Skip to main content
//empty //empty

The gunman who struck at the heart of Canada's government (Parliament) and its memory (the National War Memorial) knew what he was doing, but it's fortunate that he didn't know more.

The man killed a soldier at the War Memorial and slightly wounded three security officers inside Parliament. But if he had carefully studied the interior of the building before his attack, or if he had been a suicide bomber with a device strapped to his vest, the killing and damage would have been horrific.

All he would have had to do halfway down the central Hall of Honour was to turn sharply right or left. Then, he would have crashed through the doors into rooms where the Conservative and New Democratic caucuses were meeting. Armed with a shotgun, he could have killed or maimed many MPs and others. As it happened, he was the only one who died.

Story continues below advertisement

What happened Wednesday was a tragedy and a national scare. We can all be thankful, because it could have been vastly worse.

What happened in Parliament should never have taken place. That it did calls for a full investigation, not by the RCMP or House of Commons security personnel, but by a judge with power to discover what information the Mounties and other security services possessed, and how a gunman could have pushed his way into Parliament, run past security guards and threatened the heart of Canadian democracy.

The Ottawa attack, just two days after a Canadian soldier was killed in Quebec by a self-radicalized Muslim convert, challenges whatever belief might remain about this country's immunity from lethal politicized threats.

Late Wednesday, we still didn't know the background or motivation of the Ottawa killer. He was reported to be Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, a Canadian citizen from Quebec who was known to the RCMP and had his passport revoked. But was he deranged? Was he possessed of sick misogyny, like the killer at Montreal's École Polytechnique? Was he inspired by the killing in Quebec? Was he another homegrown jihadi?

Whatever is revealed about the attacker's history, a few changes will quickly be evident, starting with heightened security in and around Parliament Hill, and perhaps at military and other government premises around the country. Security had already been stepped up in recent years around the parliamentary precinct; it will be now be strengthened further.

Debate will intensify about whether security agencies and the RCMP need additional powers, or the restoration of some powers whittled away by recent court decisions. It was ironic, or at least coincidental, that the gunman's attack forestalled Wednesday's planned introduction of new legislation in the House of Commons to give new powers to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.

Civil liberties are precious in a democracy; so is the protection of democracy from its enemies. This week's events remind us that Canadian democracy does face enemies, or at least serious threats. How to effectively combat them, while protecting basic civil liberties, has provoked anguished debates before. These will now recommence, and there are no definitive, consensual answers.

Story continues below advertisement

Ottawa hadn't seen anything like this since the implementation of the War Measures Act during the 1970 October Crisis, invoked in response to requests by the government of Quebec and the mayor of Montreal following attacks by the Front de libération du Québec.

Unlike 1970, there were no tanks or military vehicles rumbling through the heart of the city Wednesday, but there were hundreds of soldiers, Mounties and Ottawa police officers out in force, shutting down the centre of the city. The usual routine of people going about their business was brought to a halt in mid-morning, as first Parliament Hill, then a widening central area were smothered in security.

Office workers were consigned to their buildings. The Château Laurier hotel and the Rideau Centre shopping centre, both near the War Memorial, were surrounded and locked down. Rumours flew about shots being fired near both buildings and speculation about accomplices to the man who had entered Parliament. The bridges to Gatineau, on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River, were closed. For a while, the centre of Canada's little capital looked like a scene from a U.S. television drama, like Homeland or 24.

The drama seemed so, well, un-Canadian – this country being a place a historian once described as the "peaceable kingdom." After all, didn't the British North America Act, Canada's foundational legislative document, prescribe "peace, order and good government?" Aren't acts of random or premeditated violence supposed to happen elsewhere, especially the United States? And if they were to happen here, surely it wouldn't be inside Parliament, which suggests the strong likelihood of a political motive.

If it was politics that inspired (if that is the right word) what happened Wednesday in Ottawa, as it did in Quebec, then Canada has to face the unpleasant fact that Islamic terrorism has come to this country. Other plots and attacks have been disrupted, such as the one to blow up a train travelling from Toronto to New York. There have been successful prosecutions of would-be terrorists or their accomplices. But now there is this.

Last year, in one of his maladroit musings, Liberal Party Leader Justin Trudeau talked about needing to understand the "root causes" of terror. It is doubtful that Canadians will tolerate such puerility now, after two attacks within days against the government and military.

Story continues below advertisement

It would appear that more young Muslims in the Arab world are being attracted to jihadi groups, especially the Islamic State, because it gives them a sense of communal pride against the West and a way to fight what they believe to be Islam's foes, past and present. This message of revenge and martyrdom has seeped into the minds of some people in Canada and other Western countries, and if they cannot join the movement abroad, they will choose to do harm at home.

Political partisanship will necessarily be forgotten in a political closing of the ranks in the immediate aftermath of Wednesday's attack. All parties will rhetorically defend democracy and its institutions, and declarations against yielding to terror will resound throughout the land.

Without drawing specific attention to these deeds, the incumbent government will suggest, a year out from a scheduled election, that it is best equipped to lead Canada in these uncertain times. For the Conservatives, the narrative of danger and threat, actual or apprehended, comes easily. For the opposition Liberals and New Democrats, more comfortable with blue-sky narratives of peace and progress, finding the right tone will prove more challenging.

It was said Wednesday, in haste, that the drama and tragedy in Ottawa represented the "end of innocence" for Canada. If so, it was the end only for the remaining innocents among us, because the struggle against militant Islam, which is an outgrowth of a much wider and deeper struggle within Islam itself, has been and will be with us for a very long time.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to
Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons or for abuse. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies