Rethinking Remembrance: Ottawa Shooting Afterthoughts

The cop car that just blasted up the street outside my office window must have been going over 200 km an hour, and even as I reflect on this, the phone rings urgently:

“Something is happening downtown. I don’t know what but it’s something very serious.” As my colleague speaks, more sirens, police trucks this time, blaze past, north towards the Parliament buildings.

“Everyone is here, the students are all in class right now, I’ll check Twitter.” Instincts honed by years of living in disaster-prone Japan take over, and as news of what is occurring just blocks away starts filtering through, we plunge into lockdown and shut out the sun.

Several years ago I prepared a post entitled “Earthquake Afterthoughts” about experiencing the March 11th, 2011 earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disaster in Japan. I never thought so soon again I’d be writing a similar post about experiencing a very different type of tragedy in my home country. As a newcomer to this city, it has been very interesting to watch how the aftermath of this has played out in general, how people have reacted, what the politicians and the media have said and not said.

These are the moments that define us, for better or for worse. They are the moments that we talk about years and decades later, the “where were you when” stories. How we as a society, as a community, deal with the aftermath of such events will say a lot about who we are and who we are becoming. Do we carry on as before, or use the experience to rethink and reevaluate? Here are a few of the main things I’ve noticed about Ottawa, and about Canada, in the days and weeks since the Ottawa shooting:

Life goes on, intentionally.

As I rode my bike home along Ottawa’s iconic canal that evening – we were lucky to be considered outside of the official security perimeter by the end of the workday – I saw other people biking, walking, talking, and enjoying the beautiful sun. They were not ignorant of the day’s events: as I rode south away from the downtown core where many people were still huddled in lockdown, many people returned my passing glances with knowing, encouraging smiles. I got the very clear sense that we were in this together and the best thing we could do was to keep on going. And despite the fact that many MPs, senators and their staff were probably exhausted after being in lockdown all day – some staying late into the night, even – Parliament reconvened the very next day.

Gorgeous sunset over the Rideau Canal in Ottawa on the way home the day of the shooting.
Gorgeous sunset over the Rideau Canal in Ottawa on the way home the day of the shooting.

Things were not blown out of proportion… not by us, anyways.

This was impressive. Twitter aside, as in the moment people were latching onto and retweeting every rumour about the shooter(s) whereabouts, the Canadian media actually did quite well at presenting only confirmed facts and keeping things measured and realistic rather than sensational.

The next day, the morning papers predictably talked about little else, but while the Communications major in me was fascinated by the differences in presentation between the two main national papers, it was generally relieving that they managed to keep things under control. Unlike some people.

Covers of two national newspapers the next day. I could do a whole media studies blog post on this alone!
Covers of two national newspapers the next day. I could do a whole media studies essay on this alone!

Fear didn’t win any points.

While some initially wondered at the wisdom of it, the Parliament lawn was re-opened to the public just days later. The ceremonial guard at the National War Memorial, where an unarmed soldier was killed at the beginning of this whole thing, was reinstated just days later amid a solemn and supportive crowd (although, the unarmed ceremonial guard was given a very non-ceremonial guard with very real weapons).

Furthermore, in a well-publicized story, a couple of days after the tragedy a mosque was vandalized in a small city in rural Canada. But thankfully the story doesn’t end there: after a disapproving tweet from the city’s mayor, citizens and soldiers converged on the mosque to clean it up and send a very clear message about the kind of place Canada will continue to be: a place for everyone.

Our Politicians might actually be alright sometimes, maybe.

We give them a hard time, because let’s face it they usually deserve it (hence the non-committal nature of this subheading), but our leaders did pretty good at actually leading for once in the wake of this tragedy, and possibly even exhibiting unity. I mean, come on, hugging in the House of Commons? That floor is there to separate the parties for a reason: duels over political disagreements were not uncommon back in the day. Who knows how long the cooperation will last (oh, what’s that, it’s already over?) but it sure is a breath of fresh air amid all the petty bickering.

I recently met a PhD student from abroad who is here to study Canada’s domestic politics. I apologized to her for all the political bickering she must have to endure as part of her studies, and asked her what she thought about it all. Shockingly, to me, she expressed how impressed she was with our system: how orderly, civil, and stable it is compared to other countries. So… there’s that.

PM Harper hugs opposition party leaders in the House of Commons the next day.
PM Harper hugs opposition party leaders in the House of Commons the next day.

Canadians are hardcore.

I’m pretty sure that thanks to Kevin Vickers this has become an indisputable fact. Stephen Colbert even got all Canadian on us and apologized for all the hilariously terrible things he’s said about us. In the media there was some debate as to whether or not “Canada has lost its innocence.” The truth is, we’re not innocent in the naive sense of the word, we’ve all got a bit of Kevin Vickers in us: live peacefully, react stoically, kick ass when necessary.

Kevin Vickers, Sergeant-At-Arms and credited with taking down the shooter, returns to work the next morning to a standing ovation.
Kevin Vickers, the Sergeant-At-Arms credited with taking down the shooter, returns to work the next morning to a standing ovation.
Canadian Superhero! Source: deAdder.
Canadian Superhero! Source: deAdder.

Rethinking Remembrance

As I put the finishing touches on this post, the sun sets on Remembrance Day. With the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War, as well as the Ottawa shooting fresh on everyone’s minds, it’s no surprise that today’s Remembrance Day ceremony at Canada’s National War Memorial drew 50,000 people, substantially higher than the typical 35,000. The very place that had been so recently “violated,” that – to paraphrase something said during the ceremony – had changed “from a place to honour sacrifice to a place of sacrifice,” seems to have taken on new dimensions of significance.

It is undoubtedly important to honour those sacrifices of the past. But what of now, what of the future? Who are we becoming? When the memorial was first dedicated, it had one date: 1914-1918, the “War To End All Wars.” Such a claim seems almost laughable in retrospect. Just today, the war memorial was “rededicated,” as the dates of more wars were added.

Canada is also a more complex place than it was when the memorial was built. Today’s Canadians, walking around wearing poppies proudly, have many skin tones, many faiths, many histories. Many of us may have ancestors – or even currently living family members – who have been or are still on other “sides” than Canada’s. The real world is more complicated than definable sides: than good guys vs. bad guys, heroes vs. villains, us vs. them. Every fallen soldier is someone’s son or daughter, a human being with a face and a name and a story cut tragically short.

Lest we forget.

Laying a poppy at the cenotaph. A little difficult to "remember" with all those cameras in your face...
Laying a poppy at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. A little difficult to “remember” with all those cameras in your face… but that’s a discussion for another day.
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