You are the country of my birth, my youth and that beacon in my heart that reminds me that another way is possible where our individual and collective voices trumped violence and terror. Alas, our voices are now momentarily silent from the shock that has followed from the targeting of our soldiers on home soil. Our hearts have taken a blow as we consider the implications that the events in Québec and Ottawa have for our unique multicultural democracy.
As noted by MPs whilst locked down in the Parliament speaking to the world’s press, ‘ours is an open society that is welcoming for all’. There were no barriers preventing these individuals from storming Parliament Hill because that is not the Canada we want – one where our politicians and institutions reside behind fortified ramparts, only accessible after multiple security checkpoints. One Canadian journalist even stated that there is weekly yoga open to the public on the lawn out front.
We should remember that the casualties of these attacks have been two soldiers at home.
Our collective sorrow at the presence of political violence in Canada is understandable. I had grown up thinking of our soldiers as wearing the blue berets of peacekeepers. I enjoyed the positive reputation that the country of my birth afforded me when travelling elsewhere in the world. Having moved to the United Kingdom, I still get a prompt apology when an incorrect assumption is made based on my distinctly non-British accent. (To be fair, I always say there is no reason to apologise. I’m from Toronto. As Alec Baldwin quipped in 30 Rock: “It’s like New York, without all the stuff.”)
FLQ and the October Crisis of 1970
But this is not the first time that Canada has borne witness to such acts on home soil. In 1970, during the FLQ October Crisis, terrorists (I won’t even acknowledge their agenda for separatism – it is an insult to those separatists in Québec who act peacefully as one should in a just democracy) kidnapped a British diplomat (James Cross) and killed a Québec Provincial Minister (Pierre Laporte), and also set off almost a hundred explosive devices during their campaign. Ultimately, James Cross was released in exchange for safe passage to Cuba for the kidnappers. However, in order to deal with the crisis, the War Measures Act was invoked, suspending habeus corpus, and the military was deployed in Québec and Ottawa to re-establish order. This crisis was where Prime Minister Pierre E Trudeau famously stated: “Just watch me” in response to a question of how far he would be willing to go to deal with the matter.
During that crisis, Warrant Officer Class II Walter Leja of 3 Field Engineer Regiment was gravely injured whilst attempting to disarm an FLQ mailbox bomb. He was later awarded the George Medal by Queen Elizabeth II. A watchman, Wilfred O’Neill, was killed when another bomb went off at a Canadian Army recruitment office in Montréal.
The legacy of this crisis was such that violent political extremism was condemned as repugnant and unnecessary, and as testament future separatist efforts were pursued under the rule of law by peaceful means.
Oka: A Breakdown of Relations with First Nations
In 1990, following encroachment upon lands subject to claims by the Mohawk Nation and an attempt by Québec Police (Sûreté du Québec) to dismantle a barricade around that land, a stand-off ensued between the Canadian Military and the paramilitary arm of the First Nations, the Warriors. In a famous image from the tense events, a Native Warrior stood face-to-face with a Canadian soldier in an effort to provoke violence. Here is the CBC evening news report on that day:
What makes this distinct from the FLQ, and what gives pause to labelling the events as ‘terrorism’ is difficult relationship that has endured between the Government of Canada and the First Nations. Under the original alliances with the British Crown, the First Nations were recognised as ‘friends of the Crown’, as opposed to subjects – the status of non-native Canadians.
A colleague of mine who served in the Canadian Forces at the time was deployed to Oka. Conversing with him on the matter, he stated that it was the most difficult mission he had ever undertaken. Given that he was also deployed in the first Gulf War, I asked how this engagement differed. His answer was as stark as it was to the point: “When I looked down sight of my rifle, I realised I was aiming at a fellow Canadian. I’m not sure I could’ve shot.”
Sadly, during the initial police intervention, SQ Corporal Marcel Lemay was struck and killed by gunfire. The stand-off lasted 78 days, with the Mohawks and the military commander Lieutenant-Colonel Robin Gagnon (Royal 22e Régiment) negotiating for a peace. It should also be noted the intervention of the Mohawk women who intervened and ordered the Warriors to de-escalate tensions. However, this crisis formed the basis for further tensions in other parts of Canada with First Nations peoples. Much is yet to be resolved.
Post-9/11: Responding to the ‘War on Terror’
The events of 11 September 2001 in the United States prompted Canada to reorient our military efforts to support the American-led and ISAF/NATO operations in Afghanistan. Putting Canada ‘on a war footing’, Canadian military forces entered Afghanistan in late 2001, with the initial insertion conducted by the elite Joint Task Force 2 (JTF2).
On 17 April 2002, four soldiers from 3rd Battalion Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (‘PPCLI’) were killed, and eight wounded, following a friendly-fire bombing by an American F-16 mistaking the Canadian’s live-fire training operation for a Taliban assault (the Tarnak Farm incident). These casualties were the first for Canadian Forces since the Korean War.
In another tragic first, on 17 May 2006 Canada suffered its first female servicemember’s fatality, when PPCLI Captain Nichola Goddard’s armoured vehicle was struck by RPGs.
The toll on our soldiers from the Afghan conflict was extreme. According to currently available reports, 158 soldiers were killed and 1,859 were injured or wounded. The Canadian public attitude towards the war shifted from supportive (from 2001-2005, only 1 in 5 Canadians opposed the war) to opposition (by 2010, 56% were opposed to the mission in Afghanistan). However, throughout the conflict, the dissent was mostly directed towards the political decisions and not targeted towards Forces personnel.
On 15 March 2014, the last Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan returned home.
On Monday (2014.10.20), two soldiers walking in a parking lot outside a veteran’s support centre were run down by a car driven by a 25-year-old man who was known to police for radical ideology and sympathies for the terrorist group ISIL/ISIS/Islamic State. 53-year-old Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent succumbed to the injuries he sustained in the attack. The other soldier is still in hospital. The perpetrator also died of injuries sustained when he was shot by Québec Police attempting to apprehend him.
Then, earlier today (2014.10.22), a gunman approached the National War Memorial in Ottawa and opened fire on the honour guard protecting the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Despite medical interventions by civilian by-standers, Corporal Nathan Cirillo died of his gunshot injuries.
The gunman proceeded towards the Canadian Parliament buildings, entering inside and reportedly firing more than thirty times. The Sergeant-at-Arms (typically a ceremonial post) for the Parliament, Kevin Vickers, intercepted and killed the perpetrator just outside the rooms where Canadian MPs were holding their caucuses. Reports have suggested that the federal police (RCMP) and Canadian Army are still looking for multiple suspects believed to be involved. Most of the capital was subject to lockdown until 2025hrs EST. Parliament Hill remains closed to the public.
The subtitle of this post is ‘A Eulogy for Innocence’. The innocence I speak of is that which all Canadians have in relation to our self-image as a tolerant nation inclusive of all that transcends the problems elsewhere in the world. This innocence is, unfortunately, one of youthful naivety. Canadians are today, perhaps more than at any other time, now realising that not everybody else in the world thinks fondly of our Northern paradise. Furthermore, we also must come to realise that our servicemembers experience real peril when we send them out on deployment. While these professionals carry the Maple Leaf on their shoulders, they represent the best of us: compassionate in the face of tragedy, defiant in the face of tyranny, and resolutely heroic in the face of danger. The True North Strong and Free.
When they come home, however, Canada should be the one corner of the earth where we all share in these values. They should not find themselves facing the possibility that their fellow citizens may pose a danger to their lives.
Living in south-east London, I was very close to where Fusilier Drummer Lee Rigby was murdered on the streets of Woolwich outside the Royal Artillery Barracks. The deranged acts of his killers were a result of similar radicalisation as had occurred with the attacker on Monday. (The gunman in Ottawa has not, at time of publication, been identified by authorities as having shared in radical ideology.) And it is further lamentable to consider that here in the UK, soldiers on home soil have had to be on guard against numerous threats in the past, including from the IRA. To see so many soldiers in uniform in public during the 2012 Olympic Games was disconcerting at first, but they did a wonderful job of securing the venues and providing assistance where needed.
Nonetheless, I think that any person serving their country should never have to hide that identity for fear of retribution whilst at home. But pragmatic security concerns have made it so. After all, rhetoric will be of little comfort to their family if practical measures could have saved a soldier’s life.
What makes me sad is that these measures that I have grown accustomed to here in Britain could possibly be necessary back in Canada now. The barriers outside Westminster Palace (British Parliament) and the security just to enter will need to be considered for Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Self-protection measures for soldiers in uniform in Canada will have to be developed in order to keep them safe when amongst the public.
But saddest of all for me is that after today’s horrific tragedy, is that my military friend’s psychological dilemma of even pointing his rifle at a fellow Canadian may no longer be a justifiable concern. When citizens take advantage of their mutual goodwill towards each other to commit heinous acts of violence, suspicion may be the legacy that lingers longest amongst us.
I sincerely hope that I am proven wrong.
UPDATE (2014.10.26): It is too early to consider how this week’s events could alter the national conversation that most Canadians know we must have in order to go forward from this tragedy. However, I wish to point out that I have never heard a more patriotic and emotionally-rousing performance of the National Anthem prior to any Hockey Night in Canada. Click here: Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal unite for stirring Canadian anthem (Courtesy NHL)