Thursday, October 23, 2014

Thoughts on yesterday's events in Ottawa

The National War Memorial in downtown Ottawa is a bit of a focal point of the city, marking the intersection between Wellington, Rideau, and Elgin streets. Around the plaza you can find the trappings of Official Ottawa like the Langevin Block and the British High Commission, but also the things that make Ottawa a great city in which to live or to visit, such as the historic Château Laurier, the National Arts Centre, or D'Arcy McGee's, one of Ottawa's many (many) pubs.

On most days, the open space around the War Memorial is full of pedestrians going about their days. For the last seven years, the War Memorial has also been stoically and silently guarded by members of Canada's armed forces, who have been popular photo subjects for the many tourists from throughout Canada and the world who visit the capital.

Yesterday, that peaceful heart of the city, where the unidentified remains of a Canadian soldier who fought and died in the First World War are buried, was the scene of a horrific crime committed by a coward who deserves to be forgotten.

My thoughts this morning are with the family of Corporal Nathan Cirillo's family and friends. This young man tragically lost his life performing a duty symbolizing the respect Canadians have for the sacrifices of those who fought to defend this country. He was ceremoniously carrying a rifle that could not fire. He was defenseless.

My thoughts are also with the security forces on Parliament Hill who bravely ran towards the sound of gunfire and prevented what could have been a tragedy of even larger proportions.

I've lived in Ottawa for several years now, and have lived the vast majority of my life within a short distance of the capital. The War Memorial is less than a 10 minute drive or 40 minute walk from my home where I am writing this morning. I pass by it regularly and in the last month I've twice walked the halls of Parliament where the final shots were fired yesterday. Throughout the day, I could hear sounds of sirens.

Contrary to some opinion, as a resident of Ottawa I don't wake up this morning terrified, scared, or even angry. This city remains one of the safest in the world - nothing can be done to prevent the actions of a lone monster. We are fortunate to live in a country like ours, where someone like me can make a living writing about something, in the grand scheme of things, as inconsequential as polls. Unlike in other parts of the world, I can write about a poll that casts the government in a negative light without fear of being arrested or abused because we live in a free, democratic society.

I am saddened, however, and reminded of the enormous gratitude I have for the men and women of our armed forces.

My grandfather served in the Canadian Army during the Second World War and made a career for himself in the Royal Canadian Air Force after the conflict ended. He passed away last year and was buried in Ottawa's Beechwood Cemetery beside other former members of Canada's armed forces. 

During the funeral, I was moved by the respect my grandfather was shown by an honour guard formed of members of the army and air force. By the time of his death, he had not served for decades but he was treated as solemnly and respectfully as a soldier who had lost his life on the battlefield. 

While the ceremony itself was something I'll never forget, what sticks in my mind when I think of that day is what I saw after the service was over. As we were leaving the cemetery, I noticed a woman in uniform waiting at a bus stop. She had been one of the members of the honour guard. She had donned her pristine uniform and rode the bus to the cemetery to pay respect to a man she had never met and who had likely retired from the air force before she had even been born. She probably spent more time in transit than she had at the service itself.

It was a small sacrifice on her part, of course, but emblematic of the respect our men and women in uniform show for those who came before them and the sacrifices they were willing - or had - to make. Men like Corporal Nathan Cirillo, who died guarding the tomb of a soldier who lost his own life almost a century before in the service of his country. That, and not any feeling of being terrorized, is what I am thinking about today. And I am not alone.