Parliament will carry on

And please let there be yoga again on the lawn
Lars Hagberg/CP
Lars Hagberg/CP

Near the bottom of the right side of page 5,266 in volume 5 of the collected debates of the 1st session of the 21st Parliament is a short note in parentheses and italics.

[Editor’s note: At this point a loud explosion was heard in the chamber.]

The honourable J.R. Nicholson, minister of labour, seems to have paused for a moment then before continuing with his remarks on a motion to call for “a copy of any communication exchanged between the maritime trustees or other organizations and other persons, and the minister of labour or any official of the Department of Labour, with respect to the seafarers’ international union.”

A moment later, as John Diefenbaker was asking the government to explain the purpose of the intended visit to Ottawa of the deputy prime minister of “South Viet Nam,” NDP MP Frank Howard stood on a point of privilege to announce that a “page boy” had passed him a request that all doctors in the House “now go outside, as their services are needed immediately.” Diefenbaker then continued with his question and, after a bit of back and forth between Dief and Paul Martin Sr., Tommy Douglas stood next and initiated an exchange on the government’s plan for legislation enacting medicare. Only after the Speaker had intervened to declare certain questions out of order did John Diefenbaker, as leader of the opposition, stand and suggest that the House adjourn on account of a report that someone had just passed away within the precinct. Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson stood and agreed and so the business of the House was suspended at 3:05pm on the afternoon of May 18, 1966.

That afternoon, a man named Paul Joseph Chartier had been watching the proceedings from the gallery. At some point, he stepped out of the chamber and entered a nearby washroom. Shortly thereafter the dynamite bomb he had in his possession exploded. He had lit the fuse and apparently intended to throw the bomb from the gallery down upon the House and its members, but he never got the chance. It blew up in his hand, in the washroom, killing only him.

At the inquest that followed, a man testified that he had come upon Chartier near Parliament in March of that year. Mistaking Chartier for a security guard, the man explained a lingering concern he had that Parliament was insufficiently secure. “I told him any nut can go up there and throw a bomb down and kill half the people there,” Jules Irving McGrail testified.

And so it nearly was.

But here, for all that might’ve been, the House resumed its business at 4 p.m. And, after the solicitor general had briefly told the House that police were investigating the explosion, the House carried on—discussing the cost of a new performing arts centre, the availability of summer work for students, the fulfillment of the terms of union for Newfoundland and various other matters before adjourning at 6 p.m.

Parliament carried on. It had carried on 50 years before that when the very building burned down. And it will carry on now, 50 years after, when it was again a scene of mayhem. It will carry on, lord willing, 550 years from now, at least.

Which is not to dismiss or discount the horror or loss. That can’t be done. Two images will stay with me—the sight, as I arrived on Parliament Hill, of two police officers taking cover behind a police car pulled up diagonally along the main path toward the Peace Tower, just beyond the centennial flame, still lit; and the sight of a brown, plateless Toyota Corolla, just stopped at the curb on Wellington Street in front of East Block, apparently left there by the shooter. Most of us might be able to get away with a few chilling images or moments of great fear—traumas that hopefully can be healed. Cpl. Nathan Cirillo and his loved ones are not so lucky and even if we might hope that the gunfire inside the Hall of Honour will one day be a footnote in the great expanse of the recorded history of the House of Commons, Cpl. Cirillo should be remembered and honoured and the injustice of his death not forgotten.

If it was Kevin Vickers, the sergeant-at-arms, who fired the shot that felled the gunman it should be something of great history too. It is he who carries in the Mace each day and he who holds a title and a post that goes back centuries, a symbol of Parliament’s power and privilege—the House of Commons cannot convene without the Mace and it is the sergeant-at-arms who guards and wields the golden staff. If all that seemed rather ceremonial before, it doesn’t now.

If this somehow makes us appreciate more this place and that building and what it represents and what occurs there, so be it—it is a great place, our best place. But let us also get back to the good noise of parliamentary democracy. I’m not sure I’ve ever been more eager to sit in question period again.

After May 18, 1966, there were new measures of security implemented and there will be new measures now. There is no sense in reckless bravado and we should hope to create a safe place and so perhaps the virtual and real walls of enforcement will be extended and reinforced. But please, somehow, someway, let there be yoga again on the lawn. And Frisbees and protests and light shows in the summer.

I can’t say I won’t be scared tomorrow or the next day or some day after that. We cannot know what those days will bring, only aim for something better. But I do hope we can all walk by that spot at the end of the Hall of Honour and go into that magnificent library—spared from the flames of 1916—and someday not think too much about what happened just outside its door.

The day after the bombing of 1966 that wasn’t, the Speaker addressed the House on the need to balance security with public access and explained that a review would proceed forthwith and then commended the sergeant-at-arms and his staff for their service. “Hear, hear,” concurred some honourable members.

And then the House carried on with a question of privilege related to a newspaper article that Mr. Howard objected to and then the tabling of several committee reports. Parliament carried on.

On Wednesday morning, our Parliament was a crime scene. On Thursday morning, it is slated to be the scene of a vote on ways and means motion no. 15. Let us find a way to carry on.