Charlotte Gray on the shooting in Ottawa

Man hugs, togetherness, then back to business

Charlotte Gray on why the capital will soon sink back into its usual obscurity

Photograph by Jamie Hogge

Photograph by Jamie Hogge

I stared in confusion at the email that had arrived from my husband, who was in Ethiopia: “Is it safe for me to come back to Ottawa? Should I return to Mogadishu?”

What was he talking about? On Wednesday morning, I was quietly working away in my Ottawa house, oblivious to what was happening downtown. I knew my husband had spent the weekend in Somalia’s capital, where gunfire frequently crackles, and I was relieved he had flown out safely.

Another email arrived, from my sister in England. “Are you okay?”

I finally turned the television on and watched with horror the video of CPR being administered to Cpl. Nathan Cirillo. It was followed by footage of the scene in the Centre Block on Parliament Hill. An email arrived from an American friend. “OMG, I’ve just seen Ottawa in the news! What’s happening up there?”

My far-flung network of friends and relatives rarely see Canada’s capital on television. Why should they? Even within our country, Ottawa has the reputation of being bland, if not beyond boring. Its rituals are unchanging—Throne Speeches, Canada Day celebrations, skating on the Rideau Canal. The daily kabuki theatre of politicians screaming at each other in question period.

And then shots rang out at the War Memorial and on Parliament Hill, and panic erupted. By day’s end, we knew it was a lone shooter, a mentally unstable young man.

But, during the day, faced with terror and tragedy, there was a surge of togetherness in the face of danger. MPs from different parties embraced. Politicians sent out a spontaneous volley of compassionate tweets, posts and emails. A day later, party leaders had a group hug. Canada is a country built on compromise and consensus: It is the narrative of our past and it is enshrined in our Constitution. For a brief moment, the sound of gunfire reminded us that other countries cannot take such stability for granted.

Will this incident have any lasting impact, other than an increase in armed policemen patrolling our national monuments? I doubt it. Ottawa soon returned to its sleepy self, with carefully scripted remarks by the Prime Minister and party leaders about “our prayers” for the grief-stricken Cirillo family. Relations between the government and opposition parties began the slide back to their poisonous norm. Media started to speculate about how each leader’s reaction to the shooting will affect his standing in opinion polls. The Prime Minister, not known for his respect for civil liberties, immediately started speaking of enhanced security, which I suspect will mean even fewer people have access to him. Byward Market vendors, deserted during the lockdown, piled up their pumpkins again.

Canada’s capital will once again sink out of sight on television screens elsewhere, while gunfire from murderous armies continues to ricochet through less happy cities like Yemen’s Sana’a, Iraq’s Baghdad or Syria’s Aleppo. However, admiration will linger on for individual acts of bravery, such as that of Kevin Vickers, the House of Commons’ sergeant-at-arms, who killed the gunman. As a New York friend emailed when it was all over, “How about that guy with a mace?! So Game of Thrones.”

Author Charlotte Gray is past chair of Canada’s History Society.

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Man hugs, togetherness, then back to business

  1. Luckily most of us in Ottawa don’t live in the same city as Charlotte Gray. While she may live in a dull, bland, sleepy, obscure Ottawa and rarely leave the confines of her own garden, I, and many other Ottawans live in a vibrant, fast paced, exciting, beautiful city.

    If Charlotte Gray’s idea of being vibrant and internationally relevant is being broadcasted daily across the globe on the 6 o’clock news than I’m afraid no Canadian city meets her definition. Even Toronto, (which is arguably the most boring city in the nation) where the official civic pastime is trying to boast on how “metropolitan” and “world class” it is to anyone who will listen almost never makes international news unless a primate wearing doll clothing escapes its cage. Nor can Vancouver with its breathtaking beauty and gentile lifestyles crack global headlines outside the Olympics. In fact I couldn’t name one Canadian city that regularly makes the international spotlight except for Fort McMurray, AB. which frequently takes top honours on embarrassing the nation for it’s atrocious pollution emissions.

    So Charlotte Gray, I say to you. Put down that dishtowel, put on your finest accoutrement and get out into your fine city. You will find not a sleepy, dull, obscure capital, but a bustling, energetic, vibrant city, waiting to be discovered.

    • Thank you for saying that (other than your cheap-shot at Fort Mac – if Ottawa were sitting on an oil sands deposit, we’d be doing what they’re doing). I moved here from crap-hole Winnipeg 9 years ago, and I’m still confused when I hear Ottawa residents describe their hometown as boring, bland, obscure, dull, sleepy, etc… In fact, it is a beautiful city, rich with history, parks, museums, and green spaces, and blessed with a low crime rate, a reasonable cost of living, and weather that, while far from perfect, is anything but extreme. Quiet? Certainly. And we should all be damned proud of and thankful for that. There is no other city in Canada in which I would rather live. I can only assume that many long-time residents have become so spoiled and so soft, they have forgotten what real urban problems, real traffic, real crime, real sprawl, and real poverty, look like.