MONTREAL—Two soldiers run down in a Quebec parking lot. One soldier gunned down as he stood guard at the temple to military sacrifice in the nation’s capital.
Across the country, Canadian Forces bases gear up for a threat more dramatic in many ways than those they’ve had to face in Europe, Korea or Afghanistan — that they could be targeted in the country they have sworn to defend.
At CFB Esquimalt in Victoria, sailors went on a heightened alert. At CFB Edmonton “vigilance” was the buzzword. Near Quebec City, CFB Valcartier barred public buses from stopping on base and ordered soldiers not to leave work in their military fatigues. At CFB Trenton, the country’s largest airbase, armed guards patrolled for any suspicious activity. The front gates at CFB Halifax were chained shut and bolted as part of an “adapted security posture,” according to local reports.
And in Ottawa, where uniformed soldiers based at National Defence headquarters sit across from civilians in restaurants, on buses or stand next to them in coffee shop lineups, no one was allowed out of their buildings and only those with the proper clearances were being let in.
“Canadian Armed Forces bases and establishments are currently taking precautions appropriate to their environments to ensure the safety and security of personnel and infrastructure,” said Maj. Gen. Christopher Coates, deputy commander of the Canadian Joint Operations Command, which directs military operations both at home and abroad.
If the preparations aren’t quite a war footing, they are at the very least preparation for a worst-case scenario, one that could involve copycat attacks or a more elaborate plot with plans for additional attacks on military targets.
That has people on edge, as evidenced by one individual who wrote on Facebook to Rick Hillier, the chest-thumping former head of the Canadian Forces, to say: “There are a lot of scared and pissed off veterans and soldiers out here right now.”
“Both the incident on Monday in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu and what happened here today in Ottawa has obviously shaken Canadians from coast to coast, but I wouldn’t say it has shaken the military members,” said retired Air Force colonel Tony Battista, now head of the Conference of Defence Associations, an Ottawa lobby group.
“I think we have as part of our training, education and culture the ability not only to close ranks but to ratchet it up a level in terms of support, in terms of alertness, in terms of the duty that we may be called upon to perform. That is part of the military culture and it’s second nature.”
But the location of Wednesday’s attack, the wide-open cenotaph, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, just across the road from Parliament Hill, was shockingly symbolic.
“It has special meaning for young Canadians, and particularly for old Canadians. But for military there’s no question that that’s like a family tomb,” Battista said.
Hillier, who was travelling outside the country and unavailable for an interview, took time to grieve the killing of Cpl. Nathan Cirillo in a statement: “I am so saddened by the death of a young man serving us and our great nation. God bless him.”
Andrew Leslie, a retired general now serving as an adviser to Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, also paid his respects to the family of Cirillo as well as those responding to the attack on Parliament Hill.
“Thinking of our men and women in uniform, the RCMP, Ottawa Police, Hill security and our first responders and the valuable work they do,” he wrote on Twitter.
But pulling together in a tragedy does little to dampen the unpredictable nature of a potential terrorist threat, particularly one that may be inspired by foreign conflicts but has its roots firmly in Canadian soil.
Canadian Forces veteran Michael Smith, from Gatineau, Que., woke up Wednesday morning to have his wife find a yellow ball with a black skull and crossbones sitting in his mailbox, which was empty the night before. He thought nothing of it until hearing about the shootings across the Ottawa River and wondered if it had anything to do with his license plates identifying him as a former member of the military. Then he flagged it on his Facebook account because of “events going on in Ottawa.”
It’s these types of concerns that may be nothing, or may be evidence in a larger criminal plot that police, intelligence officers and their counterparts in the military are now dealing with. It’s for these reasons they have instilled extra security and warnings about wearing uniforms in public, said Battista, who is also a former military police officer.
“There’s the possibility of a copycat. We’ve seen that in the U.S. We’ve seen it elsewhere. There’s always someone who might be disturbed or needing attention and may do something similar,” he said. “To mitigate those kinds of things from happening, coupled with the threat assessment I believe it’s a natural reaction.”