'Has our beautiful hill lived out its own age of innocence?'

Ottawa author Frances Itani contemplates all that might be lost in the aftermath

Lars Hagberg/CP

Lars Hagberg/CP

All day Wednesday, I listened to radio in my office or my kitchen while events were reported from the Hill. From my apartment windows I looked out at the Peace Tower in the distance—a sight that greets me every morning—and thought: What has gone so terribly wrong?

Parliament Hill: our hill. I have always felt a sense of ownership, and why not? Since early childhood, I’ve been visiting the Hill, passing it on a bus, driving up onto it, counting the stairs in the tower, catching a glimpse of the Queen, watching the Trooping of the Colour, visiting the gallery of the House of Commons to watch proceedings below.

What excitement! Seven years old and being taken “to town” from our tiny village in Quebec. Climbing up into a rattling bus, dust seeping in and depositing brown Rorschach blots on the seats. Disembarking in Hull, only to board a streetcar, bells clanging, sparks crackling, past the Chaudière Falls and into the capital to be greeted by West Block, the Peace Tower, East Block with its windows that resemble two eyes and a nose.

When I was 16, on Halloween I drove my sister and two teachers’ college friends up onto the hill, where we paraded in costume. My sister was dressed as a Mountie. Her friends became a horse beneath a special blanket, and they dropped pancakes while attempting to canter across the main lawn. A real RCMP officer gave chase—how clearly I remember. We reversed course. The horse began to gallop, but tangled instead, and broke into two parts. Once we were all in the car, there was no place to escape except to drive the circuit of the hill in order to exit. I passed two startled Mounties in front of the tower, and drove back out onto the street.

We were foolish, but we meant no harm. Days of innocence. Alas, nothing feels innocent this week. Not with men dead and wounded, bullets ricocheting off walls, security breached. Has our beautiful hill lived out its own age of innocence? How fortunate we’ve been.

When I lived in Heidelberg in the early ’80s, I visited the German Bundestag in Bonn and was forced to hand over jacket, bag, purse. Nothing was permitted past the guards at the entrance. I begged for my passport. I had never seen such extremes in security. That was 34 years ago.

In 1981, 12 days after Anwar Sadat’s assassination in Cairo, I walked past the Egyptian Embassy in Athens and was unnerved by cameras tracing my every move on the street—nothing subtle—and by unsmiling soldiers armed with large guns. It was election time: Papandreou followers were everywhere. And so were guns and guards.

Has this kind of security existed in every capital but Ottawa? The large embassies in our own city are more difficult to penetrate than the entrance of Centre Block. I spoke with an American in Denmark this week and she said, “But the relaxed atmosphere is what is so welcoming. What a shame if that were lost.”

Time will tell what we have yet to lose. The balance is shifting now.

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