OTTAWA—When fear invades your neighbourhood it announces itself in a swirl of sirens and emergency vehicles screaming down Rideau St., a report of a fallen soldier and a knot in your stomach.
Your world speeds up, even as you weave your way through the downtown denizens laconically shuffling along the sidewalk, oblivious to this invasion.
It sweeps you along in confusion toward unfurling yellow police tape, flashing red lights, unsheathed automatic weapons and an inner dread that there is an unseen danger about you.
Then reality, the stories, the enormity of the events come at you at the corner of Sussex Dr., the firsthand accounts of peril, only minutes old, coming at you in staccato bursts, like the bursts of gunshots that appeared to come in waves of 10.
The international headlines will tell you Terror Comes to Canada, the national headlines will scream Terror Comes to Ottawa, but Wednesday morning, terror came to my neighbourhood.
Witnesses — people you know because this is, after all, your neighbourhood and you share it daily with these people — tell you tales of hearing 10 shots, then another will tell you 20 and another tells you at least 30.
Had Ottawa lost its innocence?
Anyone who works on Parliament Hill knows that anyone could storm this building if they wanted to, particularly if they had little interest in exiting alive.
This is not the wide open drop-in Parliament of the more naïve time decades ago when I first arrived here, but it is still the kind of place where you greet the guards like old friends, you stop and chat outside Centre Block with MPs, senators or political staffers and you know you work in a special place, where tourists flock, but it feels like your neighbourhood.
But was it innocent to never imagine that someone would have the cowardice to gun down an unarmed young father, 24-year-old Cpl. Nathan Cirillo of Hamilton, a member of that city’s Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, a sentry guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier?
The War Memorial is my daily shortcut to the Star’s office and the sentries are there every morning, unmoving, unremarked upon, part of the Ottawa background like the Peace Tower clock that looms in the background and acts as my daily time check.
Was it innocent to think initially, as Liberal MP John McKay did, that the gunshots he heard was more construction noise, the background rat-ta-tat-tat that is part of the daily soundtrack in the Parliamentary precinct?
It was only after he was able to flee and was joined by a woman from the Library of Parliament, that he heard from her the words that still chill: “A guy was walking down the Hall of Honour with a rifle.”
Was it innocent to think the Hall of Honour, an iconic Canadian meeting place, where governments and opposition plot strategy, visiting dignitaries are met on a red carpet, political leaders have lain in state, where the giant Christmas tree sits every year dazzling visitors and children at annual parties, could never become the scene of a gun battle, as it was, so dramatically captured by Globe and Mail reporter Josh Wingrove.
Others knew what they were dealing with.
“Gunshots. You knew. You could feel it in your gut,” said Collin Lafrance, a manager of the Parliamentary Press Gallery.
There were decisions to be made in a moment and they could have meant life or death.
Stay and barricade yourself in an office or flee?
Some froze, some panicked, one woman kicked out a screen in her office window and was prepared to jump 10 metres.
But according to Joshua Johnston, the co-owner of an Ottawa stone masonry company working on Parliament Hill, people remained calm as he helped shepherd as many as 25 to safety, hiding behind monuments behind the building, then, when given the police go-ahead, sprinting east down Wellington St. past police with automatic weapons cocked.
“Some people didn’t want to listen to me and I didn’t blame them,” Johnston said.
“Some were panicked. Some were older and moving very slowly. But most were calm. We kept them covered and away from windows. But we had no idea who we were dealing with, how many we were dealing with, where he or they might be.”
Why did they finally listen to him?
“I’m a prick. I’ve been a foreman for 23 years,” he said.
As they huddled along the stonework at the east end of Ottawa’s historic Chateau Laurier — “I’m never going to smoke again,” said one construction worker panting and laughing — Jim Botting told how they were able to take construction materials at hand and build a rough scaffold for the woman who would have jumped, so she could climb out.
“An officer with a gun led us to Wellington St. and told us to run,” he said.
“Man, this is f------.’’
There were the sounds in the neighbourhood one never expected to hear:
“Move back, there is an active shooter and you are in range.”
“Move — if you can see the Parliament buildings, you are a target.”
For hours, we were led to believe there was another shooter at large.
It got eerily quiet in the afternoon and you found yourself peering at rooftops as paramedics sat waiting a couple blocks away. There was an unsubstantiated report of another shooting near the downtown Rideau Centre. A woman in my building half-opened her door in fear when she heard me in the hallway, asking if I had any information about a gunman in the neighbourhood.
People across the country were being asked to be vigilant. Members of the military were told not to wear their uniforms off base.
I’d like to think that the neighbourhood will be back, that the shortcut across the War Memorial will be routine and the greetings of the security guards will be the same, but once fear invades the neighbourhood, it feels like it will never be the same again.