A gunman struck at the heart of the Canadian government, killing a soldier at the National War Memorial and storming Parliament before being cut down by a volley of bullets in what was one of the most brazen attacks on a Western government in recent history.
The Wednesday attack filled the halls of Parliament with gunfire and terrorized the capital for hours as officials scrambled to determine if the assault was the work of one or more people. The Prime Minister was whisked off Parliament Hill to safety, but in the chaos of lockdowns lifted and reimposed, it was more than 10 hours before he addressed Canadians.
For a country that lived through more than a decade of Western anti-terror wars largely without domestic bloodshed, Wednesday’s attack was a potential turning point. It was the second targeted killing of a Canadian Forces soldier on home soil in a matter of days, raising further questions about the country’s security and intelligence regime, the rise of domestic radicalism and the impact of Canada’s military deployment to the Middle East to combat the Islamic State.
The first shots were fired at 9:52 a.m. in Ottawa at the National War Memorial, where two Canadian Forces reservists stood guard before the cenotaph. A gunman was seen approaching a soldier and firing a long-barrelled gun at close range, raising his arms as the fatally wounded soldier, a reservist and father from Hamilton named Nathan Cirillo, fell to the ground.
The shooter, according to sources, was Michael Zehaf-Bibeau – a man in his early 30s who was known to Canadian authorities. Sources say he had been blocked from obtaining a passport as federal officials have been taking steps to stop Canadians from joining extremists overseas.
Mr. Zehaf-Bibeau, who wore a scarf over his face, then crossed the street toward Parliament’s Centre Block, where he apparently entered through a main door normally watched by two guards. Loud gunfire rang through the halls, leaving a guard wounded. Shortly afterward, according to several members of Parliament, the gunman was shot and killed by House of Commons Sergeant-at-Arms Kevin Vickers, a former police officer.
In an address to Canadians on Wednesday night, Prime Minister Stephen Harper described the killing of Cpl. Cirillo as an act of cold-blooded murder, one that shows Canada is not immune to acts of terror.
“Attacks on our security personnel and on our institutions of governance are by their very nature attacks on our country, on our values, on our society,” Mr. Harper said. “But let there be no misunderstanding. We will not be intimidated. Canada will never be intimidated. In fact this will lead us to strengthen our resolve.”
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, speaking after Mr. Harper, said Canadians were united in their grief, and although these acts were designed to drive them to hate, they would persevere and prevail.
At a news conference earlier in the day, the RCMP’s National Division commanding officer Gilles Michaud said the force was taken by surprise. The attack comes just two days after a uniformed Canadian soldier, Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent, was killed in an apparently targeted hit and run in Quebec. The attacker in that case, Martin Couture-Rouleau, who was shot to death by police, had recently had his passport seized to prevent him from travelling to the Middle East to fight on behalf of the Islamic State. Canadian Forces soldiers and warplanes recently deployed to the Middle East to join the coalition battling Islamic State forces in Iraq, and the Islamic State has called on its supporters to rise up and strike back in Canada.
Wednesday’s shooting was the most significant act of violence on Parliament Hill in decades.
The area around Parliament Hill was on lockdown much of the day and through the evening as national and local police forces responded to the shooting. Most MPs were gathered in caucus meetings at the time of the shootings and some barricaded themselves behind doors braced with stacked chairs.
Police did not make it clear whether they believed the attacker had accomplices, although they said no arrests had been made. The Ottawa Civic Hospital said three people were treated for non-life threatening injuries and later released.
“We’re still in the process of an active operation right now. We’re treating this very seriously with the RCMP in identifying and clearing Parliament Hill to render it safe,” Ottawa Police Chief Charles Bordeleau told the media.
Around the country, officials moved to tighten security at provincial legislatures and other potential targets. In B.C., the legislature’s gallery was closed to the public, in Alberta, armed sheriffs turned people away who were hoping to tour the legislature, while in Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair said citizens would see a stepped-up police presence at some locations.
World leaders including U.S. President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron condemned the attack and offered their support to Canadians.
Mr. Harper was on Parliament Hill at the time of the attack and was rushed away to a secure location by his security detail. He had been scheduled to meet Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai in Toronto on Wednesday afternoon to confer her honourary citizenship, but the event was cancelled. Both Mr. Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau were also on Parliament Hill, but were reported safe. As events unfolded, Parliament Hill staff were issued a security warning to stay away from doors and windows, lock their doors and, if doors would not lock, to barricade them. “Do not open a door under any circumstances,” the alert said.
Cpl. Cirillo was a reservist in his mid-20s who was a member of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. He had a six-year-old son, his aunt said. He was training to join the Canada Border Services Agency and had been in the Canadian Forces since he was a young man, said his aunt, who declined to give her full name.
“It’s my nephew, Nathan Cirillo,” she said. “I went to the house and the army was there … I just can’t think right now.”
Soldiers stationed at the National War Memorial are part of a ceremonial guard. They carry weapons, but their rifles are not loaded. Onlookers rushed to provide first aid to Cpl. Cirillo, but he could not be saved. He was pronounced dead at hospital.
With reports from Josh Wingrove, Colin Freeze, Steven Chase, Kim Mackrael, Ann Hui and Shawn McCarthyReport Typo/Error