(As published in The Toronto Star)
In 1951, my father took me on my first-ever visit to Parliament Hill. As we arrived at Centre Block, he turned and said to me, in a tone of reverence and awe that I will never forget, “Son, this is vox populi, the voice of the people.”
It was a teaching that has remained with me, despite the mockery and cynicism that such a comment might elicit today. On that same trip, we also visited the Supreme Court, which my father – a lawyer – called the pillar of our constitution, as well as the National War Memorial, which underscored the importance of remembrance.
Wednesday’s abhorrent attack and murder of Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, and the subsequent events in the Parliamentary precinct, revived for me that memory and feeling of reverence for Parliament and our national institutions. It was an attack on the seat and symbol of our constitutional democracy, on the place and preserve of the making of our laws, and on the rule of law.
Moreover, when I visited the War Memorial yesterday morning in the aftermath of the attack, I recalled my father’s lessons about the importance of memory and the duty of remembrance, and the enduring respect we owe those like Cpl. Cirillo – and Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent, who was killed during another attack earlier this week in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec – who stand on guard for us.
Parliament and the surrounding area is where the business of the nation is conducted, not only by legislators and parliamentary staff, but also by Canadians and others who come to meet with legislators, or to demonstrate on the Hill. It welcomes tourists, school groups and foreign dignitaries; it hosts commemorations and celebrations; it is a repository of our national history and memory; and it features monuments to great Canadians of the past, the War Memorial chief among them. Regardless of the specific motivations of the assailant, the symbolism of Wednesday’s attack is thus unmistakable.
Among the questions to be answered are: How did the gunman, after shooting the soldier at the cenotaph, manage to enter Parliament? What was the motivation and objective of the assailant? Are the events in Ottawa connected in any way to the recent attack in Quebec? Is there a terrorist dimension to this reprehensible violence? Was the assailant among the individuals who have been under national security surveillance?
The answers to these and other questions will be critical as we develop a response to this week’s events, both in Ottawa and Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, and as we consider how to prevent such acts in the future.
While we often hear about the need to strike a balance between protecting Canadians from attack and protecting individual freedoms, we must remember that these are not mutually exclusive objectives or opposite ends of a spectrum. Rather, an appropriate and effective strategy must view security and rights not as concepts in conflict, but as values that are inextricably linked.
At the same time as measures to combat violence must comport with the rule of law and adhere to the principles of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, attacks such as those we experienced this week are themselves an assault on our fundamental rights to life, liberty and security of the person.
When Parliament resumed its activities yesterday, I was encouraged to hear variants of this idea from all sides of the House. The prime minister said that “we will be vigilant, but we will not run scared; we will be prudent, but we will not panic”; Thomas Mulcair proclaimed that this week’s attacks “hardened our resolve,” but that we should not “be driven by fear”; and Justin Trudeau spoke of the need to bring to bear “the full force of our laws” even as we remain “a country of open minds, open arms, and open hearts.”
As evidenced by this unity of message, I believe that this week’s condemnable acts will only enhance our concern and respect for Parliament, deepen our fidelity to the rule of law and to the making of our laws, and unite parliamentarians and Canadians across party lines in common cause, in defence of our democracy, our security and our shared values.
In other words, the voice of the people will continue to be heard.