The House of Commons, when filled with politicians, doesn’t usually go completely quiet. It’s not always trained-seal applause and booming theatrics, but there’s a certain hum of activity and white noise in the air: rustling papers, whispered conferences among colleagues, the voices of MPs rising and falling one after another in the business of Parliament.
On Monday, though, the House lapsed into silence for a solid minute in memory of the victims of a terror attack at a Quebec City mosque, where six people were shot to death on Sunday night. The MPs and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rose in unison and then stood stalk-still, most staring at the ground ahead of them, some with hands folded in prayer. When the minute was over, Trudeau swiped at his nose before gathering up the papers on his desk.
Just a few minutes earlier, he and the other party leaders had taken turns responding to the carnage wreaked by a lone gunman who opened fire on worshippers inside the Centre Culturel Islamique de Québec in the Quebec City suburb of Sainte-Foy. Their messages universally hit one note, again and again: this is not Canada, this is not what we stand for and it is not who we are. Each of the speeches was greeted by another unusual sight in the House: instant and prolonged standing ovations from all parties and members.
“To the more than one million Canadians who profess the Muslim faith, I want to say directly: we are with you. Thirty-six million hearts are breaking with yours,” Trudeau said, invoking the exact same broken-hearted illustration of solidarity and sadness that the other leaders would as well. Know that we value you and you enrich this country in immeasurable ways, he said, adding, “It is your home,” with heavy emphasis. “Last night’s horrible crime against the Muslim community was an act of terror committed against Canada and against all Canadians,” he continued. “We will grieve with you, we will defend you, we will love you and we will stand with you.”
As Trudeau spoke, there was near-complete stillness and undivided attention on both the government and opposition sides of the House. Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan’s face was a pinched mask of sadness as she leaned forward slightly in her chair. Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, in contrast, seemed to melt into her seat with dejection, her hands clasped on her lap.
Trudeau vowed, to the families of the dead and injured and to all Quebecers, that the government would get to the bottom of this violent crime. As he moved to close his remarks, the earnest and empathetic tone shifted into a near-snarl of resolve. “Canadians will not be intimidated. We will not meet violence with more violence,” he said. “We will meet fear and hatred with love and compassion. Always.”
Interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose began by noting that the members of the House often disagree heatedly within those walls, but on this day, they were united in sadness. “Once again, this House is memorializing innocent people killed by cowardly attackers,” she said.
The terror attack killed fathers, husbands and sons who left their homes and families to pray, and now will never come home, Ambrose said. And the nature and site of the attack strikes at a core Canadian belief: that of the freedom to worship as you choose. “We have profoundly defended that right for people around the world, but it is most meaningful for us at home. An attack against a place of worship, against people praying in a mosque, is an attack on these very freedoms,” Ambrose said. “It negates the principles on which Canada was founded.”
Thomas Mulcair, leader of the NDP, made several oblique references to the broader climate of ugly intolerance in which the shooting occurred. Many people don’t feel safe in their places of worship or in their communities, he said, and that is simply not acceptable because it is not Canada. “To our Muslim brothers and sisters: we mourn with you. We pray with you,” he said. “And we promise that we will stand united and fight against the forces of hatred, bigotry and Islamophobia, and against those who peddle the politics of fear and division.”
Bloc Québécois Leader Rhéal Fortin declared that Jan. 29, 2017, would go down in history as “a black day in our society.” He echoed Mulcair’s indictment of the broader currents of isolationism swirling about. “An unhealthy climate has taken root in our society and across the Western world,” he said. “And the terrorist attack in Quebec City is simply the latest example of that—a climate of distrust and intolerance.”
Green Leader Elizabeth May typically speaks rapidly and in fully developed paragraphs of complex, strung-together thoughts. But when she rose to speak, last among the party leaders, it was, ironically, her uncharacteristically brief and halting remarks that provided the starkest emotional note of the day. Her voice was reedy, her face wrenched with a puzzled sort of sadness, as she spoke of the surreal horror of such an attack. “We can’t understand it because it’s so out of order,” she said, pausing and grasping for the right words. “It feels as though it doesn’t belong in Canada. It feels like it couldn’t possibly have happened. And yet it did.”
Then May, too, made the same shift in tone that the Prime Minister had: from grief and empathy to a quiet, resolute fury. “Today, we are all Muslims. We stand with you and we will never let there be daylight between a Christian, a Jew, a Sikh, an atheist and a Muslim in this country,” she said, nearly gasping. “We are Canadians and we stand together in love.”
Then, for the fifth time that day, the entire House of Commons rose in a long, loud ovation.