It was a sad, scary and strange day here in Ottawa.
Wednesday, October 22, 2014 was so very sad, of course, because Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, a Canadian Forces reservist standing ceremonial guard at our National War Memorial, was murdered, shot cowardly in the back by a terrorist, leaving behind a five-year-old son he was, by all accounts, devoted to.
It was a scary day. As quickly as the news broke of the attack at the War Memorial, we heard that Parliament itself – the very seat of our Canadian democracy – was under attack. The Hill and much of downtown Ottawa was locked down as reports of gunfire in Centre Block quickly spread through the city.
It was, we learned, the same gunman who shot Cirillo at the War Memorial that launched the attack on Parliament. And it all happened so fast, apparently less than two minutes from the time of the Cirillo murder until he entered Centre Block. Samearn Son, a brave security guard on duty at the door, saw the gun and tried to wrestle it away. Son was shot in the foot (he was treated at the Ottawa Hospital and released), but his actions alerted security staff to the danger.
House of Commons Sergeant-at-Arms Kevin Vickers, a veteran former RCMP officer, quickly went to his office, retrieved his firearm and, with other security officers and RCMP officers, engaged the attacker in a gunfight killing him.
All this took place while the parties were holding their weekly Wednesday morning caucus meetings. The Conservative Party – including the prime minister and cabinet ministers – and New Democratic Party meetings, in fact, were taking place behind closed doors in the very corridor, the Hall of Honour, where the shoot-out took place.
Although the terrorist was killed just moments after his spree began at the War Memorial before 10 am, Ottawa remained a scary place for many more hours through the rest of the morning, the afternoon and well into the evening.
Although it turned out he was a lone wolf, there were initial reports of two, possibly three terrorists on the loose in downtown Ottawa or in the wooded areas behind the Parliament buildings.
There was an early report of shots fired near the Château Laurier Hotel, literally just steps from both the National War Memorial and Parliament Hill, which turned out not to be true. Then there were reports of shots fired in the nearby Rideau Centre shopping mall. Later, those reports changed to shots fired somewhere outside the Rideau Centre. These reports also turned out to be false.
Meanwhile, cell phone networks all over Ottawa were overloaded and jammed for hours. MPs, Hill staffers and people working in offices blocks away remained under lockdown as rumours swirled through the city. And, when the Ottawa Police and RCMP held a news conference at 2:15 pm, they did not seem to yet know how many suspects were involved. The situation, they said, was “ongoing.”
Not just sad and scary, it was an altogether strange day in Ottawa. The normal rhythms of our city were thrown off as we tried to understand and cope with the brutal murder of the soldier at the War Memorial, the attack on Parliament, and of just not knowing what was going on.
The prime minister, we were told, had been taken to an undisclosed safe location. It would be 10 hours before we heard from him.
And it was on Twitter at 12:40 pm from Employment and Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney that we learned the soldier shot at the War Memorial had died. Why were we hearing this in a tweet from the employment minister and not from an announcement by the defence minister or the minister of public safety?
It was also a day that brought us together. We came together in grief over the heartbreaking loss of Nathan Cirillo, in admiration for the valiant efforts of those on the scene who tried to save him, and in awe of the bravery of Kevin Vickers and the police and security officials who protected Parliament and the city.
It was a sad, scary and strange day. A day we will not soon forget. But it was a day that strengthened our understanding of what it means to be Canadian.