It was Canadian humor. On Oct. 21, I emailed an old friend in Ottawa. After updates on life and work and weather, I asked about what was happening in the capital these days. I once worked for the local paper and have fond memories of the city. But as a Toronto native, I could never admit that. “What’s the mood?” I ventured. “Does Ottawa even have moods?” You see, Ottawa is so safe and nice that even Canadians joke about how safe and nice it is.
Not today. At around 10 a.m. local time on the morning of Oct. 22, the heart of the Canadian capital came under attack. A man with a rifle approached and shot and killed 24-year-old Nathan Cirillo, a reservist standing guard at the National War Memorial, a granite cenotaph that memorializes fallen soldiers.
From there, a male suspect, now identified as 32-year-old Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, seized control of a vehicle and drove to the nearby Parliament buildings. Set on rise above the Ottawa River, looking out on Quebec, the site is elegant, but exposed. The north of the complex is a grassy field, the site of group tours, Frisbee tosses and the occasional yoga class. The approach is open and welcoming. You can pretty much walk in.
When the gunman arrived, many members of Parliament (MPs), and Prime Minister Stephen Harper, were gathered inside the Centre Block. Video shot by Josh Wingrove, a reporter for the Globe and Mail, shows police officers rushing in as shots ring through the building’s vaulted stone corridors. Politicians and journalists took cover in offices or under desks, live-tweeting the lockdown from their phones.
Though what happened next is still unclear, several top Canadian politicians reported that Sergeant at Arms Kevin Vickers, a retired veteran of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, took down the shooter, potentially saving lives. The position of the sergeant at arms is part security, part ceremony, and involves carrying a ceremonial mace into the House of Commons. Vickers is already being hailed as a hero, and a most Canadian one at that: he is described as competent, community-minded, kind.
Outside the Gothic towers, police shut down swaths of the city’s core, and security personnel appeared on rooftops. By the standards of world capitals, Ottawa is very, very safe. When I worked as a journalist at the Ottawa Citizen, I covered more barn fires and county fairs more than murders (there were just nine homicides in 2013). There could have been panic. But footage from the scene shows police officers calmly asking commuters to take cover. Out of habit, they use “please.”
Local authorities released the name of the victim and a suspect, but did not speculate on motives just yet. The press, for the most part, was careful not to jump to conclusions in the hours after the gunfire, noting only that this was the second time in three days that members of Canadian security forces were targeted. (On Oct 20 an assailant ran over two soldiers in Quebec, killing on of them; it is being investigated as a potential terrorist attack.)
Across the border, media critics took note of the nonhysterical, fact-based live broadcasts. “Canada’s CBC News Shows What Thoughtful Breaking News Coverage Really Looks Like,” read one headline. “The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation today gave a master class in calm, credible breaking news reporting,” observed a piece from Mother Jones.
For all its calm and restraint, Ottawa is clearly, and understandably, shaken. In an interview with the Canadian Press newswire, MP John McKay, who was on Parliament Hill during the attacks, said he could not even contemplate what came next. “This changes everything,” he said.
Everything, yes, and hopefully, nothing at all. For those affected and their families, all is different, darker. In the weeks and months to come, the country and the city will face questions about security. Questions about motive. There will be pointed fingers, grief and fear.
But already, the city is showing its best self. People are sending words of support to the victim’s family, praising the sergeant at arms, trying not to think, or say, the worst. Within hours, in tweets that would melt any Canadian’s heart, was the type of news that lets you know that good old Ottawa will be just fine: Minor hockey games are canceled. The Toronto Maple Leaf–Ottawa Senator showdown is delayed, for now.
When the smoke clears, they will play the game — and, hey, the Senators might actually win. Our capital, our lovely capital, lives to laugh another day.
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