The True North Strong and Free

Poppies cover the base of the National War Memorial in Ottawa, Ontario. (Photo credit: Canadian Press)

Canada offers an example to the world in the wake of senseless terror.

I lived on Gilmour Street, a quiet side street nestled in the heart of Ottawa’s gay village a dozen or so blocks from Parliament Hill. My daily commute took me down Bank Street onto regal Wellington, the broad avenue home to the Canadian government and the towering War Memorial. The Rideau Canal separated the Hill from my office at the U.S. Embassy, but the fourth floor overlook provided stunning views of Parliament. The words of four presidents were carved into the domed ceiling, with John F. Kennedy given the place of honor above the viewing platform:

“Geography has made us neighbors,” he told Parliament in 1961, “History has made us friends, economics has made us partners, and necessity has made us allies. Those whom nature hath so joined together, let no man put asunder.” The chamber rose in thunderous applause, a testament to the enduring friendship between Canada and the United States and the promise that one would always be there for the other.

Canadians proved the truth of those words on September 11, 2001, when hundreds of aircraft were forced to flee American airspace after the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania. Selfless citizens sheltered tens of thousands of shell-shocked Americans, offering hearth and home while travelers waited for air travel to resume. It is difficult to imagine more committed allies in the fight against global terror.

Sadly, terror cares not for valor or altruism. A domestic radical waited two hours for the opportunity to ram Canadian soldiers in rural Québec, killing one and critically injuring another before he was shot by police. Days later, a second radical approached the National War Memorial in central Ottawa and shot the young serviceman guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. He then ran to Parliament Hill, forced his way into the compound, and exchanged gunfire with parliamentary security. He was eventually shot and killed by the House of Commons’ Sergeant-at-Arms.

My friends and colleagues suffered these attacks in shock. Much as I had struggled to understand the news that madmen had bombed the Boston Marathon, they had never really thought that violence might reach the streets of their sleepy capital. That terrorists would abuse their beloved public openness — Parliament Hill boasts relatively minimal security and few exterior guards — struck at the core of their national identity. For years, Canadians have resisted the security apparatus that has come to define post-9/11 America. Some have already suggested that perhaps that should change.

By and large, however, Canadians stood defiant in the hours after the shooting. I read countless calls for peace instead of violence, for justice instead of retribution. Recognition that Middle Eastern extremism sparked the attacks, but reluctance to risk more lives halfway around the world. Where the American media might have collapsed in hysteria, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) anchored coverage of the crisis with unparalleled professionalism. Personally, I could not be prouder of the city and nation I briefly called home.

Yesterday evening, I left my office in downtown Boston wearing the Olympic jacket I purchased just two blocks from Parliament. The country of origin was stamped proudly across its front, and I was shocked by the number of strangers who paused in their commute to offer their condolences. “Where would we be without Canada?” one woman asked as I boarded the subway. Where, indeed?

Much as I love my homeland, Canada has time and again offered a brighter, more optimistic vision for North America and the world. Its people embrace our culture without the worst of its excess. They defend our shared ideals and values with boundless energy and dedication. And most impressively, they faced terror not with fear or vengeance, but with calm and thoughtful grace. For all our stubborn bluster, we could learn from the example of our neighbors, friends, partners, and allies.

During my time at the embassy, I sometimes grasped without success for the words to describe the bond between our countries. I grasp uselessly even now, so perhaps a story can convey what I cannot. Yesterday’s attack forced the National Hockey League to cancel a scheduled game between the Ottawa Senators and the Toronto Maple Leafs. In Pittsburgh, where the Penguins were to play the Philadelphia Flyers, the crowd began with an anthem I heard many times across the border:

O Canada, they sang, our home and native land. True patriot love in all thy sons command. With glowing hearts we see thee rise, the True North strong and free. From far and wide, O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

Our thoughts and prayers are with you, Canada. We stand on guard for thee.

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