It was only toward 9 p.m. last night – as the lockdown in Ottawa's parliamentary district began slowly to unclench, as squads of black-vested police, balaclavas tucked in their back pockets, moved building by building through the central core to tell people they could finally go home – that life began to resume in the capital city. Which is to say that the people of Ottawa – a well-informed and opinionated group of citizens even at the worst of times – started talking politics again.
A day locked away from the cameras and microphones had been almost more than a city of political junkies could bear.
Theories flooded out onto the streets with the crowds.
Wayne Marston, the MP for Hamilton East-Stoney Creek (the riding of Nathan Cirillo, the corporal who was killed at the cenotaph), had been waiting on the street for an hour to fetch his car from an underground garage, but the garage was still within the closed-off police perimeter. Mr. Marston was in the NDP caucus room when shots banged outside the door at 9:54 a.m. "Eight shots," he counted, "then six more."
By the time security guards burst in and locked the door moments later, Mr. Marston said, NDPers had hit the ground and overturned tables. "Several people surrounded our leader, as you do." Mr. Marston is a measured man in his sixties, but he figured the shooter, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, intended to open fire on sitting members in the House of Commons.
"If you didn't know the building, when you come in the door he came in and see the big ornate doors of the parliamentary library at the end of the hall" – toward which the gunman was headed, firing – "you'd think you were headed towards the House of Commons." He paused. "This could have been so much worse."
Fortunately for Mr. Marston and others in the NDP caucus, a security guard took them out a side door, which meant he was outside again by 10:15 a.m., and avoided physical lockdown.
Another man waiting for his car, Ken Liao, hadn't been so lucky. A resident of Port Hope, Ont., Mr. Liao was leading Filipino friends on a tour of the Commons when the shooting started. They and a large group of tourists were herded into a committee room in Central Block, and told they would be transferred under guard to the Supreme Court building further west. They were transferred to the Foreign Affairs building instead, where "they told us that Harper was gonna speak to us." That never happened either.
Released from his holding tank at 9 p.m. and now denied his car, Mr. Liao was furious. His bigger concern, however, was that Mr. Harper would make parliament harder for the public to get into. "It's the heart and soul of the country," he said. "And they can't take it away. They can't." He started to cry. "I think they should be open tomorrow, with the frigging doors open."
At first, worried there were multiple shooters, police instructed locked-down workers to stay away from windows. But by the end of the day, as the threat waned, you could see people leaning against them, hands against the glass, looking down, whenever you looked up. It was strangely comforting.
Out on the street people didn't bother saying hello, they just started talking. "I hope someone doesn't say this is payback for dropping bombs," said Paul Rowe, an assistant to MP Helene Michaud. All around him adults hustled by, their arms full of children: police had only just allowed parents to fetch their kids from Parliament Hill's daycare. Mr. Rowe had spent the hours at work the way everyone else had, texting and e-mailing and watching TV and thinking about his kid.
"Things will change on the Hill," he predicted. "I've never heard of anything this bad happening. This is how the terrorists want us to react. It's super sad the guy is dead. But the terror, and the effects of the terror, will be the longest-lasting effect." That's the sort of thing the people of Ottawa talk about in a crisis. The town has a bad reputation across the land, but it's a persistently thoughtful place.
The bar at the Chateau Laurier was closed, because employees from Hull couldn't cross the closed bridges all day. (The traffic jams going back made the city look like Toronto, if only for an hour or two.) But the hotel was almost sold out, and no one had checked out because of the violence.
The front of the hotel had been cordoned off by police, part of the forbidden perimeter. But you could walk back along the canal from the hotel through public gardens toward the National Gallery and see no one and nothing except the dimmed Houses of Parliament, sitting up like a handsome redoubt in Game of Thrones. If there was a second shooter, the police certainly didn't seem concerned that he was wandering the darkened parks of Ottawa.
The Dominion Tavern was one of the few bars that opened early in Ottawa's Byward. The lads there, all locals, were full of the loud but surprisingly intelligent skepticism one heard all evening.
John, a red-headed real estate agent and Conservative in his thirties, had been convinced by early police reports that there were three shooters, and had succumbed to full panic, until his pal Panther (he's known by his last name), a bearded Liberal former lawyer-turned-translator, convinced him there couldn't be. "If there is a second shooter," Panther said, "he's not very good at it, because he hasn't shot anyone else."
All in all, despite the darkness of Cpl. Cirillo's death, the lads refused to believe that yesterday's attacks had changed Ottawa or Canada. "It's still very Canadian," Panther said. "I mean, this so-called international plot, they shot one guy. More people have been Batman than died today."
As for Mr. Harper's claim last night that yesterday's attack was an act of organized terrorism, everyone this reporter met seemed to believe the Prime Minister was jumping the gun. It was too soon to tell. "Should we call it terrorism?" someone asked Mr. Marston, Mr. Cirillo's MP.
"Oh no," he replied, instantly. "That's the worst thing we can do. We'll be just like the goddamn Americans."