Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Ultimate Sacrifice

The Sargent-at-Arms receives a 4 minute standing ovation when he enters the House of Commons. As Members of Parliament sing O Canada, a single tear falls down his cheek. 

"You are so loved", the words repeated over and over to Corporal Nathan Cirillo by civilian Barbara Winters, who rushed to his aid once shots were fired so that she could administer CPR alongside other like-minded civilians, as he clung to life. 

Corporal Cirillo's dogs peeking under his fence, which has become a makeshift memorial, waiting for their master to come home. 

These are the words and the images that are stuck in my mind on this day. The day after.

The day after the young, strong, beautiful Corporal Nathan Cirillo, reservist of the Argyle Sutherland Highlanders, was killed in cold blood. He has performing an act so sacred that it is enshrined in our National Anthem - "stand[ing] on guard" for our national treasure - and the memory of the brave men and women who have served in our country's name - that is the National War Memorial. 

Mere seconds later, the gunman rushed to Parliament Hill, where Members of Parliament were gathered in their respective caucus meetings. They heard shouting and gunfire in the Hall of Honour. They took cover under tables and chairs and in closets. They had no idea who or what was waiting outside those doors. They were scared. Some of them prayed. 

It finally ended moments later when Kevin Vickers, the very brave Sargent-at-Arms of the House of Commons, shot the gunman. Just outside the doors of the Library of Parliament. 

My Library of Parliament. Your Library of Parliament. Our Library of Parliament. 

Our Hall of Honour. 

Our Parliament Hill. 

Our National War Memorial. 

Our Ottawa, and our Canada. That in less than 2 minutes, someone tried very hard to take away from us. 

The view outside my office window
from Langevin block
Parliament Hill means something different to everyone. Many of us see it for the first time as tourists, and are excited by the chance to see the city from atop the Peace Tower. Some of us think of it as merely a place where politicians scream at each other from across the way. Many of us view it as a symbol of our democracy. 

Here's what it means to me. 

I love Parliament Hill. I burst with pride when I tell people that this beautiful place was my "office" for four years. First as a page in the Senate, where I had the privilege of standing in the Hall of Honour to greet Nelson Mandela during his state visit in 1998. Then as an MPs assistant, in a tiny office tucked away just below the House of Commons. Even once I became a public servant, my office in Langevin building had a clear view of Parliament Hill. Once every week, my colleagues and I would walk across Wellington, up the Hill, into Centre Block and into the Cabinet room just outside the Prime Minister's Office. I can't describe that feeling of privilege that comes from serving your country. Even now, years removed from working on the Hill, the Peace Tower takes my breath away. Every time I run along the Quebec side of the river and catch a glimpse of the sun rising over the Library of Parliament, my heart skips a beat. 

The Peace Tower pokes through the fog
on an early morning run
And just off to the East of Parliament Hill stands the National War Memorial. With that beautiful guardian angel watching over our fallen soldiers. With the tomb of the unknown soldier at her feet. A place where thousands of Ottawans gather every November 11th to honour the sacrifices made by men and women in uniform throughout this last century. A list to which Corporal Cirillo's name is now added. As well as Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent's, struck and killed in a hit-and-run attack in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu a mere two days previous. 

These places are so much more to me than monuments. They are so much more than representations of democracy and freedom. They are democracy and freedom. They are my country. They are my city. They are me. 

The National War Memorial to the right as I stand with my
fellow citizens on Remembrance Day to honour the fallen
As the capital went on lockdown yesterday, I was about 3km removed from the sheer terror of that 2 minutes. But I felt it deep within me. I felt it as I thought of all of the many friends of mine who still work on the Hill or in offices that overlook the War Memorial - close enough to see and hear the tragedy. I felt it as I thought of the childcare workers in the Parliament Hill daycare, who worked to keep the children calm during a 10+hour lockdown. I felt it as initial reports indicated that there may be a second and even a third shooter running free.

But I also felt love. As my 17-year-old niece texted me to ask "Auntie, are you guys okay?" followed by an onslaught of texts and Facebook messages from other friends and family. As one of my colleagues at work shared her lunch with me because I had not brought my own and could not leave our building in lock-down. As reports of the various acts of heroism began to trickle in. Like those civilians who did not know whether or not there was another shooter but who ran to Corporal Cirillo's side nonetheless to revive him. And the Sargent-at-Arms who, while wearing his ceremonial uniform, retrieved his weapon and led the charge of RCMP officers to contain the shooter. As the Pittsburg Penguins lit up the ice with a red maple leaf and sang our national anthem, even though they were not playing a Canadian team. 

The National War Memorial on Remembrance Day
These acts - some small and some indescribably big - are those moments of humanity that are hidden within the darkest of terrors. And they are what I want to remember the most about the past hours.

In the aftermath of an event like this, many will say, "I never thought it could happen here." I am not one of those people. After 9/11, after subway bombings in various European cities, after the death of the London soldier by machete, we know that this can happen. Even here. Even in sleepy Ottawa. And we as a nation have made the conscious choice - and I believe with all of my being that it is the right and only choice - not to lock up our national treasures. Because they belong to us. Because they can hardly be symbols of democracy and freedom if we can't access them. But in making that decision, we must also accept that it can happen here. Indeed, now we know that it can.

Thankfully, the Corporal Cirillo's, the Warrant Officer Vincent's and the Kevin Vickers of this world have agreed, through the jobs that they do day in and day out, to protect our national treasures. And in so doing, they protect and serve us. They sacrifice themselves so that Fergus and I can run by the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier or up Parliament Hill. So that thousands can gather in front of the War Memorial every November 11. So that Moms and Dads can visit Ottawa and bring their children to the top of the Peace Tower. So that Members of Parliament can debate the issues of our times. 

God bless the men and women who dedicate their lives to making sure that we are free to enjoy all that it means to be Canadian. Including our national monuments. May we never take for granted the burdens that you carry so that we do not have to live in fear. 

My heart overflows with love.