The death of Cpl. Nathan Cirillo will affect how we view our military—and the sacrifices of those to come

Life during wartime: We’re all witnesses to war

The death of Cpl. Nathan Cirillo will affect how we view our military—and the sacrifices of those to come

Wayne Cuddington/Ottawa Citizen

Wayne Cuddington/Ottawa Citizen

They came together with haste and purpose. Three civilians and two members of Canadian Forces, all working frantically to save the life of Cpl. Nathan Cirillo.

In the first minutes after the Hamilton reservist was shot twice at Canada’s National War Memorial on Oct. 22, it was passersby who joined in the challenge of trying to staunch the bleeding and keep his heart beating. Photos captured their desperation. A red-headed woman, her legs stretched out across the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, administering artificial respiration while a uniformed man performs CPR. A man in a dark business suit helping to keep the blood where it was needed by holding the kilted Cirillo’s bare legs in the air. And two more—a grey-haired lady and a man in an army beret—applying pressure to his wounds. All of them as anonymous as the fallen combatant inside the granite sarcophagus that the soldier was guarding.

A discarded backpack leans against the tomb, next to a Thermos mug of morning coffee. A black attaché case has been tossed to the flagstones. Right beside that lie the two military assault rifles—one belonging to Cirillo, the other his regimental partner—perfectly stacked, stocks tucked tight against the brass foot of the monument. By the book, even though they were never loaded, per standard honour detail practice.

Attacked on hallowed ground, targeted simply as a symbol, the tragedy of Cirillo’s death resonates across the country and around the world. In life, the 24-year-old represented little of what presumably stoked the rage of his killer, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau. A part-time soldier, he had never served overseas. Single father to a six-year-old boy, he made his living as a fitness trainer and working in bars. By all accounts, he was a friendly, kind and happy man. But his passing, in the very shadow of a cenotaph dedicated to the warriors of our increasingly distant past, in the arms of average citizens, will almost certainly affect how we view far fresher sacrifices—and those that loom in the future.

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Interactive: An audio and visual timeline of what happened in Ottawa

As Canadians we have largely agreed upon a comfortable narrative surrounding the deaths of over 68,000 in the First World War, 47,000 in the Second World War and 516 more in Korea: Brave fathers, uncles, grandfathers and beyond, who perished in the service of freedom, or at least a cause that a vast majority of their fellow countrymen and women believed in.

What has happened over the past 13 years however, is a far trickier proposition. Shocked to the core by the events of Sept. 11, most Canadians endorsed the idea of rooting out the terrorists and their protectors in Afghanistan (even as a Liberal government drew the line at joining George W. Bush’s “Coalition of the Willing” against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein). But after 9½ years of combat, resulting in 158 military deaths, that consensus crumbled. If we are to be honest, the sacrifices of Canada’s Afghan dead are honoured, but not necessarily understood, or even appreciated. Why then? Why there? Just what were we trying to accomplish? The same sort of questions swirl around the country’s latest contributions to the ever-lengthening war on terror—an international air campaign against the forces of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

In the almost 50 years between the end of the Korean conflict and Canada’s next war, the country came to embrace a different vision of what soldiers, sailors and flyers were supposed to do, one that stressed preventing conflict rather than participating in it. We even built a separate national monument to our peacekeepers, a few blocks north of the War Memorial, in the sightlines of the American Embassy. Entitled Reconciliation, it features a quote from Lester Pearson, former prime minister and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

The reality, however, is that the days of our Canadian Forces donning sky-blue helmets and patrolling international no-man’s lands are long gone. As of this September, there were just 21 Canadian soldiers assigned to United Nations missions. And Canada’s overall peacekeeping contributions, including police and experts, totalled 118 people, ranking us 65th among UN member states. In contrast, by the end of this month, 600 Canadian Forces troops will be on the ground in Iraq to run and support an initial six-month air combat mission.

The Canadian public and its military have been out of sync over duties and mission for more than a decade. It is a gap that doesn’t make much sense. In the aftermath of 9/11, we have come to venerate first-responders—those who run toward danger—as local police, the RCMP and Parliament Hill security did in their shoot-out with Zehaf-Bibeau. But we remain slightly suspicious of the motives of people who volunteer to serve in the army, navy and air force, as if there is something nobler—and more Canadian—in playing defence than being on the offensive.

The events of the past week illustrate that we live in an age where such distinctions have been rendered meaningless. First the murder of Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent, run down by ersatz jihadi Martin Couture-Rouleau in a shopping mall parking lot in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que. And now the death of Cpl. Cirillo at the hands of another “self-radicalized” fellow citizen. Like it or not, Canada is in this fight, abroad and at home. Facing enemies who don’t give credit for past good deeds, and have few, if any scruples about whom they target.

There’s a tradition that has sprung up in Ottawa over the past years. After the conclusion of the official Remembrance Day ceremony, members of the public approach the War Memorial, remove the poppy from their lapels, and lay them on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It’s a small act of respect, and an attempt to connect with our fading, black and white past.

This year will be different. Not just because Nathan Cirillo died at that very spot, but because of what happened in his final moments. When a red-headed lawyer, a grey-haired nurse and a suit-clad government bureaucrat joined with a colonel and a corporal to try and save a soldier’s life, a page turned. The sacrifice, in fullcolour and public view, can’t be ignored. Everyone has become a witness. It is part of our present, and our uncomfortable future too.

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Life during wartime: We’re all witnesses to war

  1. Very well stated. Particularly the point about the public and the CF being out of sync. This became clear to me even at the beginning of the Afghan mission and especially so when Cdns seemed to misinterpret or forget some of the UN’s spectacular failures (such as the lack of timely concerted world action in Bosnia to stop the killing — and one which eventually required an “offensive” response by NATO to do so). Cdns have a not-so-admirable naïveté in this regard. It represents in fact an immature approach to international affairs, one that certain politicians (on all sides) are keen to exploit. I am therefore not so sure of your conclusion that things have changed. We have heard that before but have witnessed Canadians revert to form, once the danger has dissipated, to the fuzzy warmth of the image of the blue beret soldier — an image that never reflected the reality on the ground for those of us who served in the dangerous missions of the 1990s.

    • There seems to be a plethora of countries who view their military as offensive weapons, for both national defense as well as various foreign adventures. Most of these adventures seemed to have ended in spectacular failure, hideous civilian and service casualties and fortunes spent that probably, especially in retrospect, would have been better spent on other causes and issues that are viewed as less glamorous than Johnny marching off to war.
      That Canada at one time seemed alone as a peacekeeper in the world became a badge of honour for us who grew up with that image. The world’s perception of Canada echoed our personal sentiments. But it all changed…..What is the global perception of Canada now? I see an environmental pariah, an American lapdog, bellicosity from our representatives who should know better, but evidently don’t. I see an underfunded military overtasked for specious reasons.
      We need to ask: Is it a change for the better? Is this more than merely a penile measurement contest among the almost unisexual male club of national leaders? Or is the agenda being driven by the weapons manufacturers, the financiers and the oil companies, or perhaps even the forces themselves ?
      Churchill once said that jaw jaw is better than war war. We should try it. Perhaps Harper and Baird should open their ears instead of their mouths more often.

      • That Canada at one time seemed alone as a peacekeeper in the world became a badge of honour for us who grew up with that image.

        And an image was all it really was.

        • LOL

      • You missed both the detail and the point of the article. First, as he points out “And Canada’s overall peacekeeping contributions, including police and experts, totalled 118 people, ranking us 65th among UN member states.” So the Peacekeeping dreck fed to you by the Liberals was a lie calculated to preach a falsehood to the ignorant. Secondly, Churchill indeed pointed out that it was better to “Jaw jaw than to war war” and then went on to become one of the best leaders in War that the world had ever seen. The point was that if you can stop the people trying to kill or occupy you by diplomacy, that is always the best way. But once you realise that is impossible, you kill them with every means at your disposal – that is what “war” is. The very thought of having a Liberal Government, with their inability to support the military, tell the truth to Canadians, or stand up for the country at a time, when Putin has occupied the Crimea, invaded the Ukraine and planted a flag at the north pole on Canadian soil is desperately frightening. Trudeau has turned out to be an abject failure who actually makes Sarah Palin look reasonably intelligent. It is as tragic as it is true. Hopefully the next time they elect a leader it will be a Canadian.

        • We are not AT war.

          You can come out of the closet.

    • Excellent last sentence. Where would we send an actual peace-keeping force today? Peace-keeping means sending troops to supervise a withdrawal and demilitarized zone after the fighting has stopped. A peace-keeping force needs to be accepted – if not welcomed – by all former warring parties, or it’s not a peace-keeping mission. As you’ve stated, that is not what Canada got itself into during the UN missions of the 1990s. And like the 1990s, are no current situations where a traditional peace-keeping force would be appropriate. Hasn’t been for 25 years.

      So when anyone tosses out the platitude that Canada needs to get back to being a “peace-keeping nation”, we need to challenge them to point out on the map where we should send the blue helmets. If they don’t have an answer ready, then they are not advocating a return to our traditional peacekeeping role at all. What they’re advocating is isolationism. And isolationism is not a traditional Canadian values.

      • First you make the peace

        Then you keep the peace

        Then you observe the peace

        Then you leave.

        See, not hard at all.

        • And as I just explained to you (pointless, since you clearly know everything) you don’t “make” peace. A UN peace-keeping force needs to be invited to maintain the peace, by parties who have already agreed to stop fighting. Otherwise it’s not peace-keeping, it’s getting involved in a war.

          If you think it was peace-keeping that we were doing when Canadian forces fought a 30 hour gun battle against a renegade Croat army in September 1992, killing as many as 17 “enemy combatants” (they initiated an unprovoked attack on Canadian troops, so that’s what they were), go ahead and call it that. But that sort of activity has more in common with our Afghan mission than with traditional peace-keeping. The main difference between the Balkans and Afghanistan is that we finally dropped the pretense of calling it peace-keeping.

          Now you may continue with your refusal to address the actual subject of peace-keeping, and hide behind your usual pat responses about nothing. It’s what you do best.

          • Operations have ‘terms of engagement’. One operation might require combat….another might only require observation while diplomats work out the details of the final settlement.

            Yeah you can ‘make the peace’….so stop cowering in the closet. Harp’s made cowards of you all.

          • One operation might require combat….

            And the operations we’ve been involved with lately have all required combat. Combat operations are distinct and mutually exclusive from peace-keeping. You have now come full circle and are directly contradicting your earlier claims that we should only be involved in peace-keeping. See, this is what happens when you wade into a discussion without the slightest clue of what you’re talking about.

          • Goodness you’re slow.

            A UN peace-keeping mission is pretty clear….however the peace is kept on that particular outing.

            It is not ‘Canada’ fighting anyone….or Canada plus coalitions of the willing….or Canada plus NATO… is the UN.

            A global response….that will produce peace in the end….

            You know exactly what is meant….you’re just keener on playing games than you are on the topic.

            Closet is the best place possible for people like you.

  2. Peace-keeping is not ‘long gone’. We just need a PM with backbone….not one that hid in a closet…to come forward and push it.

    ‘Making peace is harder than making war.’

    And kindly stop confusing a couple of drug-addled loons with an actual ‘war’.

    • Well said Emily.

      As a child I remember my adult relatives talking about actual wartime, of dreading every knock on the front door being a bearer of tragic news, of hating the news broadcasts, of comforting neighbours who’s son, or father, or husband was never coming home, of shortages of everything in a land of plenty, of some who managed to avoid “service”, of smugly pious clergy waxing eloquently on “God’s War”. Yet almost all agreed it was a necessary evil and we need to do our bit.

      This ain’t it.

    • You don’t make peacekeeping happen you fool. You respond to a peacekeeping request from the UN after two formerly warring parties agree to a peace treaty and then petition the UN to send a force to supervise the withwithdrawl and patrol a demilitarised zone. The only time we ever made it happen was the very first time in Suez, when we proposed the framework for UN peacekeeping.

      • Then let’s do it again.

        It’s not rocket science you fool.

        • Where? Tell us where, right now, you want to send a Canadian peace-keeping force. As you say, it’s not rocket science. We just need to do it! So get out your map, and let us know what you come up with. If you can’t do that, you’re just bloviating.

          • I’m in charge of picking peacekeeping spots in the world now?

            Okay then…between the Ukrainians and the rebels…..between the Israelis and the Palestinians and in Syria.

            This is not hard RR

          • Has either side in the Ukrainian-Russian conflict petitioned the UN asking for a UN peace-keeping force? Has Israel? If not, then we can’t send a peace-keeping force there. You see, if the two sides haven’t A) stopped fighting, and B) asked the UN for a peace-keeping force, then sending troops there isn’t peace-keeping, it’s either a counter-insurgency mission or it’s a full-scale invasion – in other words, an act of war. Have you not bothered to learn anything about the subject? You have demonstrated such a total lack of any understanding of this issue, it seems pointless to discuss it any further. I feel as though I’m picking on a child here, and I don’t like the feeling.

          • Whoa wait, I just noticed something. You want to put boots on the ground….. in Syria? You actually said that? Rather than send F-18s, you want to send ground troops in blue berets???

            This is too funny. I’m surprised – you don’t usually leave yourself this exposed. You tend to revert to insults and snide remarks about Harper rather than wade deeper into discussions once your ignorance has been outed. Either that or you change the subject completely. This time you kept wading in long after the waters closed in overhead. It’ll be a long time before you live this conversation down. I’ll be sure to link back to it whenever convenient.

          • Peace keepers are a global military…..why are you waiting for an invitation?

            War isn’t a tea party.

          • Sorry, Closet-Commando…..I said nothing about choosing between F-18s and Canadian boots. That’s your hearing again.

          • I implore you to stop making things up. You do a service to no one, and certainly not yourself, when you create fanciful concepts out of thing air and then confidently assert them as facts.

            First of all, there is no “global military”. The UN has no troops of its own. When the UN initiates a peace-keeping mission, member states provide soldiers, who remain under the command of their respective governments.

            Second, the UN does not send in peace-keeping forces without regard to how they’ll be received by the belligerent parties. Such a world never existed; it is a figment of your imagination. Doing so would not be peace-keeping, it would be invading. If you support the formation of a UN invasion force, at least have the guts to call it that.

            And there you go. Your concept of peace-keeping exists nowhere outside your own mind. Some advice: The next time someone gives you the opportunity to run your ignorance up the flag pole for all to see, don’t take them up on it. Sometimes admitting you know nothing, if only to yourself, is a better strategy. I’m done with this. You’re plenty capable of making a fool of yourself. You don’t need my help.

          • LOL I realize your purpose on here is to put a drag on the thread…..but as you know I’m not into games.

            You are waaay too slow to engage with. Sorry.

          • “Ignorance up a flag pole.” Im laughing at that one. But I’m afraid RR that emilyone was at full mast right from the time she showed up here completely unarmed (with facts).

  3. One of the main problems is what Canadians see as “peacekeeping” to begin with. Peacekeeping is a very specific activity meant for very specific circumstances. First, both sides agree to stop fighting. Next, both parties petition the UN for an international peacekeeping force to supervise the withdrawal and maintain a demilitarized zone. The UN in turn asks its member states for peacekeeping support, and the members respond with troops and equipment. Canada always stepped up when asked. The problem: this model started to break down in the early 1990s.

    1992 – Yugoslavia, the acting governments of Croatia and Serbia signed a treaty to halt hostilities, but the warlords in charge of large portions of their armies refused to recognize the treaty, and kept fighting. This meant that Canada sent troops into the middle of a war zone. Canadians thus ended up fighting the Battle of Medak Pocket against Croat forces (not admitted nor acknowledged by our government until years later) and becoming active combatants in the Siege of Sarajevo.

    1993 – Somalia. This time there was no agreement between the warring parties to stop fighting – a first for a UN “peacekeeping” mission. We remember well the result.

    1994 – Rwanda. Yet again, what Canadians were told was a peacekeeping mission was in fact a vicious tribal conflict, where we ended up witnessing the slaughter of a quarter million people.

    1995 – Srebenica. We performed admirably and held off an ethnic slaughter for several months, but let’s not kid ourselves – this wasn’t peacekeeping, this was defending the perimeter of a city under attack, in war time. Yet our leaders and the UN still called it peacekeeping. Once Canada’s tour was over, the Dutch took over, and the city was soon over-run, because the Dutch insisted on strictly limiting themselves to UN peacekeeping conventions. A ruthless ethnic purge was the result.

    Canadians are proud of these efforts (except for Somalia of course) as we should be, but we sure have this odd tendency of deluding ourselves as to what these missions represented. Traditional peacekeeping died in Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. We haven’t seen it since, not because Canada doesn’t want to keep peace, but because there are no current situations where a traditional peacekeeping force would be effective. As we discovered that decade, the peacekeeping model does not work outside the narrow parameters for which it was originally designed.

  4. War on our Liberty, Freedom and Democracy is a never ending battle. And it isn’t just Islam Sharia loving radicals that want to destroy it, our own govmint uses it to subjugate us to Orwellian Police state and loss of economic liberty yo support govmint bloat.

    Only Ottawa would rewards security forces for ignoring warnings, apathy, inaction with a larger budget and more abilities to remove our Liberty, Freedom and Democracy. After all, our democracy is lobby-bought media driven ruse of democracy as it is. Hey, Ottawa does reward screw ups, its why nothing Ottawa works efficiently, effective and economical. Its all about govmint bloat, illusions for your money.

    Isn’t just Islam radicals who want your liberty. The war for freedom is ongoing.

  5. While it quite true that the vast majority of DND wasn’t devoted to peacekeeping at any time it’s a bit much for soldiers to groan about how they weren’t peacekeepers.

    Peacekeeping was held by the CF to be a big deal. Cyprus was the last chance for an infantry battalion to go and carry on as if they were part of the Raj. Going to Cyprus needed professional soldiers not reservists. Soldiers wore their UN blue berets on Remembrance Day. One or two peacekeeping gongs are what made army general officers stand out from the air force and navy. The current Lt Gov of Alberta’s claim to fame was he had been on UN tour after UN tour. I haven’t heard of any troops sending back their Peacekeeper medal, rather most had it court mounted as fast as they could. Service in Bosnia was a very big deal and ad hoc sort of Bosnia Old Comrades Club formed in many units.

    So while peacekeeping was messy and far from the CF’s main focus, it was DND more than anyone else who sold the idea of the Canadian Peacekeeper. .

    • Yes, it’s a wonderful thing….and needs to be brought back and promoted. The times are right for it.