The prime minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, vowed a tough and uncompromising response to a brazen gun attack on the national parliament on Wednesday that left a soldier dead and a nation in shock.
As calm fell on Canada’s idyllic capital, where hours earlier Michael Zehaf-Bibeau had forced his way into the parliament building in a hail of gunfire before being killed by a ceremonial official, Harper delivered a sombre television address declaring that the country would not be cowed by terrorism.
It was the second time in two days that the country’s security forces had confronted an attack on the streets: on Monday a man described by authorities as having been radicalised ran down a soldier with his car in Quebec.
“This week’s events are a grim reminder that Canada is not immune to the types of terrorist attacks we have seen elsewhere around the world,” Harper said in his address to the nation. “We are also reminded that attacks on our security personnel and our institutions of governance are by their very nature attacks on our country, on our values, on our society, on us Canadians as a free and democratic people who embrace human dignity for all. But let there be no misunderstanding. We will not be intimidated. Canada will never be intimidated.”
Harper was in parliament when the attack began, addressing members of his party on the increased terror threat to Canada. He was rushed out of the building and evacuated to safety. His brief address to the nation on Wednesday night was delivered from an undisclosed location.
The attack began just before 10am on Wednesday when Zehaf-Bibeau emerged from a car and opened fire on the ceremonial guard of Ottawa’s war memorial, across from the parliament buildings. Corporal Nathan Cirillo was hit as he stood guard over the tomb commemorating soldiers killed in battle. Amid the chaos, medics and bystanders battled to save the soldier’s life before he was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance. Cirillo died from his wounds shortly afterwards.
From there the attacker made his way across the street on to the front lawn of parliament. It remains unclear how the he made his way past the armed guards protecting the building but he got as far as the ornate Hall of Honour, before being shot dead by Kevin Vickers, the House of Commons sergeant-at-arms. Vickers, a former officer with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, was widely praised for his swift action that brought an end to the attack.
The potential for further catastrophe was great: adjacent rooms were filled with MPs from the governing Conservatives and opposition New Democrats, both parties holding separate discussions on new efforts to crack down on homegrown terrorism.Officials have yet to suggest a motive for the shootings.
Wednesday’s attacks came two days after a man described as a recent convert to jihadi ideology ran down two soldiers with his car near Montreal – fatally injuring one, warrant officer Patrice Vincent. Harper offered his condolences to the families of Cirillo and Vincent.
That the perpetrator of Wednesday’s attack was able to make his way to parliament and into the central building after killing a soldier in broad daylight has raised concern about whether Canada has been naive in its preparations for such an attack.
Zehaf-Bibeau, 32, was a Canadian citizen born in 1982 who appears to have had a number of encounters with law-enforcement agencies. Quebec court records cited by Reuters show three cases in 2004 involving a Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, born in 1982. He pleaded guilty to two drug-related charges and one charge of failing to comply with a judge’s order.
The Globe and Mail newspaper said authorities had recently designated him a “high-risk traveller”, meaning it was feared he would commit crimes abroad, and that his passport had been seized. A similar designation had been made for the perpetrator of Monday’s attack in Quebec, Martin Couture-Rouleau, 25.
Harper acknowledged there were unanswered questions about the attacks but offered assurances to his shocked nation that Canada’s security agencies would take all necessary steps to “identify and counter threats”, both homegrown and abroad. The Toronto Star reported earlier this week that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service has limited resources with which to track the roughly 80 Canadians who have travelled abroad to join terrorist groups and then returned home.
Earlier this month members of parliament voted to join the US-led bombing campaign against the al-Qaida splinter group Islamic State.
On Tuesday Canada elevated its domestic terror threat from low to medium. “The decision to raise the level is linked to an increase in general chatter from radical Islamist organizations like Isil, al-Qaida, al-Shabaab and others who pose a clear threat to Canadians,” said a statement from the ministry of public safety and emergency preparedness.
Shortly after the Ottawa attack Barack Obama spoke with Harper by telephone to offer his condolences. “I pledged, as always, to make sure that our national security teams are co-ordinating very closely, given not only is Canada one of our closest allies in the world but they’re our neighbours and our friends, and obviously there’s a lot of interaction between Canadians and the United States, where we have such a long border,” the president said in a statement.
Some 12 hours after the attack began, the final lockdowns were lifted from buildings on Parliament Hill, where the shootings occurred.
The city was unusually quiet, even for Ottawa, shop owners said. A group of students outside a McDonald’s on the main road leading to Parliament Hill spoke animatedly about the events that had unfolded earlier. “I just can’t believe it,” one young man said. His friends nodded in agreement.
Ottawa resident Troy Dexter turned up carrying a Canadian flag he hoped to place at the war memorial in remembrance of the soldier who died. Dexter said he was still processing how such an attack could take place in his “sleepy, quiet” hometown.
“I thought it was important to come down because, if it is terrorism-related, it wants to bring fear and terror into the community,” he said. “And for me it’s important just to show up and to say I’m not afraid and I’m not going to hide.”
Dexter said he hoped the shootings would not shatter Canada’s culture of openness and freedom. “We’ve always had so much freedom where you can walk right up to Parliament Hill and almost right to the door as the individual did today. I think that’s going to change,” he said. “I don’t know if Ottawa will be the same, at least security-wise.”