A terrible thing happened in Ottawa and it doesn’t feel like it’s ended yet. I live in the downtown area, an area that the news is still warning people to stay out of, and the wail of sirens fades in and out of hearing as I write this, nearly ten hours after violence unexpectedly engulfed my beautiful, peaceful city.
It’s a strange thing, feeling unsafe in my city. I’ve lived in many places, in several countries, and while people sometimes make fun of Ottawa for its government vibe, or the (small c) conservatism of the people who live here, I chose to make it my home.
Despite the chilly winters and sweaty summers, despite the impracticality of living in a city that prizes bilingualism, which I do not possess, I chose Ottawa because it is the heart of our country, and home is where the heart is.
Ottawa is representative of the truest parts of Canada, the ones that are so commonplace, we don’t even notice them anymore. It’s not trendy like Vancouver, or cosmopolitan like Montreal. It doesn’t have the would-be American vibe of Toronto, or the impossibly nice people you find in the Maritimes and Newfoundland. It may well be boring – lots of Canadians are.
Ottawa is several small towns and neighbourhoods, rolled into a collective, which works surprisingly well, all things considered. It sits surrounded by natural splendour that we can’t take credit for, and often take for granted. It is a city of people who take care of each other, as much as they may complain about it: we have social programs and food banks and good public transit, and while we may not have enough of any of them, we’re trying, because it matters. Our neighbours and our communities matter.
As people, we may not be warm, but we will almost always be polite. French and English jostle each other, with varying degrees of comfort and accommodation, but it works, mostly because Francophones are more patient with people failing at their language than they’re ever given credit for. Allophones and new Canadians are a growing presence and bring their own cultures and traditions to the mix. Apparently, Ottawa has more shawarma places than any city outside of Lebanon. I have no way of verifying this fact, but I have heard it many, many times, with pride, from Ottawa natives.
While I know many people born and raised here in Ottawa, I know even more transplants, like myself, who came from across Canada or from other countries, to make a home and a life for themselves here. This is what Canada is.
The seat of our government is here: not the imposing majesty of Westminster or even the neo-classical aspirational architecture of Congress. The Parliament of Canada is distinctly British in inspiration, as with so many of Canada’s institutions, but on a smaller, more accessible scale. While the wide lawns of the Hill allow tourists to take photos attempting to capture the full sweep of the complex, they also host summer yoga classes, Frisbee tossing, and people having impromptu picnics in nicer weather. There are no guards, no guns, no signs demanding you stay off the grass. It’s there for you to use, because it’s yours. It’s ours.
This morning, seemingly responding to the deployment of Canadian troops to Iraq, a man shot and killed one of the honour guards standing at the cenotaph, the war memorial honouring Canada’s military dead. The soldier killed was Corporal Nathan Cirillo, a reservist from Hamilton, ON, attached to the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada. The shooter then ran into the Centre Block and began shooting there, while more shots were fired on nearby Rideau Street. Three more people were injured and hospitalized and the original shooter, now identified as Michael Zehaf-Bibeau (born Michael Joseph Hall), was killed by Sergeant-at-Arms Kevin Vickers.
My heart breaks for everyone involved with this tragedy: for Nathan Cirillo, who leaves behind a young son and was so young himself, just starting his life; for Kevin Vickers, who had to kill a man today, to prevent further harm coming to the people under his protection; for the family of Zehaf-Bibeau, who must mourn him, knowing that most people will only ever know of him as a killer; for Zehaf-Bibeau himself, so clearly angry, so clearly lost.
My heart breaks for the people of my city, feeling unsafe tonight and wondering what tomorrow will bring, and for the people of my country, who, even if they’re not here in Ottawa, are newly aware of how vulnerable our many freedoms make us.
We are vulnerable. It’s only through great luck and the strength of the country we all build every day that something like this has never happened before. It may yet happen again. We live in difficult times and they are not likely to get easier in the near future as our government gradually builds a smaller, meaner Canada, hoping we won’t notice until it’s too late.
Citizenship once meant something in this country built by immigrants, and religious freedom was once important, regardless of what religion you believed in. Higher education and healthcare have never been entirely free in Canada, but they were once much more freely available to all, not just those who could pay. Our rights are becoming privileges, and our privileges are becoming commodities that more and more are available only to the privileged few.
But we must resist the impulse to give in to our fear, to surrender our freedoms, to give up out rights for the vague and uncertain promise that greater government powers will make us safer from those who mean us harm. We must know the truth of our vulnerability and choose to move past it, in the hopes that we can build a better world through compassion and generosity and hope. Not just for ourselves, but for everyone.
We must be the country that we truly, in our heart of hearts, know we are. Maybe not the hippest, most exciting country in the world, maybe one with more internal fault lines than we really like to think about. But one that means well, that is full of people who are compassionate and kind and honest, a country that goes out into the world and tries to do right, even if we don’t always succeed. A country that was built and sustained by immigration, that opens its borders and identities to welcome all people.
When I go out next, I will walk the streets of my city again, and I will smile at the other pedestrians, who will no doubt be startled by such unlikely eye contact, and I will remember what it means to me to be Canadian. I will be hopeful.
Photo of Parliament Hill by W. Lloyd MacKenzie, via Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/saffron_blaze/