Parliament Hill under siege

’Anything could happen. This morning, it did.’ Paul Wells on the Ottawa shooting.
Adrian Wyld/CP
Adrian Wyld/CP

We call it Parliament Hill, but it’s a big open field, sloping so gently northward from Wellington Street that, on sunny summer afternoons, you can see hundreds of people doing yoga on the green. What I notice when I visit other national capital buildings, especially in Europe, is how big and isolated ours is by comparison.

Security has tightened over the years. After 9/11, there was a pause for a few weeks while nothing changed. Plainclothes RCMP officers working in Centre Block complained that anyone who wanted could just waltz through the front doors. Then the front doors were closed to unaccredited visitors. The west door, which Members of Parliament use to walk straight into the House of Commons, was closed to reporters. Tourists go downstairs and wait in line to pass metal detectors. Once inside, they hardly have the run of the place. Most of the building is off-limits to people who don’t work there. Vehicles enter the precinct from a single entry point a block west of Centre Block.

But who were we ever kidding. Determined and well-armed assailants could always close the distance from Wellington Street to Parliament’s front door in a few seconds. There was precedent. In April 1989, a hijacked Greyhound bus drove onto the front lawn. In 1996, someone drove his car into the front door. And, as we were tragically reminded this morning, outside the Parliament Hill fence, Wellington Street is as open as any in Canada. Anything could happen. This morning, it did.

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Just before 10 a.m., I was walking along Wellington Street from the Chapters bookstore at Sussex and Rideau Streets, earpods in, connected to iTunes. I felt commotion before I understood it, saw worried faces looking up at Centre Block, heard a shouted interjection behind me and turned to see a police officer in black, carrying a rifle, running flat out toward me and telling me to get out of the way. Which I was eager to do.

This would, I figured later, have been less than five minutes after Josh Wingrove, a Globe and Mail reporter who was in the Centre Block to cover the weekly Conservative caucus meeting, tweeted that he had heard gunfire inside the building. Already, there were 14 police vehicles in sight, clustered around the front entrance or dotted around the lawn’s perimeter. More were arriving from every direction. So were colleagues from Maclean’s and several other news organizations. We split up and started interviewing witnesses. Soon enough, the work was interrupted by police, soon joined by Canadian Forces personnel, who expanded the security perimeter around the Hill, a block at a time over about a half hour.

The news, which colleagues are gathering while I write this, will tell you the rest. Here’s what I know about context. Starting on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, if not earlier, it has been obvious to everyone who works in Ottawa that Parliament Hill could become a target. In 2006, a ramshackle plot to storm Parliament and, perhaps, behead the Prime Minister, was undone by police. There are periodic reports that the PM’s security has been stepped up and, sometimes, colleagues will snark about that, on the general theory that if Stephen Harper needs a lot of cops around him, it must be his ego talking. I have never felt like joining in the snark. We don’t know what he knows.

This is the second fatal attack on Canadian security services in three days. There is no particular reason to believe it will be the last. The surprise is that it took so long. For a perplexingly long time after 9/11, extremist groups seemed intent on replicating the very large casualty count of a World Trade Center-type attack. The sort of smaller-scale, sudden attack that happened in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., and in downtown Ottawa was always an option, one that is now being exploited.

This isn’t the end of any national innocence. It would insult Canadians to suggest it is. Throughout the decade of Canadian Forces intervention in Afghanistan, every military officer there said the fight there was designed, partly, to avoid one here. But you can’t keep a country on lockdown, not while preserving the things that made the country worth having in the first place. Much like its capital precinct, Canada is a big open field, too. Nobody can know what might happen next.