame for committing us to combatting ISIS alongside our American cousins. That absolutely needs to be done. And – as for Mr. Harper – I may not have voted for him, but I certainly don’t want to see him shot. That would be very un-Canadian. If we want to, we will vote him out. And – for now – he may be the best man on a list of fairly mediocre choices.
The LAST point I want to address is the anti-Muslim backlash that’s so certain to come from a certain, ignorant sector of our population. But it’s easy to see how Canadians really feel about this issue. Just ask the people in Cold Lake, Alberta, who showed up last week en-mass to clean and repair their vandalised local mosque. Vandals – how can you call yourselves Canadian when you don’t even get what’s so great about this country in the first place? Where were you when CBC was running Little Mosque on the Prairie?
What terrorists don’t seem to ever get straight is that – the more you try to intimidate and bully us – the more it gets our back up. Canadians will just get mad. And it is our firm belief that – in the long run – our way of doing things will carry the day.
Why? Because Muslims are welcome here. They can live in this great country, with its civil society and free health care, and their daughters can go to school. Let’s not forget that Canada had planned to honour Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai with Canadian citizenship that very day. Mr. Extremist would like Muslims to forget that Canada is on their side. On the other hand, Mr. Extremist would ALSO to make his point so loudly that the message of Malala is drowned out and we Canadians forget that there are good Muslims out there. There are loads of good Muslims out there.
Cold Lake proves Zehaf-Bibeau was wrong. You can’t win, Mr. Terrorist. You will just piss us all off. We will gain up on you, as Canadians of every stripe. We will repaint our mosque and then grab some Timmies. Together.
Because Ottawa is strong, and Canadians are, and will remain, strong and free. Our next-door neighbours don’t own AK47’s (okay, that’s one possible difference between us and the Yanks). We still believe in helping each other. We believe in having a parliament Canadians are free to walk into, and – if you walk in with a rifle – some little old lady with a hockey stick will beat the crap out of you when you stop to re-load. If Kevin Vickers doesn’t get you first.
And so, I am still Canadian, and proud of it.
All for now,