I started last week in Ottawa by joining His Excellency Governor General David Johnston at Rideau Hall as he honoured a number of Canadians, including Chilliwack resident Shawn Nagurny, for acts of bravery.
It was a poignant ceremony, where the Governor General spoke of these “wrong way guys and wrong way gals” who had turned toward danger, rather than away from it and put themselves at risk to save their fellow Canadians.
The very next day, Canadians witnessed the same sort of bravery in the face of a terrorist attack in Ottawa.
I was in the Conservative national caucus room with my MP and Senate colleagues, as I am every week on Wednesday mornings, when the prime minister’s remarks were interrupted by loud noises – noises that we soon recognized to be gun fire. Single shots were quickly replaced by rapid bursts and the noise was getting louder and closer to our room. Everyone in caucus knew that there had recently been specific terrorist threats against Canada, made all-too-real days before when two soldiers had been mowed down by a radicalized individual in Quebec. We all assumed that there were multiple terrorist gunmen outside the room with automatic weapons and that they would be inside in a matter of seconds. Since no one in the room was armed and there was really no way to defend ourselves, it was terrifying.
People acted quickly to take cover where they could because we had no idea what was happening outside of our windowless caucus room. It wasn’t until much later that we learned that in fact, most of the gun shots that we heard were from our security forces responding to the security threat. Meanwhile, (unknown to those of us locked down throughout the centre block of the House of Commons) heroism was on full display in the appropriately named Hall of Honour. The House of Commons Sergeant-at-Arms, Kevin Vickers, heard the initial gun shots, grabbed his service pistol and headed toward the danger. He was the one who killed the gunman. Mr. Vickers was not wearing a bullet proof vest. He was wearing his ceremonial robes, complete with his distinctive white neckwear. He didn’t think twice about putting himself in harms’ way to end the threat. He is a true Canadian hero – a man who takes his job to keep parliament and parliamentarians safe with deadly seriousness.
As the day and the lockdown continued, we learned about the tragic, senseless and cowardly attack on an unarmed soldier guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier – one of Canada’s most sacred sites. Corporal Nathan Cirillo joined Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent, killed two days earlier, as someone who was murdered simply for wearing the Canadian Forces uniform – uniforms that they had proudly earned the right to wear. Uniforms that represent our most honoured values. We will always remember their service and sacrifice.
When the lockdown ended and the prime minister addressed the nation later that night, he made it very clear that Canada will not be intimidated – we will never be intimidated – by acts of terror and brutality such as we saw last week. Indeed, MPs were all back in our seats at 10 a.m. on Thursday morning – only 24 hours after the gunman had burst through the front doors and attacked one of our democratic institutions. On behalf of a grateful nation, we thunderously applauded Kevin Vickers as he (and we) fought to control emotions as he delivered the Mace to its place on the table, allowing us to proceed to prayers and to re-open the House. There was a spontaneous singing of our national anthem, and the words “God keep our land glorious and free” seemed especially meaningful given all that had happened in the day before.
There was a moment of silence for Cpl. Cirillo. The prime minister and the other party leaders spoke eloquently in tribute to our fallen soldiers and about our unity as a country. The leaders embraced. And then, most significantly, we continued on with “routine proceedings” and orders of the day.
There will be much written and said about this terrorist attack in the days and weeks ahead. There will be debates about Canada’s response to domestic, home-grown terrorist threats and the need to strike the right balance between providing our security forces the tools they need to keep Canadians safe and protecting our rights and freedoms. There will be security reviews to determine what went right and what should be improved in our nation’s capital.
But on this let there be no debate – the take away from Wednesday, Oct. 22, 2014 is not about a cowardly terrorist attack. It is about the duty, ideals, service and sacrifice of our Canadian Forces, personified in Cpl. Nathan Cirillo. And it is about the bravery of our security personnel, personified by Sergeant at Arms Kevin Vickers, who along with many others put his life on the line to keep us, and our democratic institutions, safe from harm. We will always remember them. May God bless them. And may God continue to bless Canada.