A fatal gun attack on Parliament Hill comes only days after lawmakers were assured of “successful” security precautions at the Commons and Senate. The Centre Block assault was the worst security breach in Parliament in 48 years.
Staff and eyewitnesses in the Centre Block reported hearing three separate bursts of automatic gunfire from the Hall of Honour, a central corridor leading from the Peace Tower to the Library of Parliament. More than 30 rounds were fired in total, “Bam-bam-bam,” one witness said.
Staff inside the building immediately locked doors and shut lights after the initial shots were heard at approximately 9:58 am yesterday. No shouts or cries were heard; after the last echoes of gunfire, witnesses in the Centre Block said the silence was broken only by the squawk of police radios.
Scores of people were trapped in the Centre Block at the time of the gun battle, including kitchen staff, postal workers, assistants from MP and Senate offices and reporters working in the Parliamentary Press Gallery. Several fled by squeezing through a third floor window onto a Senate roof, then descending by construction scaffolding used for repairs to century-old stonework.
“Items in your pockets! Keep your hands free – move quickly!” said one contractor who ran to the scene to assist staffers attempting to flee the Centre Block. Witnesses said one distraught woman appeared ready to leap from a fourth floor window: “If you’re going to jump, jump on me!” said a construction worker. The woman was taken to safety down scaffolding by contractors.
Armed city police officers ringed the Senate, guns drawn, as employees sprinted behind the East Block; false police reports at the time suggested a lone gunman had fled inside the 90-metre Peace Tower to use as a sniper’s perch: “Keep down! Keep down!” police shouted as staff fled.
At 11:04 am the first electronic warnings were issued: “RCMP advises if you are in downtown Ottawa to stay away from windows”; and again at 11:29 am: “ALL BUILDINGS are currently in lockdown. Follow the instructions from Security Services. THIS MEANS stay in your office.”
A stonemason who led the rescue of dozens of people from the Centre Block declined to give his name. Pausing once behind police barricades, he called his wife and then unwrapped a stick of chewing gum: “I have fear mouth,” he said.
The gun attack was the worst breach of security on Parliament Hill since 1966, when a lone bomber killed himself by detonating homemade explosives in a Centre Block washroom near the House of Commons chamber.
‘We Literally Do A Risk Assessment’
The attack followed recent assurances to MPs that Parliament had adopted sophisticated security to protect legislators in what remains a public building. “We’ve been successful I guess in responding to increased security threats through a discreet and measured way,” Sergeant-At-Arms Kevin Vickers told the Commons’ House affairs committee October 9.
Hill security and police conduct daily briefings on “risk assessments”, Vickers said: “Each and every morning the RCMP, House of Commons Security Services, Canadian Security Establishment Service and Ottawa City Police have a conference call; in that conference call we go over everything.”
“We do literally a threat and risk assessment of any threats to the precinct and to members each and every day,” Vickers continued. “Then our security posture is either raised or lowered or maintained based on that threat and risk assessment.”
RCMP yesterday did not indicate Parliament heightened security following an October 20 incident in which a Québec jihadist ran down two Canadian soldiers outside a federal building in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, southeast of Montréal.
“Should there be a heightened incident going on somewhere that we’re concerned about, what we do is put more plainclothes armed officers out among the precinct,” Vickers testified. “That doesn’t interfere with everybody else, but the security posture is raised in congruence to that threat and risk assessment that’s done on a daily basis”.
RCMP are responsible for security on Parliament Hill grounds using armed constables; patrol cars; video surveillance cameras and auto barriers. Mounties screen all vehicles driving onto the Hill, including use of an electronic database with the names and photographs of all permitted staff. Police did not explain how a gunman was able to breach the Hill.
Security inside the building is managed by separate agencies mandated by the House and Senate, including armed guards, metal detectors, X-ray screeners and a mandatory ID badge system introduced in 1982. The Mounties and two parliamentary security services in 2009 established a Master Security Planning Office to coordinate protection measures.
The House of Commons’ annual budget is $413.7 million; total spending on security measures is not disclosed. The Senate Security Service only this past September 29 contracted for seven new X-ray baggage scanners, citing a list of “common prohibited items that the Senate Protective Service may encounter” including firearms, explosives, knives and pepper spray.
Follows September 25 Incident
MPs had begun reviewing Parliament security following a September 25 incident in which police blocked an MP from attending a vote in the House. Yvon Godin, New Democrat member for Acadie-Bathurst, said he was held back by the RCMP as a security precaution to make way for a motorcade by the visiting president of Germany.
“There was an RCMP officer on Bank Street,” Godin said. “I told him that I had to go up to Parliament. He answered me in English, ‘Get on the sidewalk’”; “Well, I am a member of Parliament and I have to go up,” Godin continued: “He answered in a very serious manner. He said, ‘I don’t care, and get on the sidewalk.’”
Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer was also blocked by RCMP from making his way to the Commons during the September 25 state visit. Conservative MP Ted Opitz, a former army reservist who served in Bosnia, described the police conduct at the time as “a failure of leadership”.
“In the parliamentary precinct where the RCMP have primacy, they are supposed to understand the standard operating procedures,” said Opitz, MP for Etobicoke Centre, Ont.; “The fault lies with the leadership.”