It is a strange and scary thing that happened in Ottawa last week, made all the more frightening watching it unfold on live updates, Tweets, and blogs while in England.
Generally, the digital world helps me to stay close with my friends and family back home in Canada, but there was something incredibly unsettling about watching the details of the shooting in Parliament Hill in Ottawa unfold from across the ocean.
This time around, the digital world felt more like the digital divide. I don’t have friends and family in Ottawa who I was worried about, but the surreal feeling of watching the home you know and love suffer through something really awful feels that much worse when you watch it unfold across an ocean.
The coverage on this side of the pond was interesting, in part because I saw that it wasn’t just us Canadians who thought this sort of thing doesn’t happen in Canada. The rest of the world doesn’t think that sort of thing happens in Canada either.
The morning after when I checked my newsfeeds there was a fair bit of press around the calm, measured coverage provided by Peter Mansbridge and the CBC. He reported the news, the facts, as and when they arrived. Nothing more and nothing less. Because that’s his job, that is what he’s meant to do. It’s not an entertainment programme which is what the coverage on CNN generally amounts to. It was a national tragedy. It was reported as it ought to have been, with a solemn tone which was appropriate, not sensational.
The Mom mentioned to me when we spoke recently that one big American network covered the funeral cortege from Ottawa to Hamilton to bury Corporal Nathan Cirillo. I didn’t see it on the evening news here, but my newsfeeds were covered in pictures. And I have to admit, looking at those pictures made me quite teary.
There is something very respectful, honourable and dignified seeing so many people come out to bear witness to such a thing. It is a quiet show of pride and love. And to me, it highlights one of the things I love dearly about my country and its citizens. There are some things that you just do and you don’t go about it in a showy way. You turn up and pay your respects. You pull over to the side of the road and despite being told to stay in your car, you get out. Because it is a sign of respect. You stand and you bear witness. You don’t do it for any other reason. You do it because it’s right.
In the same way that the by-standers who rushed to Corporal Cirillo’s aid provided First Aid and care.
I was out with friends after this all unfolded, one English and one South African, and I was trying to explain how open things are on the Hill. That it is a public space and that it had never even crossed my mind that it shouldn’t be used as such. I could hardly imagine having a picnic on the grounds of Westminster, but a picnic on the Hill sounds quite nice. Because I know that my fellow Canadians, and any foreign visitors who might want to take up such an opportunity would behave appropriately. That they would realise, as I do, and as most Canadians do, that this is a privilege to live in such an open society. Many other countries boast that they are free, and I’ve no doubt they are. But being an open and free society means something a little different in Canada. It means you can picnic on the Hill, it means you might stand in a queue at the bank machine behind an ex-PM who doesn’t have any security, and it means that you are free to be you, whoever that might be.
I realise to people who have never been to Canada, or lived there, this might sound a bit unusual. But this is how we roll. We are not perfect, but there are some things that we get right. We understand that freedom requires us to use common sense, to behave with respect and dignity. We trust that our friends, family and neighbours will do the right thing, at the right time.
And in the wake of the vileness of these events, that is precisely what my fellow Canadians have done. There was a mosque that was vandalised in Alberta after the attacks on Parliament Hill. Graffiti saying to the people who worshipped there to go home. The next day, the people in that community, including members of the Canadian Armed Forces, turned up with snacks and cleaned off the graffiti, leaving signs of support saying to the people of this mosque, that they are home. That Canada is home for them.
I suspect that things will change in Canada in the aftermath of this attack, but I dearly hope they won’t. We are an open, welcoming country, ready, willing and eager to share our freedoms with any who should choose to join us. We are a country that is dignified and orderly and calm. To some, it might seem a dull place, I know I used think like that, but in recent years I’ve come to realise that what I used to think of as dullness isn’t that at all, it’s what it looks like when a country is functioning properly. A lack of news is not bad thing, a lack of news, is in fact, what we should all aspire to.