Innocence and experience

The events at the War Memorial and in Centre Block on Wednesday are a reminder that the veneer of civilization is thin. If one individual decides to take a gun and do harm, he can do so with impunity – at least for a few minutes. You’d need dozens of armed guards in the area to stop the death of Cpl. Nathan Cirillo or the crash-through arrival of the gunman on Parliament Hill. No less a well-defended place as the White House also recently had menacing intruders.

Of all the comments on Wednesday’s events, surely the most foolish was by Senator Jim Munson who said, “Our days of innocence ended today.” The days of innocence, if ever they existed, ended forty-four years ago this month. On October 5, 1970, James Cross, the British Trade Commissioner, was kidnapped from his Montreal home by a cell of the Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ). Five days later, another FLQ cell kidnapped Quebec Labour Minister Pierre Laporte. Ottawa ordered 3,000 troops to guard high-level individuals and government buildings.

I was working on Parliament Hill. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau was a commanding presence. On October 13, Trudeau was outside the west door of the Centre Block when Tim Ralfe of the CBC and Peter Reilly of CJOH stopped him with questions. The banter about troops everywhere turned bruising when Ralfe asked, “How far would you go with that?” “Well, just watch me,” Trudeau famously replied.

This was the same west door where my wife would park the car a few feet away at 6:30 p.m. when she came to pick me up. Our son, Mark, who turned five that month, would leave the car, stand near the door, and talk to passing parliamentarians while waiting for me. His interest in politics and public policy began early. After the War Measures Act was declared on October 16, more troops flooded the streets, but even so, Laporte was strangled the next night and found in the trunk of a car. 

Troops were even dispatched to sit in parliamentary offices. I well remember our young private, sitting uncomfortably with his rifle at the ready, in the reception area of 409-S, the office of my boss, Opposition Leader Robert Stanfield. If Stanfield so much as walked the five minutes to the Chateau Laurier, he had to be accompanied by an armed guard. The soldiers were ordered out of the parliamentary precincts after Gordon Aiken (PC-Parry Sound-Muskoka) made the point in the House of Commons that security on the Hill was the domain of the Speaker, not the army.

The high alert only ended when James Cross was released by the FLQ in December. The FLQ never held the same sway again. The future of homegrown Islamic terrorists is unpredictable. But one thing is sure. We may be vulnerable, but we’re not innocent, and haven’t been for a long time. 

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