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Post-Shooting, Canada Should Fight For Its Public Spaces

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Techin24 via Getty Images
Techin24 via Getty Images

More than four decades ago, when Pierre Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act, he had this to say:

"I am confident that those persons who unleashed this tragic sequence of events with the aim of destroying our society and dividing our country will find that the opposite will occur. The result of their acts will be a stronger society in a unified country. Those who would have divided us will have united us."

Almost half a century later, we Canadians find ourselves at a remarkably similar juncture. The events on Parliament Hill have unseated our perception of security, aroused a sense of national solidarity, and stirred our country's collective consciousness.

As a Canadian abroad, I was rather surprised yesterday to find many of my American peers similarly arrested by the events in Ottawa. It was not immediately obvious why this was the case, as deadlier events happen with numbing regularity across the world, and indeed, the United States. Yet there was something here that seemed particularly troubling.

Just a few hours after the news emerged, Roger Cohen at The New York Times tweeted, "When Canada goes, it's all over." But while his statement was pithy, it was also wrong. Canada has not gone anywhere, and the process of healing has only begun.

Confronted with the senselessness of this tragedy, and given how many details have yet to emerge, understanding the implications of this horrific act is difficult. But it seems clear that this is more than merely an issue of national security -- it is an issue of national identity. Rarely have Canadians so acutely felt a sense of collective loss. But today, the entire nation mourns, for we have lost more than a soldier's life. We have lost faith that the pluralism of our society could immunize us against violence of ideology.

For many Canadians, myself included, this comes as a shock. There was always a certain otherness to the horrors that dominated the news cycle south of the border, a sense that while real, it could never happen on home turf. Sadly, this is manifestly no longer the case -- and the Canadian polity is unsurprisingly, unsure of how to react. Seizing on this hesitancy, many have told us that "this changes everything." But it needn't. It mustn't.

The easy thing to do is to respond to this tragedy with anger, rashness, and xenophobia. Already, some pundits have found a way to politicize these events -- to call for a barricading of public spaces, a reform of the gun registry, and a military presence on the Hill. All of these things may indeed be sorely needed. But they are beside the point.

Throughout our nation's history, and to this very day, Canadians have enjoyed remarkable freedoms -- in a post 9/11 landscape, the vast majority of our public spaces remain blessedly unencumbered by the strictures of institutionalized security. Nowhere is this more evident than at Ottawa's Centre Block, where visitors still walk right through the front doors. Compare this to the U.S. Capitol, where the visitor entrance is housed in a separate structure entirely, an underground bunker sequestered from the chambers of political decision-making.

Our politicians still interact with us. Unlike their American counterparts -- they don't travel behind the tinted glass of political convoys, nor are they typically attended by beefy security escorts. Rather, they're flipping burgers at the neighbourhood barbeque, posing for pictures with our over-eager dogs, and walking themselves home to the building right next door. That is how we do politics in Canada, and it's something worth holding on to. Corporal Cirillo died yesterday defending the sanctity and openness of our public spaces. We must now continue the fight -- upholding and affirming the very ideals for which he made the ultimate sacrifice.

Three years ago, another late Canadian politician gave us words that seem more prescient now than ever. Jack told us that "Love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair." So in his timeless wisdom, let us be loving, hopeful, and optimistic as we navigate the inevitably difficult days to come. He and Trudeau would have wanted it that way.

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