Downtown Ottawa puts on quite a show at Christmas time. At night, the city is lit by thousands of multicoloured lights, particularly on Parliament Hill. Once upon a time you could drive right up from Wellington onto the hill along the crescent-shaped lane to get an up close look. Not any more, not since a guy drove his vehicle right up the steps of the Centre Block, nearly crashing right through the doors.
But the peace was shattered last Wednesday when a soldier standing on ceremonial guard duty in front of the Canadian War Memorial was shot in the back. Minutes later, the same gunman stormed the Canadian Parliament buildings. At the entrance he struggled with a guard. After shooting the guard in the foot he gained entry to the Center Block building and the Hall of Honour. Soon thereafter he was killed in a firefight with security personnel.
The slain soldier, Nathan Cirillo, was a reservist. He was a 24 year old single father to a five year old boy. This was indeed a day of tragedy. It was also a day of heroism. Immediately upon his getting shot, a group of civilians rushed to Cirillo’s aid, attempting to staunch the bleeding, keep him breathing, and keep his heart beating. One spoke to him as they administered first aid, telling him that he was loved, he was brave, he was so loved.
The guy who took down the shooter wasn’t your typical action hero movie star. At least, not going by appearance. Sergeant at Arms Kevin Vickers, a man in his late 50’s, strikes you more as the fatherly type. But on this day he was definitely a hero and was just in time. When the gunman was brought down, he was within easy reach of members of all the political parties, including the Prime Minister. Thing is, after a day like that, Vickers resumed his duties in the House of Commons the following day looking like nothing extraordinary had happened. Just another day at the office.
Another, quieter act of heroism occurred on Cape Breton Island, where a 15 year old girl donned her cadet’s uniform and stood guard for hours in the pouring rain in front of the local war memorial in order to honour Nathan Cirillo.
The events of the day brought Ottawa to a standstill. Government buildings and buildings within the downtown core were locked down for most of the day. Among the thousands of people affected were my wife and son, and yes, it was nerve wracking. At the time, no one knew how many shooters were on the loose. People were advised to stay off the streets and away from windows.
Today, Cirillo is being buried in his home town of Hamilton. As we pay our respects, we consider the events that led to his death. It’s sobering to think how the actions of one individual can create such tragedy and bring a city to a standstill. It’s still debatable the extent to which the shooter’s actions were the result of “radicalization” versus mental illness. But perhaps motives matter less than the question of what do we do now? After an unprecedented act of violence against the seat of government, it has to be tempting to over-react, to give authorities more power in order to try to prevent such events from happening again. But care must be taken that in doing so we don’t sacrifice the very freedoms that we’re trying to protect, that people like Nathan Cirillo died to protect.
We must all remain vigilant. Not only against acts of terror, but against the gradual erosion of our precious freedoms. Life is about balance. Finding the right balance is hard, but it’s something we must all strive towards.