Once the temporary construction barriers were removed from the new American Embassy building, Amy and I couldn’t help but think that all the security seemed excessive for sleepy old Ottawa.
It was 1999. My friend and I — along with the rest of the city — had been observing its construction for months. The construction site was smack in the heart of downtown Ottawa, after all, and a stone’s throw away from our favourite pub.
The building’s glass façade and busy civilian locale had courted controversy prior to construction, especially in light of the series of bombings on American embassies around the world a year prior. But as then-political science and journalism students respectively, Amy and I couldn’t help but notice how culturally different the new embassy felt in comparison to the city’s other governmental buildings, protected by a soaring fence, stern guards, and monolithic speed bumps that reached to our waists when we dared walk on its side of Sussex Avenue.
We weren’t just casual critics; both of us had spent much time on Parliament Hill and its neighboring government buildings for internships, jobs and research. But it wasn’t just the buildings that were familiar, the entire area felt like our backyard, but a special one. Like so many Ottawa residents, we’d take strolls along the scenic Ottawa River behind Parliament Hill, celebrate Canada Day on its packed lawn, or even just cut through the Hill to another destination. It’s not on every sidewalk that one can pause to let a motorcade pass by and be greeted with a wave and smile from then-US President Bill Clinton from the window of his limousine not three feet away.
When news broke of the shootings last Wednesday, I texted Amy right away. Even though she is miles away at her desk in midtown Manhattan, the same memory sprung up between us. After a night of revelry in the Byward Market, we took advantage of the unseasonably warm spring night to walk over to the Hill, and hang out on the front steps of Centre Block. There was a guard on duty that early morning; after he realized that we were staying for a while, he ambled over and kindly — as only a Canadian could — suggested that we move our party elsewhere. So we moved down to the Centennial Flame fountain and enjoyed the evening undisturbed.
Parliament Hill felt so gloriously free and welcoming in those pre-September 11 days. Amy and I graduated that spring and moved to Toronto. Our first return to our Alma Mater city was scheduled for the weekend of Sept. 15, 2001. After much hesitation, we went. Driving up a deserted 401 late at night, we listened to near-apocalyptic news talk radio, with military planes roaring overhead. We didn’t visit Parliament Hill, but did walk by that imposing American Embassy building on our way to the old watering hole. There were so many flowers left in tribute to those who lost their lives that the aforementioned fence had figuratively disappeared.
Much like the embassy’s imposing security measures, last week’s shooting seemed jarring, out of place in the sedate government town I called home for four years. An unarmed soldier is killed in cold blood at the very public War Memorial; the killer runs the short distance to Parliament Hill with malicious intent. The hours between the shots fired and the all-clear sounded were agonizing, confusing. Listening to the radio, hearing the names of familiar landmarks where marksmen reportedly stood, where more shots were perhaps fired, felt surreal compared to my experience with the city.
We know now that the killer was less an organized terrorist than an isolated victim of mental illness (a fine line if there ever was one). Did we know, however, that Cpl. Nathan Cirillo’s rifle was empty, or that Sergeant-At-Arms Vickers knew how to use a gun, even if it was locked in his office?
Speculation as to how our nation acutely protects itself is rampant; it will undoubtedly be a long discussion with visible and invisible measures. This isn’t the first time Parliament Hill has been attacked, but it is the first time in a new age: threats to what those buildings represent — democracy, openness, freedom — arise from seemingly nowhere, and are difficult to predict and safeguard against.
I was surprised by just how much the shooting affected me last week; I think most Canadians were as well. As much as we celebrate the heroics of so many that day and mourn the loss of Cirillo, we more so mourn the realization that we are not immune, nor sheltered. Our pride in the safety and openness of our country and its institutions has been shaken. Our nation’s collective consciousness has been stained with the shortcomings of exactly what we hold so dear.