Thursday, October 23, 2014

#MyOttawa: There's something about The Hill

Photo as posted from Wayne Cuddington / Ottawa Citizen
Ottawa. It's not my favourite city, I gripe about it sometimes. But there's something cool about how Canadians 'do' government. It's a different place from, say, Washington, DC, and the Parliament Buildings and their grounds are different from the White House.

Before yesterday, if I'd wanted to, I could walk up to the Parliament buildings, lean against the sandstone and try to identify all the carved sculptures (the most famous being the beaver) above the door through which I've walked many times, and through which I'm fairly sure Michael Zehaf-Bibeau entered yesterday, armed with a rifle and aiming to continue what he'd started by killing unarmed Cpl. Nathan Cirillo at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier a few minutes before.

I suspect that many people in Ottawa are finding, as I am, that the open nature of Parliament and its grounds holds symbolic importance that we'd not taken stock of before yesterday. The lawn on Parliament Hill really is 'our space', and our space is welcoming. In the winter you can make snow angels on the lawn. In the summer it's open on Wednesdays for yoga. On a sunny, breezy, summer day you could have a picnic on Parliament Hill. Why not?

The Hill isn't important because it's where the Canadian government works and sits (though it's that, too) but because it is, in a lot of ways, representative of what makes living in Canada pretty great. It's relatively open, uniquely beautiful, and plucky in a way that makes you happy to be from here. It is not a kitschy tourist attraction that can be sealed off, locked down and treated as off-limits in the way that some, especially those who don't live here, are claiming it should be without changing its nature.

I work about three blocks from the War Memorial three days a week, and was in a meeting across the street from my office when the shootings took place. From the second story of the World Exchange Plaza, I watched SWAT teams running, armed, through the streets. When I tried to look toward Parliament, I was shooed from the windows by security. After a couple of hours, we were allowed to cross the street to return to our office, and a few hours later we left, but could only do so through the South door. I walked West (the East was blocked) and looked toward Parliament Hill to see police at every intersection and no one on the street. The way was blocked. The space was not open. Not even when I first moved here did the city seem so alien.

Zehaf-Bibeau was a coward and a criminal who was handled professionally and effectively by Sergeant-at-Arms Kevin Vicker, the RCMP, and Ottawa Police. He frightened us all as we waited for word from friends and loved ones under lock down, but no one I've spoken to has been anything but grateful of how first responders treated us while it was in effect. While there are certainly improvements that can be made, such as to security for military guards and how the Parliament Buildings are accessed from the outside, I hope that as the investigation wraps up we do not satisfy a murderer by elevating him to someone capable of changing the generally open, and as we saw yesterday, prepared nature of Ottawa and Parliament Hill. Not, as Andrew Coyne said so well, at the cost of our national spirit.

Ottawa was strong yesterday. We shouldn't react, and we shouldn't be treated, as though we were weak.

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Update: Margaret Wente and Scott Gilmore have good columns on this, too.

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I'd like to thanks friends who also live or have lived in Ottawa, work or have worked on Parliament Hill, and were under lockdown in different circumstances than I yesterday for their feedback in writing this post. 

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