This isn’t supposed to happen in Canada. Gunmen aren’t supposed to shoot soldiers in front of memorials or open fire in the halls of Parliament. Shopping malls aren’t supposed to be evacuated by SWAT teams.
This is the kind of thing that happens in America.
Until Wednesday morning, when it happened in Ottawa, the capital of my home country — a place where rifles are usually reserved for hunting, and where I’d never seen a handgun except on the belts of police officers.
In Michael Moore’s 2002 documentary ‘Bowling for Columbine’, the filmmaker presented Canada as a sort of magical place, where people didn’t lock their doors and gun deaths were extremely low. I can’t vouch for the magic, especially in Windsor, which is where he set part of the film, (my apologies to Windsor) but the numbers then and now do reflect a difference from the United States when it comes to gun violence.
In 2011, the U.S. population was approximately 312 million, and the country had 11,000 homicides from firearms. In the same year, Canada’s population was approximately 34 million and 158 gun-related homicides. That’s roughly 1 death for every 28,000 people in the United States vs. 1 death for every 215,000 people in Canada. The United States owns more firearms than any country in the world — 270 million of them as of 2011.
How do two neighboring, wealthy democracies have such different experiences with guns, one that makes a shooting on the northern side of the border so much more shocking?
Maybe it has to do with trust in government. Alan Voth, a firearms expert formerly with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, said after the shooting that “Canadians have the mentality that the government will protect us – and we’re more likely to look to them for [our] safety. Americans take more responsibility for their own security.”
I grew up in a suburb of Toronto, and Gareth Stickels was a high school friend from that time. When the chaos started on Wednesday, he was in his office two blocks from the Canadian War Memorial in Ottawa, when word came that the building was locked down.
“They told us to stay away from the windows,” he said. Initially he and his colleagues thought there was a shooter on a nearby roof. When he was evacuated from the building hours later, Stickels found the streets barricaded and full of police. “It was crazy – this hit a little too close to home,” he said.
His surprise and shock reflected the response from both Canada and the rest of the world. A sort of disbelief, for a country known for its politeness and peacekeeping.
Canada’s worst mass shooting happened on Dec. 6, 1989 in Montreal when Marc Lepine shot and killed 14 women and then himself at Ecole Polytechnique college. Known as the Montreal massacre, it seemed to wake the country up to the idea that it wasn’t immune from one sick person armed with a gun. It certainly woke me up; I can remember the candlelight vigils that came afterward and every year on the anniversary the queasy feeling of remembering someone who held so much hate, especially for women. In response, firearms laws were tightened.
Canadian gun laws are complicated, dividing firearms into categories with requirements including registration, permits, training courses and exams for all allowed weapons. First-time owners must also fill out a survey that asks about mental health and criminal record. There is a background check and mandatory 28-day waiting period. Canada also has no law or constitutional provision guaranteeing the right to bear arms.
Those measures didn’t spare the country from tragic gun deaths in the years to come. On Boxing Day, Dec. 26, 2005, which is like Canada’s Black Friday for holiday shopping, a shoot-out erupted in downtown Toronto between rival gangs. Fifteen-year-old Jane Creba was killed in the crossfire. There was outrage and shock, and I can remember consciously avoiding downtown Toronto, at least for a little while. At least until the memory passed, and our national attention turned to something else.
It’s hard to imagine the national attention turning away from the latest violence any time soon, but it will.
Hours after the attack in Ottawa, the lockdown was finally lifted on the downtown core, and Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, a 32-year-old from Montreal was tentatively named as the gunman, though police haven’t ruled out other shooters. His motive is not yet apparent, though terrorism is suspected. It was the second killing of a Canadian soldier in days, and it comes as Canada has joined other countries to fight against the Islamic State in the Middle East.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper addressed the country on Wednesday night. “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,” he said.
People might say that Canada has lost her innocence now, that she is a different place. The reality is that Canada is open to the same kind of hate that exists anywhere else; we’re just more polite when we voice our outrage.
On social media on Wednesday, Americans were surprised at the violence in Ottawa. Roger Cohen of The New York Times tweeted “Canada was always my antidote to depression at the state of the world. Now WTF?” Benjamin Zanin of Toronto replied: “@nytimescohen relax. It is an awful thing, but we’ve got this. We’ll get through it. It will be all right. Love, Canada”.
Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to gun deaths in the United States and Canada, as opposed to gun-related homicides.