A Fallen Hero Who Served His Country
Corporal Nathan Cirillo, a 24 year-old reservist from Hamilton with the
Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, an infantry reserve unit at the core of the Combat Arms team, was on duty at the National War Memorial in downtown Ottawa, just a stone’s throw from Parliament Hill. Performing ceremonial guard duty with another soldier to guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Corporal Cirillo took this position of honor very seriously and with great pride.
Without warning a man approached him clutching a 30-30 lever-action Winchester rifle. The shooter walked towards Corporal Cirillo from behind, stopped and shot him several times at point blank range. He also fired at the second soldier but missed. Within minutes Ottawa paramedics arrived on the scene, frantically trying to save Corporal Cirillo’s life. Transported to the Civic Hospital’s trauma unit, Corporal Cirillo, a single father of a five year-old little boy, succumbed to his wounds.
Meanwhile, the shooter rapidly left the scene to drive a car he had recently acquired the 75 yards to Parliament Hill. Running past the security bollards he commandeered a ministerial car. He then drove to the entrance of the Centre Block (recognized internationally for its majestic Peace Tower) home to the House of Commons and the Senate. Racing up the stairs and through the massive wooden doors, intended for those exiting, he opened fire.
Were it not for the fast-thinking Sergeant-at-Arms, Kevin Vickers, the situation could have deteriorated further. The Conservative party’s caucus session, which was being chaired by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, was being held nearby. Upon hearing the exchange of gunfire between the shooter and security staff, Vickers ran to his office to grab his 9mm sidearm. When he came out of his office, the shooter, who had been shot numerous times by security, was hiding behind a large pillar outside the Parliamentary library. Vickers stood on the other side of the pillar, a few feet away. Seeing the barrel of the Winchester poking out, Vickers didn’t delay. The 58 year-old former Mountie dove to the floor, twisting upwards to aim his pistol at the shooter, emptying the clip to kill him.
Vickers then calmly walked back to his office, reloaded his weapon, and then went to the Conservative caucus room. After identifying himself and entering the room, he went to the microphone to announce: “I engaged the suspect and the suspect is deceased.” He quickly left to help security staff and RCMP secure the Centre Block building.
During the eruption, the NDP caucus was also meeting across the hall (the Liberal caucus was downstairs). Members of Parliament upon hearing dozens of gunshots, quickly barricaded themselves, using furniture and grabbing flag poles for self-protection. One bullet from the Winchester had penetrated the wooden door to the room.
I recall standing in the foyer of the Centre Block a few years ago when Sue and I brought her parents for a tour of Parliament Hill. I had the very uncomfortable feeling then that the relaxed security at what is intended to be the exit was an open invitation to those with mal-intent. I thought just how easy it would be for a gunman, or gunmen, to enter through those huge doors. As Liberal Member of Parliament Marc Garneau (a retired astronaut) stated after the shooting: “I think the intention was to try to make Parliament not look like Fort Knox. But we crossed a river today.” An understatement, but reflecting the reality facing 35 million Canadians.
Just days before the slaying of Corporal Cirillo, two Canadian Forces soldiers were run over in a shopping mall parking lot in Saint Jean sur Richelieu, Quebec. Martin Rouleau, 25 years old, a known Islamic State sympathizer who had had his Canadian passport seized by the RCMP, lay in wait for his victims. Unfortunately, 53 year-old Warrant Office Patrice Vincent died of his injuries. Rouleau was later killed by police.
The shooter at the War Memorial and on Parliament Hill was 32 year-old Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, a convert to Islam in 2004, who had a criminal record and was known to police in different communities across Canada. Raised in Montreal, Zehaf-Bibeau had not seen his parents in five years and was living at the Mission in downtown Ottawa. Only days before the attack he had lunch with his mother, a senior federal public servant. Ottawa Police and the RCMP have been attempting to learn precisely what links he may have had with those sympathetic to Islamic State. He had recently made application for a Libyan passport which was in the process of being assessed at the time of the shootings.
Canadians, whether they like it or not, are about to have their world changed. We collectively watched in horror as the twin towers in New York City were brought down on September 11, 2001, by a band of murderers whose small budget for their plot killed 3,000 people of all nationalities and caused tens of billions of economic damage to the Canadian and U.S. economies. And in the ensuing years billions upon billions have been spent to ramp up North America’s security apparatus, not to mention the massive amount of monies spent in Iraq and Afghanistan.
And here we are today with an even more evil presence, which is not just slaughtering civilians in Iraq and Syria but now acting out their threats to Western countries that dare interfere with their aim to create a caliphate in the Middle East. The huge challenge facing law enforcement and intelligence services is identifying the lone wolves, those who self-initiate to respond to the siren call of terrorists half a world away to wreak havoc in their local communities. In case of Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, it is yet to be agreed by experts whether this was a case of terrorism or the act of a man suffering from mental illness, or a combination of both.
If there were ever a time for the opposing political parties to put rhetoric aside, instead working collaboratively with the government to seek meaningful solutions, it is now.
And if there were ever a time for Prime Minister Stephen Harper to invite in his political nemeses to seek these solutions, it is now.
Partisan politics will only weaken Canada in a time of national mourning and contemplation on the country’s current path. In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, the House of Commons came together as one. Prime Minister Harper, the day after, embraced NDP leader Thomas Mulcair (official opposition) and Liberal leader Justin Trudeau. How long-lived this cohesiveness will last is an open question. But let’s hope that at the very least mutual respect will prevail across the federal political parties from this point forward.
Rest in peace, Corporal Cirillo. You were a soldier of the highest caliber who served your country honorably.
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