OTTAWA — Canada’s seat of government put on a back-slapping display of fortitude and common purpose Thursday as MPs convened in the shadow of a brazen, deadly attack.
Kevin Vickers, the sergeant-at-arms of the House of Commons, entered the green-carpeted chamber to thunderous applause — less than 24 hours after he was credited with helping shoot dead a lone gunman on a murderous rampage just down the marbled hall.
Vickers, his mouth a tight line, appeared to blink back tears under a cascade of continuous applause as he carried the ceremonial mace into the House to open the day’s proceedings. After more than two long minutes, the tribute ended with MPs thumping their desks.
Security officials are still piecing together the actions and motives of the shooter — a man known to police through a petty criminal record — and how he was able to so easily enter Parliament’s Centre Block after gunning down an honour guard at the nearby National War Memorial on Wednesday morning.
Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, 24, died in the attack and three others suffered only minor injuries and were released from hospital the same day.
But the emotional tenor of the response in the House was almost triumphant — a term used by Justice Minister Peter MacKay — hailing the efforts of Vickers and others who helped avert a far worse bloodbath, and vowing a united front against any such attacks.
“In this struggle in which we are engaged, in which not only our finest values must be pushed to work, so must be — and will be — the highest unity and resolve. We will not be intimidated,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper told the House to a standing ovation.
“We will be vigilant, but we will not run scared. We will be prudent, but we will not panic. Here we are, in our seats, in our chamber in the very heart of Canadian democracy, and our work goes on.”
Harper’s address ended with the extraordinary spectacle of the prime minister walking down the Commons’ centre aisle to shake Vickers’ hand, then exchange handshakes and back-slapping hugs with both Tom Mulcair, the NDP leader of the Official Opposition, and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.
Mulcair and Trudeau also spoke of the need for unity and resolve, although they were more circumspect than the prime minister in labelling the events an act of terror.
Harper told a national television audience on Wednesday evening that the attack, and an attack on Monday in Quebec which claimed the life of Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent, were linked to the “savagery” of radical ideologies abroad.
Elizabeth May, the leader of the Green party, had a more prosaic take.
“If I were a betting person, and it is good for my bank account that I am not, I would put money on these being the acts of isolated, disturbed and deeply troubled men who were drawn to something crazy,” she told the House.
“I do not believe that it was a vast network, or that the country is more at risk today than it was last week.”
May, too, received a standing ovation from all MPs when she concluded her remarks.
The gunman was identified as Michael Zehaf Bibeau, who was known to police in Montreal and Vancouver.
His mother, Susan Bibeau of Montreal, told the Associated Press in a brief telephone interview that she did not know what to say to those hurt in the attack.
“Can you ever explain something like this?” she said. “We are sorry.”
She and her husband had earlier sent the Associated Press an email expressing horror and sadness at what happened.
“I am mad at my son, I don’t understand and part of me wants to hate him at this time,” the email said, explaining that her son seemed lost “and did not fit in.”
“I … spoke with him last week over lunch, I had not seen him for over five years before that,” the email said. “So I have very little insight to offer.”
Whatever the motivations for the attack, changes are coming, said the prime minister.
An effort to toughen up the “surveillance, detention and arrest” powers of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service would be forthcoming in short order, Harper said in the House.
“They need to be much strengthened, and I assure you, Mr. Speaker, that work — which is already underway — will be expedited.”
The day opened with heavy hearts and high security on full display at the National War Memorial, where Harper arrived to honour Cpl. Cirillo’s sacrifice.
The prime minister laid flowers at the cenotaph where the unarmed honour guard was fatally shot at point-blank range.
As Harper arrived, officers swooped in to detain a man who police later said tried to breach the crime scene — a reference to the memorial itself.
“Get down on the ground,” yelled one officer as several police, guns drawn and trained on the dishevelled-looking man, approached and placed him in handcuffs without incident.
None of the drama seemed to disrupt the solemnity at the memorial, where Harper and wife Laureen quietly laid a bouquet of flowers, paused briefly, their heads bowed, before turning to leave.
Several other MPs were on hand to pay their respects. An impromptu singing of O Canada rippled through the crowd — a spontaneous gesture that was to be repeated in the House of Commons an hour later.
Amidst the heart-on-sleeve patriotism, however, politicians, police forces and intelligence officials were beginning the cold task of assessing security around Parliament Hill and the safety of the country itself.
The Parliament Buildings remained under close surveillance as the RCMP continued to sweep the area for evidence.