The first thing Michael Zehaf-Bibeau had to ignore Wednesday morning in Ottawa when he pumped two bullets into Cpl. Nathan Cirillo’s chest was the cenotaph the corporal was guarding. The cenotaph (Greek, empty tomb) has had only a bit part in the endless analysis of this week’s two attacks on Canadian soldiers, of whether the attacks are linked to the Islamic State and how they may change the way we live and think.
Which is strange, because it’s a hard monument to ignore: stout granite arch supporting bronze figures of limping Peace and struggling Freedom, through whose narrow gap a straining throng of soldiers and cannons and horses and airmen and nurses force their way. It’s called The Response.
People find it moving, and there’s often a crowd. It was designed by an Englishman named Vernon March in 1925 to honour Canadians in the First World War, though it now honours other veterans as well – including, last May, at Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s behest, the men and women who served in Afghanistan. Mr. Zehaf-Bibeau didn’t choose it randomly.
The killer parked his plateless beige Toyota illegally on Wellington Street to the north of the monument, and approached it from behind, where he couldn’t be seen. He missed the other guard with his first shot, and then turned on the unarmed Cpl. Cirillo, a dreamily handsome guy, and father. The honour guard is a relatively new thing, added (so the story goes) a few years ago after some young men were caught peeing on the monument.
You can see the cenotaph from D’Arcy McGee’s, a pub across the road, where political staffers sometimes meet. The pub is named after Thomas D’Arcy McGee, the mutton-chopped Father of Confederation, the Irish-Catholic poet and journalist who championed a multicultural Canada but was assassinated on April 7, 1868, at a boarding house at 71 Sparks St., just down the road from the cenotaph, possibly for betraying the Fenian cause.
The Smith and Wesson pistol used to assassinate Thomas D'Arcy McGee in 1868 is displayed at an auction in Hamilton, Ont. on Sunday May 22, 2005. It is reported the Museum of Civilization has acquired the revolver at the price of $105,000. (Kaz Novak/CP/Hamilton Spectator)
There’s a plaque marking the spot, at least when it hasn’t been stolen. History and vistas and humans live in close quarters all over Ottawa, and sometimes they get in each other’s way. McGee’s murder was Canada’s first political assassination in the nation’s capital. Cpl. Cirillo can be counted as the second.
He may be more important: His death could be the one that changes the open way we live.
'So that was quick’
Having left Cpl. Cirillo in a pool of blood under the soaring cenotaph, Mr. Zehaf-Bibeau jumped back into his car and yanked a sharp U-turn to the left, to head west on Wellington. (He’d purchased the car the day before, and drove quickly and in surges.) He immediately pulled up on the other side of the street, stopping in front of the curly, pretty towers of the East Block, the building that was the hub of External Affairs back when Canada was famous as a peacekeeping nation. Everything was happening fast now. He jumped out of the car, openly waving a .30-30 lever-action Winchester – the bestselling high-powered rifle in North America, used mostly to hunt deer.
That further scattered passersby who had retreated to the west after his cenotaph attack. By now there were a lot of people running away, at high speed.
There are two sets of two-foot-high bollards barring traffic from the East Bloc gate (they can retract to allow access): Once on foot, Mr. Zehaf-Bibeau simply ran between them, as anyone could before Wednesday, continuing up the drive that circles the giant lawn of the House of Commons. This is why the police say “the houses of Parliament are open access,” the openness being part of their appeal. Seconds later, in front of the East Block, the gunman hijacked a government car.
He sped up the driveway recklessly, ignoring the view toward the Centre Block, which is gorgeous. Everything is spacious, green, open: Canadian. It may be a cliché, but when you’re there, it’s one you want to believe. The lawn is a brisk green, lined by a brow of cedar bushes and, this time of year, a thinner eyeline of bright red flowers. Yoga classes are held here on Wednesdays when the weather is fine. You can walk from Wellington Street to the front door of the Centre Block, under the gaze of a nearby statue of Sir John A. Macdonald, thinking about the character of the country you live in, in a pleasant five minutes. Mr. Zehaf-Bibeau needed only 83 seconds. “So that was quick,” is how RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson put it. No wonder “that threats have come so readily for the Canadian public.”
Firmly inside his cause
The killer ran into the austere 1916 Gothic Revival redo of Centre Block without pausing to take in its serene grandness. It’s the most recognizable building in the country: long, six-storey spans of paired stone towers and soft green copper and strange secret gables, the image we know from the $10, the $20, the $50 bill. It’s the Big Symbol, baby, the building that makes you think there may be some kind of centre, however abstract and quaint, to the yawn and the sprawl of the nation.
But Mr. Zehaf-Bibeau had other concepts on his mind. He ran past the bollards in front of the steps, past the lion and the unicorn and the rabidly bucky beaver carved into the front door, under the thin tongue of red-and-white flag licking over the lip of the Peace Tower, up eight steps on the wide stairs, up a rise of four steps, up another of three steps, then in.
The guard at the door grabbed the barrel of the Winchester, pointed it down, and yelled “Gun!” three times, whereupon the killer shot him in the foot. Then he ran up 13 more steps and through Confederation Hall and down the Hall of Honour, the spine of Centre Block that runs (symbolism here) between the Peace Tower and the Parliamentary Library, passing the caucus rooms where hundreds of MPs were sitting ducks, Stephen Harper included (the Prime Minister found his way into a closet). No one knows why he ran past them. Wayne Marston, a New Democrat MP, figured the killer thought he was heading to the House of Commons, where he planned to do maximum damage.
What Mr. Zehaf-Bibeau also missed, because the details would have distracted him from his blinding mission, whatever his mission was (and it is not yet clear), were the details of those rooms: Every surface in those halls is a shape within another shape within yet another shape, a smaller part of a greater pattern, comforting but never quite predictable. It’s beautiful but also unsettling, solid but possibly impractical, not unlike the country it represents.
The details are everything: the Tyndall fern fossils, the repeating marble galleys, the limestone clustered columns, the octagonals, the carvings of Inuit and miners, the almost hallucinogenic wave patterns in the black-and-white French-Canadian and Italian marble floors, the corbels, the galleried circle of arcaded arches branching into the stout central arch and pillar (signifying the confederated nature of the Canadian nation, don’t you see?), bosses, label stops – hard stone luxuries, perfect for a cold and rocky place. The whole structure creates a confusing, unlikely order. My favourite detail is the Correspondents’ Entrance to the reading room.
Mr. Zehaf-Bibeau didn’t see any of that. He was too firmly inside his cause. Then he was dead. The Hall of Honour has seen that before: Leaders have lain in state there.
The grand, and the unfixable
The morning after that terrible day, the House of Commons was packed. It was a Day of Resilience in the Face of Evil, and the honourable members were in a self-congratulatory mood. Perhaps they deserved it. The clapping and the desk-thumping went on for 10 minutes without stopping. The Commons Sergeant-at-Arms Kevin Vickers, who’d helped to stop Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, was singled out for commendation, and had tears in his eyes. (You might, too, if you had just killed someone.) There was a moment of silence and a moment of prayer and the national anthem.
There was also a lingering feeling of unease in the room: People in the gallery kept looking around, checking out their neighbours, as if a crazy shooter might appear again. Anything could happen. That wasn’t true the day before Wednesday – not there, anyway, in that famous chamber, with its voluble, well-intentioned members, the famous green desk blotters like so many little lawns, their tended plots.
Then the speeches of the leaders began. And this is the thing: It was very grand, and almost moving, and there were many fine sentiments expressed, and many sober thoughts uttered, but beyond these grand intentions and the incessant politicking (Vote for me, I can lead us through this troubled time), the path ahead … evaporated. There were the fine, thick feelings, and then there was the empty reality. I know we will always stand together (the Prime Minister). We can’t allow that openness … to be rolled back (Thomas Mulcair, leader of the Official Opposition). They will not make the rules about this land we share, and they do not get to change us (Justin Trudeau, leader of the Liberal Party).
The Prime Minister got up to cross the floor and embrace Tom Mulcair and Justin Trudeau, and Mr. Mulcair got up again to embrace the Prime Minister and Mr. Trudeau, and Mr. Trudeau got up a third time to embrace Mr. Mulcair and the Prime Minister. There was a lot of hugging. It almost obscured the other, more unfixable things they said: We live in a dangerous world. Our laws need to be strengthened in terms of surveillance. We are all aware and deeply troubled that this week’s terrorist attacks were carried out by Canadian citizens.
Afterward, I walked back to D’Arcy McGee’s, next to the cenotaph where Mr. Zehaf-Bibeau had set out on his trail of terror. The yellow tape and the barriers had finally been taken away, and a crowd of about 50 gazed up at the monument. It was already possible to forget the complete and total lockdown of Ottawa’s downtown the day before, the way thousands of police armed with live automatic weapons instantly controlled a city of nearly a million people. I had asked one of the cops what he was holding.
“It’s a Colt C8 carbine, a close-quarter battle weapon that fires a higher penetrating bullet,” he said.
“And what does ‘close-quarter’ mean?” I asked.
“From me to you.”
I mentioned all this to the guy sitting next to me at the bar in D’Arcy McGee’s, a law clerk in his early thirties named Anthony Oliver. He nodded. “It was certainly effective. That one guy created an atmosphere of total fear.”
According to RCMP Commissioner Paulson, Mr. Zehaf-Bibeau has no known connection to a larger network of terrorists, Islamic State-related or otherwise. That may be good news (he wasn’t part of a bigger threat) or bad news (a lone gunman could appear at any time), which is why Mr. Paulson called the new security landscape “this difficult and hard-to-understand threat.”
If the history of the West, at least since 9/11, is any guide, we will meet the new threat with more surveillance, stricter laws, and much-reduced public access. Open access to Parliament “is the heart and soul of the country,” a bystander named Ken Liao said to me on the street, as we waited for the lockdown to end. He was crying as he spoke. “They can’t take it away.”
But they can, and they might have to, more and more. Here’s a suggestion: Pay attention to all its beautiful details while you can.
Ian Brown is a Globe and Mail feature writer.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story stated that Mr. Zehaf-Bibeau was seeking to avenge Canada's involvement in the coalition against the Islamic State. It remains unclear what his mission was.