There was a time anyone could drive their car, truck or motorcycle to the front door of Parliament right under the Peace Tower. People could walk in the front door and wander about quite easily. Security was more of an afterthought than a hands-on, knee-jerk necessity.
I can hear the voices. That must have been a very long time ago, another age, and another half-century ago. It was actually only 13 years ago. September 11, 2001 changed things – but clearly not enough, as the events of that terrible Wednesday last month have proven. How could anyone in 2014 walk in with a rifle and shoot up the Hall of Honour in the Parliament of Canada? How could a single gunman get that far?
One huge misconception is that Canada lost its innocence last month. Let’s remember the FLQ crisis in 1970, the fatal shooting of 14 women at the École Polytechnique in Montreal in 1989, and the storming of Quebec’s National Assembly in 1984, which led to the shooting deaths of three people and the wounding of 13 others. Sadly, acts of terror are not new to Canada. The context and the times are different, but an act of terror is just that.
The National Assembly shootings were 30 years ago and, in their aftermath, you would have thought security conscious people in the House of Commons would have taken notice right then and there. My point being, it should not have taken the mass murder of 9/11 to wake people up to the risks and dangers.
I was at the National Assembly that day in 1984, and my strongest recollection is how easy it was for a gunman to walk in the door and to do the killing and wounding he did. The moral of the story then was that legislative buildings were easy prey and, yet, even after that event, it was still possible to drive a car or truck under the Peace Tower in Ottawa and walk in the front door.
What is harder to come to grips with, especially after 9/11, is how Employment and Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney was quoted as saying on the day of the recent attack that, for a long time, he and his colleagues feared this very thing. It was so predictable, yet no one could stop it.
What is incredibly lucky is that a group of terrorists didn’t come to Parliament with machine guns and grenades. It could have happened. We live in a very cruel world, a cruel and increasingly barbaric world. Yet, our Parliament was still so penetrable.
In the modern era, increasingly intense terrorist attacks have been occurring globally since the early-1970s, including a major one with a huge Canadian dimension. Did we forget about the blowing up of the Air India flight in 1985, which killed 325 passengers, many of whom were Canadians? Add that to our list of how Canada lost its innocence a long time ago.
Yet, within Parliament, there has been a long-held view – in fact, a culture – of hearing no evil and seeing no evil that is based on a fundamentally noble objective that our Parliament Hill does not become an armed fortress. We can lament the depressing thought that nobility comes at an enormously steep cost we can no longer afford.
While the RCMP is responsible for security on the Hill, an important fact is that their responsibility stops at the front door. Inside, the Parliament buildings are patrolled by House of Commons and Senate constables, mostly in uniform, fewer in plainclothes.
What is so hard to believe is that, until this event, the uniformed constables wore bulletproof vests and carried walkie-talkies on their belts, but not firearms. Essentially, they were defenceless. They are there to keep order and, on normal days, having unarmed guards greet the public is just so nicely and politely Canadian.
The only people with guns inside the Parliament buildings were the constables in plainclothes, their revolvers hidden under their jackets for no one to see. That, too, comes across as just too modestly Canadian in today’s dangerous world.
No, we didn’t lose our innocence that day. What we lost forever, despite our history, is that lingering, misguided belief that it couldn’t happen here.