The shooting spree that paralyzed Canada’s capital may change the self-image of a country that’s long prided itself on avoiding the violence more commonly associated with its southern neighbor.
The fatal attack on a soldier at about 10 a.m. prompted a frenzied evacuation of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and a lockdown of public buildings that continued into the evening. Civil servants and tourists described chaotic scenes as police swarmed to locate the assailant, who was shot and killed inside the main Parliament building. Authorities couldn’t confirm into yesterday evening whether the gunman acted alone.
What would be a shocking series of events in any nation is even more so in Canada, where security at many public buildings is minimal. Until recently, most security guards at Parliament were unarmed.
“I’m not sure what to make of it yet, whether it’s a product of the times we’re living in, whether or not we can expect to see more of this,” Bryan Rogers, executive director at Grain Growers of Canada, said in a telephone interview from his office building on Sparks Street, a few blocks from Parliament Hill.
Security was tightened across the country. Quebec officials stepped up protection at the provincial legislature in Quebec City and Montreal City Hall. British Columbia increased security at its legislature in Victoria, while the legislature in New Brunswick was closed.
The shootings came two days after a Canadian soldier died and a second was injured after being run down by a car driven by a suspected Islamic militant whom authorities said had been “radicalized.” The incident in Saint-Jean-Sur-Richelieu, about 30 miles southeast of Montreal, was linked to “terrorist ideology,” the government said. The driver was killed by police after a car chase.
The Ottawa gunman was known as Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, according to a U.S. law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the person isn’t authorized to speak publicly. The soldier who died was Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, a member of the ceremonial honor guard at the National War Memorial.
Canadian politicians have warned for some time that the country’s immunity to organized attacks wouldn’t last forever. Harper, a member of the Conservative Party that has contributed troops to interventions in Afghanistan, Libya, and Iraq, said in 2011 that violence could arrive “out of the blue” both from Islamic extremists and lone murderers like Norway’s Anders Behring Breivik.
Canadians have largely taken such warnings in stride. In Toronto’s financial district, home to the headquarters of Royal Bank of Canada, Bank of Montreal, and the local offices of dozens of foreign financial institutions, most office buildings have no barriers preventing passers-by from riding elevators to any floor they please.
A low violent crime rate may explain some of that. Last year Toronto, with 2.8 million residents, recorded 57 murders, compared with more than 400 in Chicago. Canada’s largest city gets by with 5,500 police officers, less than half the number in Chicago proper, which has roughly the same population.
Yesterday’s shootings struck at the heart of Canada’s governing institutions, which are clustered around a few square blocks in downtown Ottawa. Harper said in a televised address last night Canada “will never be intimidated” and will redouble efforts to combat terrorism.
“We will learn more about the terrorist and any accomplices he may have had,” Harper said from an undisclosed location as police patrolled a security zone around Parliament Hill.
Ottawa is a sleepy government town of about 1 million people unused to violent crime of any kind, much less gunplay. Throughout the city’s compact center, police warned office workers to stay away from windows and shouted at journalists to take cover as they tried to locate attackers. The U.S. embassy, a five-minute walk from the war memorial, was locked down, as were the offices of civil servants in the area. The Bank of Canada canceled a scheduled press conference.
“It’s too soon to speculate, but it’s hard to see how this won’t change things,” said Andrew MacDougall, a former director of communications for Harper who’s now a consultant in London at MSLGroup. “To see my former place of work lit up in a blaze of gunfire is shocking, disheartening and worrying.”
Canada’s federal parties hold caucus meetings each Wednesday when the legislature is in session, and most members of Parliament were in rooms a few yards from where the gunfight occurred. Pictures on social media showed some had barricaded doors with furniture to prevent assailants from entering.
In a speech last month unveiling his party’s legislative agenda for the current parliamentary session, Harper told Canadians they lived in “times of risk and danger” that require steady leadership.
The country has experienced occasional episodes of headline-grabbing violence. Each December, Canadians wear white ribbons to commemorate the slaughter of 14 women at the Ecole Polytechnique de Montreal in 1989 by a lone gunman. In 1984, a former army corporal killed three people in the Quebec provincial legislature before being persuaded to surrender. In June, three Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers were killed in the east coast town of Moncton.
Just over a decade earlier, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, father of the current leader of the Liberal Party Justin Trudeau, briefly declared martial law in Quebec to stop a series of bombings by a nationalist group.
The Ottawa attack feels different, leading politicians to conclude the country has changed permanently.
“It will impact on our dialog of how we live in this country,” Liberal Party Member of Parliament John McKay said of the violence in an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. “This is the kind of day that changes everything.”
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