POLITICS

Ottawa Shooting Puts Spotlight On Tighter Parliament Hill Security

10/23/2014 12:18 EDT | Updated 10/24/2014 11:59 EDT

OTTAWA — Security practices on Parliament Hill will have to change following Wednesday’s shooting, Canada’s parliamentarians say.

Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer told MPS Thursday afternoon that he had asked for "thorough reports" on Wednesday's incident, recommendations to ensure the continued safety of the parliamentary precinct, and a review of "screening protocols" that would be shared with the Board of Internal Economy.

"I will be ordering a comprehensive review of all actions that were taken yesterday — examining our security systems and procedures, identifying what worked, and making improvements where necessary," he said. "Members will ask — indeed Canadians will ask — how this came to occur and what specifically will be done to prevent future occurrences."

Scheer also noted that Parliament was closed Thursday to visitors and tours. But he said those measures had to be temporary.

"Parliament must remain an institution that is both open and secure."

On Thursday, RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson told reporters the prime minister's security detail would now be following him 24/7 — including in Parliament where House of Commons guards were previously responsible for his security.

Commons' uniformed guards were also carrying handguns yesterday — something they did not have on Wednesday.

“This is a day where Canada lost its innocence,” Liberal senator Jim Munson told The Huffington Post Canada on Wednesday while in lockdown with several NDP MPs.

Canada has avoided becoming an “armed camp” like Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., or London’s Westminster, where guards hold machine guns, he said.

“I think we were living in this world where we felt we did not have to do that,” he said.

“Unfortunately, I think we will see, from here and forever, increased security and a very visible security.”

“We have been proud of being so accessible, [but] that has to change,” Conservative MP Randy Hoback said.

“Today, was a wake-up,” he added, saying that MPs could be a “target” for terrorists or anybody who dislikes government.

Liberal MP Scott Andrews said security would certainly change. “You just won't be able to walk straight in…. You’ll have to be buzzed in,” he said.

MPs, staff and the media don’t go through security checkpoints as they enter or leave the Parliament buildings. MPs and senators wear pins that identify them and staff and media show identification cards but are not required to swipe in to gain entry.

“Security will have to be enhanced,” Conservative MP Patrick Brown said. “If the gunman had turned left instead of going straight, he would have had a shot at the PM or, [if he’d turned] right, the opposition leader.”

It should be more difficult to get inside the buildings, said Brown, the MP for Barrie, Ont. He said he was told that the suspect had entered Parliament’s Centre Block through the main doors and shot an officer in the leg to get in. During a press conference Wednesday, police did not confirm those details.

Many security guards on the Hill have no weapons. In a somewhat confusing split, four different security forces are tasked with ensuring the protection of the parliamentary buildings, the grounds and the nearby streets.

Senate Protective Service agents – who are unarmed but recently began weapons training, according to Munson – watch over the eastern part of Parliament’s Centre Block, as well as the East Block and the Victoria Building, home to many senators’ offices.

The House of Commons Security Services – some of whose officers are armed – watches over the western and central parts of Centre Block, as well as the Confederation and Justice buildings where MPs have their offices.

Outside, the RCMP assures the safety of the grounds. And the Ottawa Police provide security off the parliamentary precinct and on nearby streets.

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In Photos: Ottawa Shooting

Munson told HuffPost that it was only after heated debate that Senate guards were allowed to wear bullet-proof vests and carry a weapon.

“Some [senators] thought: Why do we ever have to go there?,” he said.

“And others thought [if there was an incident]: Do you need to call up the other side to say ‘Can you come and help us because we don’t have a gun?’”

In June, a committee recommended that the Senate Protective Service deploy armed, uniformed personnel within the Senate precinct in the coming months.

In 2012, an Auditor-General’s report flagged some potential security lapses. The report noted that none of the four security forces have responsibility for the roof of Centre Block. Several Greenpeace activists managed to get on top of the building in 2009 and unleashed giant banners attacking the government’s position on climate change.

The report recommended that parliamentarians study the “possibility of moving toward a unified security force for the parliamentary precinct” to help co-ordinate responses.

It also noted that it was difficult to judge whether the Commons security plans were tough enough.

“The only measure of their adequacy or completeness is the history of past security violations. No violent intrusions have resulted in serious injury or death,” the June 2012 audit noted.

Auditors also highlighted that the House did not have the capacity to receive classified information from intelligence partners – nor did it have any plans to build this capacity. In response, the House administration pledged to develop an overall security policy before 2015.

Munson told HuffPost that he expects a major review and a meeting involving all security forces to work out a game plan, that could end up “with one security team to protect Parliament and all parliamentarians.”

Tourists and politicians like the idea that Parliament is so open and accessible, he said. “But, this could have been a lot more tragic than what we witnessed today. Sad as it is, it could have been worse.”

A report on the Commons website stated that, while the House “has a high level of vulnerability to incidents,” the level of risk is low.

“While existing security infrastructure addresses current risks, steps must be taken to ensure the precinct is fully prepared to meet the challenges of the next century,” the report stated.

Munson said some parliamentarians are concerned that tourists, who must go through security to visit the Centre Block building, are checked “directly underneath the Peace Tower” when they are “already in the building.”

“That will change,” he said.

In fact, it is supposed to. Parliament and the federal government plan to build a new three-storey subterranean underground welcome centre, slightly removed from the main building.

Neither Speaker of the Commons Andrew Scheer’s office; nor John Duncan, the spokesman of the Board of Internal Economy; nor Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney’s office were willing to respond to questions about Commons security Wednesday.

Liberal MP John McKay said he believed that one of the sad consequences of the day would be additional security features that separate MPs on Parliament from the people they are serving.

“Our Parliament has been a fairly accessible Parliament, members of the public and legislators mix fairly freely and we’ve enjoyed that, I think it’s one of the strengths of our democracy. And I would hate to lose it,” he said on CBC.

In the House of Commons on Thursday, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair said that Parliament Hill is known as a “symbol of freedom,” open to Canadians, and noted the mass yoga session held on the front lawn every Wednesday.

"These freedoms cannot be rolled back they must be defended," he said.

NDP Whip Nycole Turmel, a member of the Board of Internal Economy which administers the Commons, told HuffPost, however, that she thinks it’s too early to say whether new security features will be adopted.

The RCMP and all the security groups will likely review what happened and provide a report to the House and the Board, she said.

“Everybody is still in shock and feeling that shock, and I cannot for sure say at this point,” she said.

Security, she said, is often discussed at the board, she said.

“Once in a while, it comes back without really any big recommendations…. So I’m sure following this, there will be discussions, there will be recommendations. But we cannot say that there will be changes. It’s too early to say.”

Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer told MPs Thursday afternoon he had asked for "thorough reports" on Wednesday's incident, recommendations to ensure the continued safety of the parliamentary precinct, and a review of "screening protocols" that would be shared with the Board of Internal Economy.

"I will be ordering a comprehensive review of all actions that were taken yesterday – examining our security systems and procedures, identifying what worked, and making improvements where necessary," he said.

"Members will ask – indeed Canadians will ask – how this came to occur and what specifically will be done to prevent future occurrences."

Scheer also noted that Parliament was closed Thursday to visitors and tours. But he said those measures would be temporary.

"Parliament must remain an institution that is both open and secure."

RCMP Assistant Commissioner Gilles Michaud told reporters Wednesday that security on Parliament Hill had not been specifically beefed up before the attack – this despite an intelligence report that quietly increased the domestic terrorist threat level in Canada last week from low (unlikely) to medium (“could occur”).

Michaud, the commanding officer of the RCMP's national division, said the Mounties had “been operating at the medium level for the past number of years, and that is the level that we are operating at right now." He said the shooting had caught the police by surprise.

The Canadian Press reported that late last year, the RCMP added new video cameras near pedestrian entrances to Parliament Hill. The plan was to increase video coverage of the parliamentary precinct to 100 per cent from 35 per cent, the news agency said, citing an internal document. The system was designed to help detect abandoned packages, suspicious activity and disturbances, CP said.

Since the Conservatives took office in 2006, the Commons security budget has increased by close to $12 million – to $53,103,000 in 2012-2013 from $41,213,000 in 2005-2006, according to annual reports. There were

320 security guards on the House of Commons side and 101 guards on Senate side, according to the June 2012 auditor reports.

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