Skip to main content

University of Calgary president Elizabeth Cannon was at home Tuesday morning indulging in habits that have become customary before work – scanning e-mails, drinking coffee, reading the newspaper – when her husband Gérard called out from another room.

"Elizabeth," he said. "I think you'd better come and see this."

It was a television item about five university students being stabbed to death at a house party. The prime suspect, also a student, was said to be in custody. Instantly, Dr. Cannon knew this was going to be a day like no other, for either her or her university.

Twenty-four hours after the worst mass murder in the city's history, the University of Calgary is still reeling from the news. It has joined an unfortunate group of academic institutions around the world to be struck by tragedy of this nature and dimension. While reports of the murders ignited emergency protocols on campus that have long been in place, a school can never fully prepare for a crisis ahead of time. The situation is always fluid. Few things are predictable. The only certainty is that much of the work will be difficult.

On Wednesday afternoon, Ms. Cannon was preparing to make a series of heartbreaking phone calls to the parents of the three victims who attended the school. (Two more attended other post-secondary institutions). She's made similar ones in the past – there was a student stabbed to death only last year – but she's never had to make so many in one day. Ms. Cannon has two university-aged children of her own. She is calling as a school president, yes, but also as a mother.

"You can't put yourself in someone else's shoes, but you have to think if that was me what would I need to hear?" Ms. Cannon told The Globe and Mail just before making the calls. "What emotions are they going through? At the same time you want to recognize the contributions their children made while they were here and how important they were. That's all you can do – be as authentic as you can."

The president says the school is still working through its crisis procedures, which include grief counselling for students and staff. Ms. Cannon hasn't been afraid to seek the wisdom and guidance of others, including the city's mayor and University of Calgary grad Naheed Nenshi, who was forced to deal with a disaster of his own last summer with the Alberta floods and did so brilliantly. In the end, there was consensus that the one thing students on campus needed most at this time was compassion.

On Wednesday, the school was going to be erecting a billboard along a major city artery that read: Hug a Student.

A gathering the school held on campus Tuesday evening was important, Ms. Cannon said, because it allowed the university community to share in its grief. She talked to kids who were at the party, who knew the victims. They were understandably devastated. Students feel helpless, she said. Even those who didn't know the victims personally are hurting.

"People are anxious, fragile, they're scared, they're in pain and we have to as a community provide those opportunities for them to gather to show them they are not alone," Ms. Cannon said. "There is a shoulder there for them."

On campus, students still seemed bewildered by what took place. Some said it would not change their feelings about the school; others admitted the stabbings had irrevocably altered their sense of place.

"I'm certainly looking over my shoulder more now, no question," said Abi Braid, a 21-year-old geology student from Windsor, Ont. "I mean, it just really shakes you. I'm sure it will affect me for a long time."

Ms. Cannon isn't sure how long the reverberations will be felt, but she expects it will be some time. Everyone handles trauma of this nature differently. Sometimes it may not hit a person for months down the road. Others not at all.

The murders, said the president, are now part of the school's DNA. She accepts, too, that the university now may never be exactly the same. There's been an innocence lost. The school doesn't want to forget what happened out of respect for those who lost their lives, she said, but neither does it want to let the tragedy define it.

"We are resilient," Ms. Cannon said. "We will share in the pain, but we will move forward as one and become even stronger than ever, I believe."