A bus going nowhere sits on Parliament Hill. Only in Canada could that represent a terrorist threat. Not to minimize the potential danger, not to trivialize the event in any way—but there were some ways in which the hostage-taking event on Parliament Hill could only have happened here. Which is not all bad, when you think about it.
Something happens to people, no matter how angry, no matter how politicized, when they step onto Parliament Hill soil. They calm down, they become less exciting. Take the April 7 bus incident. The bus arrives on Parliament Hill, which is not exciting. Then a shot is fired, and another, which is exciting, except that most of the people around, being Canadians and not being used to gunshots, did not know they were gunshots. So the most exciting part escaped most people.
The bus started up and drove a bit, then turned onto the parliamentary lawns, where it got stuck. There it sat, containing its hostagetaker and hostages for 5V2 hours. Then the hostages were released and the hostage-taker surrendered. The television networks tried to make it look exciting. So, the next day, did the newspapers. But what they had, and it was impossible to conceal it, were pictures of a bus not going anywhere.
There was something appropriate there, in view of the current national debate over transportation. A bus going nowhere sits on Parliament Hill, and people take pictures of it. It could have been better, from the point of view of political symbolism, only if the bus had been a train.
Other pictures were more appropriate for what they did not show. There were pictures of no one panicking. There were pictures of policemen not firing guns. There were pictures of no one being hurt. Off Parliament Hill, there were, had a camera been spared to take them, pictures of traffic being snarled—understand-
Charles Gordon is a columnist with The Ottawa Citizen.
There were some ways in which the bus hijacking and hostagetaking on Parliament Hill could only have happened in Canada
able enough, given that one of the city’s main arteries had been closed to traffic during a Friday afternoon rush hour. But the pictures would also show thousands of people going about their business in a business-asusual way.
Downtown Ottawa did not shut down. Businesses and government offices were not closed. The visit of Oscar Arias Sánchez, president of Costa Rica, was not curtailed. In fact, he gave a press conference in a building within sight of the bus going nowhere on Parliament Hill. The press conference went on, the main concession to the emergency being that Arias was taken out a different door when the press conference concluded.
Evening social events scheduled for downtown were not postponed. Banquets, dances— they went ahead. Some might have called this foolhardy, given the presence of an armed man with what were thought to be explosives, but the evening’s events went on.
The pictures did not show that. More significantly, they did not show what TV audiences the world over have come to expect whenever a crisis occurs—fire trucks whizzing around with sirens blaring, helicopters whirring overhead. The police may not have set out with the
intention of disturbing as few people as possible, but that was the effect.
Pictures not showing helicopters were Canadian pictures, for certain. It is difficult, in the modem world, to picture a similar scene in any other world capital—and particularly Washington—without helicopters. But there we were, helicopterless, as our downtown Ottawa skies always are, except when the president of the United States comes to visit.
Something else the pictures did not show was a Canadian grievance. The taking of the bus, according to all reports, had to do with conditions in Lebanon. Just the day before, the Hill had been host to a large demonstration. Thousands of Lebanese-Canadians protested recent actions of Syria. The demonstration, like dozens of demonstrations on Parliament Hill, had only a peripheral relationship with Canada.
A few days before that, there was the annual Tibetan demonstration. Every year, a group arrives on the Hill from Montreal to protest Chinese rule in Tibet. Their protest coincides with the anniversary of a revolt in 1959. “We want the government of Canada to go on record and say what is happening in Tibet,” said a spokesman, one of 19 people to make the trip this year.
The phenomenon is familiar to anyone who lives in a capital city. Provincial legislatures are often the site of protests thaffhave nothing to do with the provinces in question. Demonstrators frequently march on Parliament Hill when they should be marching on city hall, or on Damascus.
That, in a way, is what Parliament Hill is for, to be a focus of protest, since it is also the focus of government. Where our parliamentary grounds differ from many is in the other uses to which they are put. Parliament Hill is also used as a kind of park. It is a special kind of park, mind you. Since 1976, cameras located high on surrounding buildings have kept the area under surveillance. But no one using the park seems to notice.
In warm weather, people toss Frisbees, picnic, get a suntan. Every summer, a softball game is held there, with members of Parliament taking on members of the press gallery or other notables. The bus was parked just behind third base, partly in foul territory.
On July 1, people watch fireworks on the Hill. On New Year’s Eve, they party. Daily, in the warm weather, workers from nearby office buildings take their lunches to Parliament Hill benches. Within sight of the important offices and idling limousines, ordinary people treat the parliamentary lawns as their own.
It is true that people weren’t doing that while the bus was parked there, going nowhere. But they resumed, the next day, and the next week and the week after that, and will continue to do so, unless the fearmongers— those too ready to view Canada as the target of world-class terrorism—have their way. Cooler heads see it differently, so far. The strength of our government is its openness, both figuratively and literally, and the most intelligent observers are those who recognize that walls are a sign of weakness.
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