It is perhaps fitting of Canada’s international identity as a country of peace-loving, hockey-playing hosers that one of the most touching tributes to follow Wednesday’s tragic attack in Ottawa came from an ice rink in Pennsylvania.
Ahead of their game against the Philadelphia Flyers, the Pittsburgh Penguins dimmed the lights in the CONSOL Energy Center, filled the arena with Canadian colours and sang our national anthem.
It was a touching but simple tribute and it showed America’s ties and commitment to our country in its simplest form.
The tribute garnered a nod of appreciation from Prime Minister Stephen Harper in his first comments back to work on Thursday. Harper commended the team alongside the international leaders who had offered us support, as he stood in a chamber he accurately referred to as the heart of Canada’s democracy.
As simple as Pittsburgh’s message was, and as meaningful at it was, it was but one tribute the international community sent to Canada in the wake of the attack.
Messages and condolences streamed in from world leaders and everyday citizens. Most were like the one seen at the Pennsylvanian hockey game – they hinted at purity in Canada, a sense of innocence lost.
It was and is a beautiful narrative. We are a place of peace, freedom and democracy, and not hardened by battle like our brothers and sisters to the south, or others overseas.
But it’s not entirely accurate. Our military has fought in wars, our citizens have faced acts of horror. Still, the narrative seemed to suggest, “If it can happen there, it can happen anywhere.”
Live television coverage from south of the border hinted at that narrative. NBC News worked diligently to chronicle the day Canada “lost its innocence.”
The Telegraph newspaper published a story following the attack titled, “How an oasis of tranquility became a breeding ground for terrorists.” The article notes that we were “once a byword for international peace and prosperity.”
Another U.K. newspaper, The Independent, discussed Canada’s return innocence in optimistic terms, though it did balance our complex history with its desire that we resist becoming hardened in the wake of this attack.
When U.S. President Barack Obama publicly addressed the Ottawa shooting on Wednesday, he reminisced about how “wonderful” the people of Ottawa were when he last visited.
Make no mistake, messages like these come from a place of respect, of mutual appreciation, and they are certainly not wrong or naive. Obama further noted that Canada and America stand side-by-side, and would continue to do so.
And that is the point that should not be overlooked. We have fought in two World Wars, and in Afghanistan, where 158 Canadian soldiers lost their lives. Twenty-six Canadian citizens died in the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States. We’ve joined the coalition opposing the Islamic State terrorist group.
On Canadian soil, our innocence disappeared ago taken. Bombings, attacks on religious buildings and schools, significant terrorist threats have existed and continue to. The Air India bombing, which killed 328 passengers and crew flying from Montreal to London in 1984, remains Canada’s largest mass murder. The 1984 shooting at Quebec’s National Assembly dragged our political system into the crosshairs.
The Toronto 18 terrorism plot of 2006 – which named several targets including downtown Toronto and Ottawa’s Parliament Hill – was all the evidence we needed that we were not immune in this new world. Though we have been given more before and since.
In recent months we have talked more openly than ever about Canada’s position on the world stage and acknowledged we are not separate, that our country is not detached from the international struggle against hate and chaos. We’ve reported on Canadian citizens who have trained or attempted to train with terrorist groups. We’ve realized that the evil is inside these borders as well.
On Thursday, it was confirmed that the suspect in the Ottawa shooting was a Canadian citizen, one of our own. So was the suspect in a separate attack in Quebec this week. These were not international evils that sought out and found our Eden. These were monsters of our own creation.
Canada can’t point to the world outside our border and blame them for what happened, any more than then can hold us as an example of innocence lost.
There is world between the loss of innocence and becoming hardened. That’s where we have been and that’s where we should stay. We don’t need to shut down our borders, or turn against one another over our differences. We can protect ourselves from those who wish us harm without abandoning our country’s commitment to peace and freedom.
We can still be the nation whose leader thanks a hockey team for a simple tribute after a terrible loss. We can still get a little emotional when our national anthem plays at a rink in Pennsylvania. Because the anthem still means something. It means the same thing it did on Wednesday morning, before our lost innocence was put on display for ourselves and the entire world.