I honestly didn’t know what to expect when I visited Centre Block yesterday. Indeed, I hadn’t even planned on being in the building. But I arrived at my hotel in Ottawa earlier than expected, so instead of joining a friend for a working dinner in a pub (where, admittedly, we could have better monitored the score in the Sens-Habs game), we ended up in the Parliamentary Dining Room.
That was possible because the friend in question is Peter Braid, the Member of Parliament who I spent two years working for, and who I’m still glad to call friend. I’ve talked before about some of his good work –– the Next Einstein Initiative especially. He’s an MP who two national newspapers have commended for his non-partisan efforts, who was part of Canada’s delegation to Mandela’s funeral, and who was lately noted for not missing a single vote in the commons in 2014.
I’ve known Peter since before he was elected. He takes his job seriously, and I was delighted to catch up with him at his workplace on Parliament Hill.
And it just happened that the day I caught up with him was also the six-month anniversary of the attack on Canada’s National War Memorial, and on our Parliament.
On October 22nd, 2014, this occurred:
I won’t recount what happened. It’s been covered very well, in many different places.
Like most Canadians, I saw bits and pieces on television that day. It was actually my third day of packing before our move from Waterloo to Edmonton, so my house was a mess, but the television stayed on. Even CNN was covering it; Ottawa was on lockdown, and I was madly emailing friends (including Peter) to see who was okay.
Everyone I knew was, of course, unscathed. Only Corporal Nathan Cirillo died at his post, guarding the monument to servicemen and women who fell before him. I cannot comment rationally on how unspeakable his death was, so I will set the subject aside and remark instead on the gunman’s other target.
Watching the coverage that day, I could only imagine the terror on Parliament Hill. After dinner last night, imagining became a lot easier.
In the Hall of Honour, Peter showed me the bullet hole in the doorway of the Official Opposition’s caucus room. A neat-and-tidy hole left by a .30-30 rifle round, mercifully at a high enough angle that it didn’t hit anyone inside –– because, of course, the caucuses were meeting when the attack occurred.
It was fortunate the gunman didn’t realize how close he was to all of our elected representatives… though obviously, no one inside those caucus rooms was aware of what he did or didn’t know. They had no idea what was in store for them.
Peter told me what went through his head, when the cacophony of shots rang through the building.
He talked about not knowing who was shooting –– how many, or how well armed.
He spoke of barricading the doors, and preparing for what could have been a desperate last stand (my words –– he wasn’t so dramatic, though he should have been).
He pointed out that, twenty minutes before the shooter stormed in, he’d been in the very same corridor, crossing from the Parliamentary Library to his caucus room after collecting some clippings.
Like every other MP on the Hill that day, Peter had been close to death. Like every other MP on the Hill that day, he survived, and got on with his job.
But like many other Canadians, I still can’t quite get over it –– and not just because Peter, and some other dear friends, were within sound of the shots. The point of attacks like these is their symbolism… they are launched to make a statement against a nation, its policies, its values.
So yes, this was an attack on our democracy. But these days, holding up the word ‘democracy’ as a self-evident good thing seems cliché at best, and wantonly naïve at worst. What did this attack really mean?
The way I see it, the gunman was trying to kill the idea that you can really loathe someone whose politics you disagree with… and exercise that distaste without violence. That’s democracy. You can stand ardently against any party, any policy, any philosophy… and do so without needing to kill, or to face the possibility of being killed.
In the history of human civilization, this liberty from fear of death is rare. As much as we all tire of politics and spin, remember that the alternatives are so much worse. A government that can only be changed through violence? A government that can’t be changed at all? A government that can silence its opponents, instead of facing them every day in the media?
These are the realities in many parts of the world, but here in Canada, we take for granted that elections do change the people who run our government. We have so much faith in our process that, no matter how passionate we might be about our causes, we don’t try to circumvent votes with violence. Fundraising, organizing, protesting, even civil disobedience… yes. But we never put a gun to someone’s head and tell them to change the law.
Canada has a long and proud tradition of that civilized approach to governance. In all our history, only one MP has ever been assassinated: in 1868, Thomas D’Arcy McGee was killed… though the case can be made that he died as a result of a bar fight, not an agenda. Either way, this is a country that doesn’t seek to win political battles with live ammunition.
Except on October 22nd, 2014, when one twisted bastard decided to try.
Granted, he probably didn’t expect to directly change specific policy, but his symbolic attack sought to undermine the fundamental civility of our system.
Fortunately, he failed. If you doubt that, just read the latest talking points from whatever party you support (or whatever party you hate). Check the polls. Read the pundits. We can always improve our system of government, but let’s not overlook the fact that in every election, we can exercise real change –– without gunshots.
Now, to be clear: I don’t like nasty partisan politics. I’d rather we all got along in a civilized fashion, exchanging ideas and giving credit where due. I strive for this. It’s why Peter and I are friends.
But I vastly prefer attack ads, nonsensical spin, and giant novelty cheques… to bullet holes. This country’s pluralistic society succeeds because even when we don’t all come from the same place, we find common ground, and put violence behind us.
The need to move forward together, despite our differences, is ingrained in my DNA. The fact that it’s realized in our system of government is an incredible gift of history, and one we can’t take for granted.
This trip to Ottawa is going to be fun, and productive. I’m just glad it began with a reminder. Thanks Peter.