Both attacks in Canada this week targeted military personnel and government.
Terror in Ottawa
This past Wednesday, a man shot and killed an unarmed soldier standing guard at Ottawa’s War Memorial. Three minutes later, he reached the doors of Parliament and was soon only metres away from our nation’s elected leaders. As the first shots sounded, people within hearing distance, as yet unaware of the situation, thought, Must be construction or Another mini-earthquake. Only with the words “Gun! Get down!” did reality sink in. A hail of bullets filled the corridors as armed emergency officials converged on the scene. It ended when Kevin Vickers, Sergeant-at-Arms of Canada’s House of Commons, shot and killed the murderer. There had been injuries, but no other deaths.
The terror wasn’t over though. Reports were flying. There were two gunmen. There were three gunmen. There were gun shots at a nearby shopping centre. There was a gunman still in hiding somewhere in the Parliament Buildings. Police and military personnel streamed into the downtown core, ordering people to leave, blocking off roads. The city went into lockdown.
Staff and students at school
I was in the school library Wednesday morning when a colleague came breathlessly through the doors and whispered, “A guard at the War Memorial was shot, and there’s a gunman in the Centre Block of the Parliament Buildings.” Three classes were in the library, and the news spread quietly among staff who immediately either went online to find out details or else called loved ones working near the chaos. Students soon questioned their distracted teachers, and a fog descended on us all as we waited obsessively for updates, urgently sharing reports as they appeared online.
It was the second attack in three days, making the horror of the present crisis all the more shocking and surreal. On Monday, just outside of Montreal, another killer had waited for hours in his car outside a federal building where support is offered to Canadian military veterans and other personnel. When two soldiers walked across the parking lot, the man rammed his car into them and then drove away. One of the soldiers, Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent, later died of his injuries. The killer, wielding a knife, was shot as he emerged from his car which had flipped after a chase. Were the two events related? Had the two killers been in communication? Questions overlapped questions as we tried to make sense of things.
When our principal’s voice came over the PA system, the alarmed buzz in our school library fell silent. “We will be going into a secured environment. Nobody is to leave or enter the school until further notice.” Classes continued through the day, with as much focus as teachers and students could muster, and over the lunch hour, staff were posted at the various doors of the building to ensure no exits and no entrances. Our cafeteria ran out of food while staff and students who had counted on going out for their mid-day meal managed without it. Schools in the downtown area had a stricter and longer lasting lockdown. Ours came to an end part way through the first afternoon class, and students were free to go home at the end of the school day.
It was soon confirmed that there had been one gunman who had opened fire in two locations. And what could have been a blood-bath had been restricted to two deaths – those of the guard and the killer. It also became clear that the gunman had been radicalized, as had the killer in Montreal, and that his targets had likewise been military personnel and the government.
What hit home for you?
I drove into work Thursday morning, strangely drained of energy, and I listened as people called into the local radio morning show to describe their experiences of the attack and its ramifications. “I was in lockdown, and that was fine,” the host of the show said, “but then I found out that my twin daughters were in lockdown at their school. They are only five years old …” Her voice broke slightly as she shared the moment.
The tragedy hit home for me when I found out that the guard who had been killed, Corporal Nathan Cirillo, had been very young – about the age of my eldest daughter – and the father of a young son. It hit home again first thing Thursday morning when my youngest daughter asked me if she had to go to her scheduled sport practice after school. “Why don’t you want to go?” I asked. “The shooter …” she replied. She was nervous about taking public transport to get where she needed to go. When a child of mine experiences stress, I generally default to mollycoddle mode, but not this time. “It’s important to keep doing what you normally do,” I said to her. “I understand why you feel afraid, but go anyway.”
Resolve #1: Affirm Muslim students
I found myself adopting a resolve Thursday to live well. I teach at a school with a very large Muslim population, and I was accutely aware of the possible backlash that our students might face in the days ahead. Just the week before, I had been privileged to welcome a visiting author who had written a book of short stories about Muslim women in Canada. As a woman whose husband, an innocent man, had been deported back to Syria for a year of torture in the aftermath of 9/11, she had suffered such backlash in the extreme, and she had written her nonpolitical, nonreligious book to show the varied and human face of Muslim women. Her talk to our students was fabulous. Intelligent, educated, accomplished, and without an ounce of bitterness, she presented her book and shared her journey. What a great role model for our Muslim girls! I thought. What a great role model for all of us! World peace seemed possible from the vantage point of that room. And now, just eight days later, the landscape had become more perilous.
So when I saw one senior student, clearly agitated as he read an account of the previous day’s attack, I talked with him about it. “If I go downtown, people are going to think I’m like that just because I’m Muslim,” he said. I told him that might happen, and confirmed that it was unfair. I said, “Islam means peace, doesn’t it? What that guy did yesterday was completely hateful and against Islam. His actions hurt everyone. Including you.” I asked him to let me know if he experienced any negative treatment, especially at school. He told me he would. As a Christian, I know what it is like to be shamed by the destructive words or actions of a few who profess to share my faith. With the Islamic community at this point in history, of course, this dichotomy is much more extreme. Thursday, as I listened to Muslim leaders across the country denounce the two attacks, I silently cheered them on.
Resolve #2: Live strongly in my faith
Canada is a very secular society, and like most Christians, I have learned to practice my faith with discretion. I help facilitate a small Christian group at our school, and Thursday, one of the students who takes part asked if she could talk with me at lunch hour. She is new to the school, and quite isolated in the city, and as she poured out her heart to me, I sensed the desperation of her situation, and I stepped up with an unfamiliar boldness. I counselled her and prayed with her. I sought out needed supports both in the school and in the larger community. Later in the day, a colleague in distress disclosed her troubles to me, and I gave what insight and advice I could. Afterwards she thanked me and asked for my prayers. Two requests for prayer and counsel at work in one day? It’s not something that happens on a regular basis.
Resolve #3: Renewed effort
For a period of time on Wednesday, I experienced a feeling of doom. Any effort was useless. Why bother when it could all be snatched away with one bullet? But that is just what the terrorists want. They want us to give up. And though in my case, my efforts have nothing to do with politics or the military, they do weave into the fabric of society. If we all stopped weaving, that fabric would be compromised by weak spots – easier to tear. So instead of giving up, I have a renewed resolve to exert effort – to care for my family, to do my job well, to get in shape. To get out of debt.
#4: Soak in life’s beauty
I can’t call this a resolve. It has happened of its own accord. We’ve had a remarkably beautiful day with its warm temperature, shining sun, and autumn leaves, typically well past their peak by this point in October, still abundant in their various shades of red, orange, and yellow. My sense is that good has triumphed over evil. The bad guys didn’t succeed in their mission. Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent and Corporal Nathan Cirillo did not die in vain. We will honour them, not least of all with lives lived well; with eyes opened wider; with resolve reinforced. Any backlash will be absorbed by the majority of peace-seekers.
Members of Parliament were back at their jobs Thursday. They gave a standing ovation for Kevin Vickers, the Sergeant at Arms who had protected them, and all political parties, at least for the moment, demonstrated unity. And when I picked up my daughter from her practice Thursday evening, she was happy she had gone even though she had been nervous taking the city bus. “My coach told me I’m really improving,” she smiled. Crowds gathered to applaud two soldiers who took up their post at the War Memorial Friday. And when I visited with two friends from church Friday night, one of them said, “I saw a woman with a head scarf in Costco, and I made a point of looking at her and smiling – so she knows that I know – that I accept her.” These are all signs of victory. Evidence of a force that hate can’t conquer. The promise of a True North, strong and free.
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