CANADA

CAPITAL STANDOFF

THE GREYHOUND BUS HIJACKING THAT ENDED ON PARLIAMENT HILL RAISES CONCERNS ABOUT SECURITY

PEETER KOPVILLEM April 17 1989
CANADA

CAPITAL STANDOFF

THE GREYHOUND BUS HIJACKING THAT ENDED ON PARLIAMENT HILL RAISES CONCERNS ABOUT SECURITY

PEETER KOPVILLEM April 17 1989

CAPITAL STANDOFF

CANADA

THE GREYHOUND BUS HIJACKING THAT ENDED ON PARLIAMENT HILL RAISES CONCERNS ABOUT SECURITY

Greyhound Lines Inc.'s 11:45 a.m. bus from Montreal to New York City had just cleared the tollbooths at the north end of the Champlain Bridge, which connects the island of Montreal to the south shore of the St. Lawrence River. Suddenly, a dark-haired man in his early 30s rose from his seat. Brandishing a pistol and speaking heavily accented French, he told driver Roger Bednarchuk, 54, a 29-year veteran of Greyhound, to pull over. Then, the Lebanese immigrant ordered the 11 passengers to the back of the bus and, apparently at random, told one 60-year-old passenger to get off the vehicle. “You’re going to get off here,” he said. “Everything is going to blow up.” The passenger complied and as he walked back toward the tollbooths to notify police of the incident, the bus sped off south across the bridge in the direction of the U.S. border, 70 km away—and disappeared for 2lh hours. That was the beginning of an eight-hour ordeal that ended at nightfall last Friday on Ottawa’s Parliament Hill, 195 km to the west, when the bus hijacker surrendered to police, releasing his last five hostages unharmed.

No one was hurt in the incident, although three shots were fired, but it raised concerns about security—and particularly about failures to notify the appropriate authorities when it all began. Quebec police, apparently assuming that the New York-bound bus was heading south toward the border, concentrated their search on the south shore and informed American police. They did not contact the RCMP or authorities in Ontario. But at 2:25 p.m., the bus drove up in front of the Parliament Buildings.

The gunman allowed one passenger, a woman, to disembark, and she notified authorities. As RCMP officers quickly converged on the scene, the gunman fired two warning shots through the small driver’s window of the bus. Two more hostages were freed. Then, as the Greyhound bus began moving slowly along the roadway in front of Parliament’s Centre Block, housing the House of Commons and the Senate, RCMP vehicles cut it off, forcing it onto the grass of Parliament Hill. There, the bus quickly got stuck in the newly thawed lawn and, with its hazard lights flashing, it came to a standstill.

During the five-hour standoff that followed, the gunman fired one more shot through a side window of the bus. Police sealed off the area and established contact with the bus’s occupants by loud-hailer and walkie-talkie. As nightfall approached, two more passengers were allowed to leave—one of them carrying a hastily scrawled note from the hijacker to the authorities. Claiming to represent the Front for the Liberation of Christian Lebanon—an organization apparently unknown to RCMP officials—the hostage taker demanded the withdrawal of the Syrian army from Lebanon.

Then, shortly before 8 p.m., in the rapidly fading twilight, the incident ended. First, Bednarchuk stepped off and spoke to officers. Then, minutes later, the remaining passengers filed out of the bus. Heavily armed RCMP officers quickly closed in as the hijacker knelt on the ground, his hands behind his head. Holding him there, they frisked the five others before leading them all away—three of them in handcuffs. Later, they charged one man— Charles Yacoub, 32, a Lebrnese immigrant living in Montreal—with , ge-taking, unlawful confinement, using a nrearm in the commission of an indictable offence and criminal possession of a firearm. Asked why two other passengers had been handcuffed, RCMP deputy commissioner Gilles Favreau replied: “In this kind of situation, you have to make sure the suspects are not disguised as hostages and vice versa.” In fact, the other passengers were quickly cleared of any responsibility and released.

As the incident on the Hill began to unfold, President Oscar Arias Sánchez of Costa Rica was speaking at a news conference a few blocks away. Arias, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 for his Central American peace plan and was apparently unaware of the hijacking, praised Canada, telling reporters that “political violence in the worst of times [in Canada] has been limited to the madness of a few.”

Indeed, relatively few such events have shaken the normally placid air of Ottawa. In 1868—on the same day as the hijacking— Thomas D’Arcy McGee, one of the Fathers of Confederation and then a Montreal MP, was assassinated on Ottawa’s Sparks Street—only one block from the Parliament Buildings. In 1966, Paul Chartier, who was apparently protesting the problems of the working class, blew himself up in a Commons washroom when a bomb that he apparently intended to throw into the main chamber exploded prematurely. And between April, 1982, and March, 1985, three separate attacks by Armenian terrorists against Turkish diplomats in Ottawa resulted in the deaths of a Turkish military attaché and a Canadian security guard.

Last week, the most pressing issue was how Quebec police had lost track of the hijacked bus—and why they had not notified other law enforcement officials. And it was clear that, at least at the beginning of the Parliament Hill ordeal, there were lapses in security. Ottawa Citizen columnist Marjorie Nichols, for one, said that she was about to leave the Centre Block at about 2:30, unaware that anything was happening, when Winnipeg NDP MP William Blaikie—and not security officers—warned that there was an armed man outside. Recalled Nichols: “I went to push past him, and he said, ‘Don’t go out—you’ll be in the line of fire.’ ” And for several minutes, MPs, their staff members and civil servants were allowed to walk within arm’s reach of the hijacked bus. RCMP officials promised a full investigation. Said Favreau: “We are going to have to find out how come we didn’t know he was coming in this direction.”

There were also concerns about the traditionally open access to Parliament Hill. New Democratic Party MP Steven Langdon, for one, said that authorities may have to adopt a pass system to allow people onto the Hill. Said House Speaker John Fraser, who is responsible for security in the Commons: “I certainly haven’t got an objection to tightening up security.” Fraser added that a committee of cabinet ministers would begin a review of parliamentary security this week. But he said that in an open society it would be difficult to adopt stringent security measures. Added the Speaker: “Are we going to close up the House of Commons and build a wall around it because a tiny percentage of irrational and wicked people are around?” In the aftermath of last week’s hostage-taking drama, that is an issue that Canadian legislators and law enforcement officials will have to wrestle with.

PEETER KOPVILLEM with BRUCE WALLACE and LISA VAN DÜSEN in Ottawa

PEETER KOPVILLEM

BRUCE WALLACE

LISA VAN DUSEN