This has been a hard week in Canada.
First, on Monday, a Canadian soldier, Patrice Vincent, was run down and killed by a suspected radical Islamist in Quebec; Warrant Officer Vincent, it appears, was just a few short months away from retirement, after thirty years in the military.
I want to record his name, because it has been somewhat overshadowed, in the media, by the events on Wednesday morning when, as the whole world now knows, Corporal Nathan Cirillo was shot in the back and murdered by a lone gunman, who then burst, firing, into the Houses of Parliament, before being brought down by Parliament’s Sergeant-at-Arms in what is emerging as an extraordinary tale of bravery.
The names of the two killers are not worth mentioning: except to say that both were drifters, losers, men with nothing to hold onto in the face of defeat and nihilism – and ‘self radicalized’, apparently, which means I guess that their empty heads were turned by all of the vile garbage put out on the internet by other men who have nothing to offer society or the world but death and oppression.
As the Globe and Mail pointed out, in a thoughtful editorial, they have changed nothing, these two deluded individuals: their actions were, in the larger scheme of things, empty and pointless.
The response of Canadians, on the other hand, has been profoundly meaningful, the horrors of the past week sparking, not only an understandable concern about terrorism and maintaining security but, from the very first moments, an equally important and very open debate about maintaining the habits, and the values, and the practices of democracy. A debate, moreover, which far from being polarised, has been a debate about finding the right balance, a debate about what it means to live in a free country, and a country whose belief in ‘peace, order and good government’ is like something in the water, imbibed by everyone.
Yesterday the funerals of the two soldiers took place, many miles apart, in their home towns. Corporal Cirillo’s body proceeded along Ontario’s Highway of Heroes, the 401, all the way from Ottawa to Hamilton, down the lakeshore from Toronto, and all along the way crowds of people turned out, to pay their respects. Outside the Hamilton base where he was stationed, and at the National War Memorial where he was gunned down, the flowers, gifts, teddy bears, wreaths, piled up: and when a fresh honour guard stepped smartly into place at the site of the killing, there was a round of applause, and someone from the crowd called out, ‘we’re proud of you.’
In Parliament, the day after the shooting, Prime Minister Harper crossed the floor to embrace Tom Mulcair, and Justin Trudeau, the opposition leaders, in a gesture that said, more eloquently than words, ‘we’re all Canadian.’
In Cold Lake, Alberta, where some unknown thugs had vandalised a mosque, a group of citizens turned up, spontaneously, to clean up the mess and erase the graffiti. ‘We are the land of the free,’ one woman explained – as if to say, ‘we don’t do this here.’
And, in perhaps the most touching gesture of all, the family of Patrice Vincent reached out to express their understanding and sympathy – not just to Corporal Cirillo’s family, but to the family of Vincent’s killer.
Despite the grief and the horror, it has, in a profound and important sense, been a good week in Canada. A fine week, in fact.