Stephen Harper found refuge in a broom closet during Ottawa attack

Matt Coutts
Daily Brew
The Conservative Party caucus room is shown shortly after shooting began on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa, Ontario, October 22, 2014, taken and provided by MP Nina Grewal. Ottawa police are looking for multiple suspects in the shooting incidents on Wednesday near the Canadian war memorial and nearby Parliament Hill, a spokesman said. REUTERS/MP Nina Grewal/Handout (CANADA - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW CIVIL UNREST TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS

It may be fair to call it a utility closet, or perhaps a broom closet or a cubby of sorts, but it was by no means a bunker.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper was whisked away to relatively safety earlier this week when an armed gunman stormed Parliament Hill after killing a soldier a short distance away. But it wasn’t to the fortified location many might imagine. At least not immediately.

It was a modest closet attached to a meeting room in the Centre Block, where the Conservative caucus had gathered unaware of what was about to happen outside.

According to various reports, Conservative MPs barricaded the door to the meeting room after gunfire broke out, while RCMP security forces engaged the aggressor in the hallway.

The Globe and Mail reported that Harper was taken to a small closet for protection, while other politicians fashioned spears out of flagpoles. Some didn’t even realize Harper was still in the room until his security detail managed to slip him to safety after the shooting had stopped.

“Someone knew there was a closet there so they stuck him in there,” an unnamed MP told the Globe. “So for a lot of people it was as though he was gone.”

Some might be quick to mock the image of Harper hiding in a broom closet. Not here. As the centrepiece of Canada’s democracy (with apologies to the governor-general) it was vital on both human and symbolic levels that the prime minister is kept safe.

What is terrifying, however, is that shoving him into a utility closet was the working strategy. It is sure to raise new questions about the security protocol surrounding the prime minister.

The Canadian Press reports that Harper was without security inside the caucus chamber, while he was surrounded by political allies. An RCMP security detail was in the hallway outside the room, where suspect Michael Zehaf-Bibeau exchanged fire with security officials, including Sergeant-at-Arms Kevin Vickers.

RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson announced on Thursday that Harper’s security detail would be enhanced immediately. “We have adopted a condition where we will stay with the prime minister, as the prime minister’s protective detail 24/7 no matter where he is,” he said.

For obvious reasons, details about the prime minister’s protective detail are not widely available. The task is the mandate of the RCMP’s Protective Operations. The agency provides security for the prime minister and his family at home and abroad, as well as the governor general, ministers and Supreme Court justices.

Yahoo Canada News has reached out to the RCMP for details about Harper’s security detail, and what changes are expected going forward.

But Harper already has better protection than any of his predecessors. Earlier this year, it was confirmed that the cost of the Prime Minister’s Protective Detail had more than doubled since Harper became leader.

While the cost of the security detail was $8.8 million in 2005-06, it has reached $19.6 million annually in 2013-14. An RCMP spokesperson told Postmedia News at the time that security costs varied from one year to the next, based on threat assessments and other factors.

As the Globe reported in 2012, the Prime Minister’s Protection Detail has seen itself transformed from a “cozy enclave of the RCMP into a tightly run tactical squad.”

According to the report, which came at a time of in-fighting over how the security detail was managed, Harper’s young family and robust international travel schedule prompted a more serious look at the protective unit.

They have been given larger weapons and have undergone a more serious training regimen involving mock attacks and target practice.

The controversy at that time surrounded complaints about the management style of Superintendent Bruno Saccomani as he attempted to be a harder edge on the detail.

The following year, Maclean’s published a photo gallery of the prime minister’s security detail - a collection of large men hiding in plain sight during a series of Harper’s public appearances.

The images impress comparisons to the United States Secret Service, though without its recent controversies and alleged negligence. It is a powerful force; a prepared team.

The downfall on Wednesday was them not sitting in on a private meeting between Harper and his team – a meeting where prying eyes and cellphones are not welcome in the first place.

Should Harper’s security detail been standing next to him? Possibly, and the RCMP says they will be from now on. But by most accounts, security on Parliament Hill did its job well.

The rest may just be a tempest in a broom closet.