Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The death of small-town Ottawa

I am still trying to wrap my mind around today’s events in Ottawa, where a gunman murdered a soldier guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and then stormed into the Parliament buildings. Thank goodness he was shot and killed before he could murder anyone else, although he managed to wound several other people before he died. It remains to be seen whether the shooter acted alone or was part of a larger group, and if he was consciously committing an act of terrorism. One thing that is clear is that Ottawa won't be the same.

I was born in Ottawa, when my father was stationed there with the army, but I don’t remember it much because we moved away when I was pretty young. I moved back again in 1990, when I got my first job out of university as a foreign service officer trainee. Except for temporary postings to Belgrade and Delhi, a one-bedroom apartment with a view of Parliament and the Gatineau hills was my home for two years until I shipped out for Hong Kong. In 2006 I was back in Ottawa again, this time with a family, as a newly hired, tenure track geography professor at the University of Ottawa. Although I moved on to Laurier two years ago, Ottawa still holds a special place in my heart. Wherever I live, it will always be a second home to me.

Until today, Ottawa was a safe and sleepy capital city – probably about as safe and sleepy as you could find (and I have visited more than a few capital cities over the years). And that was a good thing, a very good thing. Although the city was full of civil servants, politicians, and people who made their living from reporting on government or trying to influence it, Ottawa was an overgrown small town. Unlike Washington or London or Paris or Moscow, political leaders and senior officials mingled relatively freely with everyone else. When I first moved to Ottawa in 1990, you could on any given day pass a senior cabinet minister or a visiting premier walking unaccompanied along a downtown street, on his or her way to a meeting or to pick up some dry cleaning. Prime Minister Mulroney used to go for walks in the park behind the Foreign Affairs office, with no more security than a couple Mounties on foot. Once a colleague from work came back from lunch break saying he had walked right up and joined the Prime Minister in conversation.

Security in Ottawa was tighter when I was working at U of O, but not that much tighter in comparison with other capital cities in the post-9/11 world. There were more barricades in front of potential targets for terrorists, like the US Embassy and the National Defence headquarters, and more politicians were being chauffeured around in cars than had been before. However, I still didn’t feel like political leaders or officials were that distant or separate from the rest of us. You could still see the former governor of the Bank of Canada riding the bus each day. His successor, Mark Carney, sent his kids to public school, the same one my kid attended. So did Prime Minister Harper. That doesn’t happen in other capitals. Barack Obama might have wished to send his kids to a public school in Washington, but for security reasons that could never happen.

One Sunday not long before I moved to Waterloo I went for a walk in my neighbourhood, simply to get some fresh air, and crossed paths with Prime Minister Harper and his wife, who were doing the same. I smiled and gave a little nod, and they did the same. There were security guards in a black SUV that were obviously keeping an eye on things, and who had no doubt looked me up and down as I approached. But I remember thinking at the time how nice it is to live in a country where such an encounter could happen spontaneously, without it being any big deal.*

Unfortunately, now security in Ottawa is going to be a big deal. It used to be anyone could walk right up to the front door of the Parliament and get their picture taken. That will change. I often went for walks on the Hill, it has spectacular views of the Gatineaus, some interesting statues and, until recently, a sanctuary for stray cats in a stand of trees behind the Centre Block. I hope that once some time has passed the public will still have free run of the Hill, but I suspect we won’t. Parliamentarians and their staff have a right to a safe and secure workplace, as do their children (there’s a daycare inside the Parliament buildings). If that means keeping the rest of us at a physical distance, I will not like it, but I will understand. If it means you or I might never bump into a prime minister on the street, that's a drag. It is not a healthy thing for a democracy for its capital city to become a place where politicians and the public cannot freely, easily, and safely mix, and that's what I fear Ottawa will become.

Today’s shooter did not simply kill an innocent man, he killed off a really nice small town. And that’s a shame.

*I realize that had I been a homeless man, or someone who looked unsavoury, I would likely have been intercepted by a security officer before I got too close and asked to wait or walk elsewhere. I’m not so naïve.   

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