Ottawa, 10.22.14

There has been a load of words spilled after the historic attack in Ottawa on Wednesday, October 22, 2014.

We have heard that this will change Canada. Or that Canada will not change. And that this marks the capital city's loss of innocence. Our peace has been shattered. The openness of our democracy has been attacked. We are, we are told, not immune to the types of terrorist attacks we have seen elsewhere around the world. We will not be intimidated. Hockey arenas pay tribute in light shows. We remember the brave soldier killed at the National War Memorial. Scary today, says The Globe And Mail's Roy McGregor, and, sadly, scary from now on. And on and on.

I want to quietly add only three words more: House of Commons.

The media coverage has dissected and graphed and animated the movements of the gunman, and the response of security forces. We have, rightly, celebrated the reaction of the Sergeant-at-Arms Kevin Vickers, hailed as a hero. We have seen images of committee room doors fortified from the inside by chairs stacked like bonfire fuel. We have seen images of veterans taking tours of guard duty at cenotaphs across Canada. The genius of political cartoonists has been seen, and gets into us. The image of the Prime Minister hugging Trudeau and Mulcair makes news.

Against all of these moving pictures, a room, the House of Commons, is not quite as compelling.

I have been to the Parliament Buildings three times in my life. Constitutionally, I'm not much for the monarch or the Senate, but the House of Commons has long cast a spell. I first visited Ottawa as a high school student, and sat in the visitors gallery (thanks to a last-minute pass issued by BC NDP MP Ian Waddell) while Joe Clark and Pierre Trudeau and Ed Broadbent acted out a day of democracy below. My visit was sponsored by the Rotary Club in Edmonton, and I joined students from across the country for a few days in the capital city. We met big shots, including Jean Chretien and Bora Laskin and John Crosbie. And we talked about democracy and national unity.

But the highlight, by far, was the evening we got to walk into the Commons chamber and stop at Clark's chair and Trudeau's chair. Pierre's, that is. And look up at the Speaker's chair. And that's where the mace sits. Up there was where I sat earlier that day in the visitors gallery. Green, is what my gauzy memory recalls all these years later. And curtains. Like a theatre. The silence. It was all pretty heady stuff for kid from northeast Edmonton. I got to sit in Gordon Towers' seat and pretend I was asking a question. Mr. Speaker...

It was that House of Commons—and that idea of rising to ask a question in that place—that, for me, was under attack when the gunman ran into the front door of the Parliament Buildings, shooting, talking in bullets. Now, the decades that have passed since that high-school visit have taught me that those questions in the House of Commons are often soft or staged or incoherent. They are the party's questions, not the individual's. The answers are most times not the answers of the valued interlocutor who listens deeply and responds. More and more often, it's like talking to a printed book. I have never gotten close enough to politics to figure out who is to blame.

But, what's bred in the bone...

I still believe that our only hope as a democracy is the protection we offer to those who ask questions, as symbolized by Oral Question Period.

And, so, ladies and gentlemen of the 41st Parliament of Canada, if you are looking for a way to respond to the events of October 22, 2014, may I humbly suggest that you stop loading up on your adjectives and your descriptions? Stop looking for ways into sound-bite interviews. Stop trying to sum up, as if the events of Wednesday could be summed up in a hashtag, the events of Wednesday.

Just ask a good question.

A question that is as powerful as a bullet. A question that lingers in the air like gunpowder. A question that unmasks, or challenges, or gets closer to the marrow of things. A question that, unlike the exchange of gunfire, builds a community of those who use questions and answers to track the truth together.

Accept more security, but don't shackle yourselves. Ask the questions of the commons. That's where things live.


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