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In the Wake of the Ottawa Shooting

Parliament Hill, August 2014
Parliament Hill, August 2014

No matter where you are in the world, you probably heard about Ottawa yesterday. Unfortunately, the national capital’s name was associated with an ugly word—“shooting.”

Mark, Feng and I were in the car, heading downtown, when we heard something on the radio about a lockdown, a gunman and a soldier shot. “Where? Here? In Ottawa?” I said incredulously. We turned the volume up and I grabbed my phone for the latest news.

At 9:52 a.m., a few minutes earlier, a member of the Canadian Forces guarding the War Memorial had been shot. Moments later, a man drove up to the Hill in a black Chrysler and entered Parliament armed with a hunting rifle. Soon after, shooting began in the Centre Block lobby.

This is where we were at. The downtown core was going into a lockdown, and people were advised to stay away from bus stops and windows. A manhunt was starting.

Obviously, we didn’t stop downtown and kept on driving East to Saint Laurent. Mark fell asleep in the car and we parked in front of a Chapters store. Our Starbucks cups in hand, we followed the news on my phone. Several friends of mine were downtown, stuck in the lockdown zone. Meanwhile, I was getting emails from abroad asking if we were okay.

We spent most of the early afternoon in Saint Laurent, we didn’t want to be stuck on the freeway as the lockdown area was expending and the police was still looking for two other possible shooters. The main suspect had been killed during the Centre Block shooting, and sadly the soldier shot was declared dead at the hospital.

It was very confusing and very surreal. The atmosphere was strange—a mix of shock, disbelief and fear.

All afternoon, most of the information was purely practical and factual: recommending people to avoid the downtown core, keeping public servants downtown in lockdown, reminding of road closures, public transportation being detoured and activities being cancelled.

We were almost forgetting to wonder “who”, and mostly “why”.

Canada is a fairly peaceful nation. Sure, we have occasional shootings, homicides, weird crimes making the headlines but like most Canadians like to say, “nothing like in the US”. This is not America-bashing, it’s just true. We have fewer firearms and fewer fatal shootings. Outbreaks of violence are rare. The members of the Canadian Forces stand guard in front of the War Memorial holding rifles that aren’t even loaded. Parliament Hill is open to everyone. All in all, Canada is a place where people get along well and without huge political issues. I do not support the current Conservative government but Canada generally has good foreign relations and a low likelihood of violent protests.

Parliament Hill, the home of the Parliament of Canada, is the heart of political power. An attack on Parliament Hill means a political attack—the target chosen is of political significance. “Terrorist motives”, said Harper later that night, as we learned the name of the main gunman killed by Parliament’s Sergeant-at-Arms.

It is not clear whether there was more than one gunman involved in the attacks. At this stage, nothing is clear anyway. People are shocked, saddened, frightened.

Parliamentary security is under the spotlight. Despite being protected by different security forces, it remains a very open place. The grounds are open to the public, and anyone can enter the Centre Block easily as long as they go through a security screening similar to the one used in airport (bags screening, etc.). The Hill is often full of political leaders coming and going.

I’ve always liked it this way. As a tourist, I was amazed to see I could go inside an institution like Parliament Hill. As a Canadian, I value the free and unfettered access to the symbol of government.

Peace was shattered by gunfire, deaths, a manhunt, and a total lockdown.

There is something wrong here. I hope that instead of being scared, instead of blaming someone or something, we manage to find the root of the problem and address it, as a nation.

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