This week’s tragedy in Ottawa, the brutal slaying of Corporal Nathan Cirillo, just 24 years of age, has hit all Canadians hard. There’s no way you could not be affected by his death. It was cruel and heartless. He was guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, at our country’s National War Memorial. This memorial is sacred to Canadians, a place where the National Remembrance Day ceremony is held every year. Here is the place where the poppies are forever captured, carved beautifully into stone. The arch, with its stark reminder of soldiers we’ve lost to war, and to peace keeping, is clearly visible against the Ottawa sky. November 11th is a few weeks off, but this tragedy marks us like no other. Here was a young man, a reservist member of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders from Hamilton, who was a single father to a young son. He rescued dogs. He seems, in all the photos, to smile widely and openly, enthusiastically living life. By all accounts, he was a kind and generous soul. To think that he was guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, an honour for any member of Canada’s military, sends shivers down the spine. He was recognizing the sacrifice of those who had gone before him, and all of us.
This time of year naturally gets Canadians to thinking of our losses. The poppy pin emerges, blossoms bright red on lapels of coats and blazers, schools hold services, and we cast our thoughts to history. In recent years, the war in Afghanistan has made Remembrance Day more poignant, as we watched one soldier after the next die in foreign lands. There is hardly a hometown in this country that hasn’t been touched by the tragedy of war. The motorcades down the Highway of Heroes, and thousands of Canadians standing along roadways to pay respect to fallen soldiers, became a too common sight. This week, though, seemed unbelievably cruel. First, Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent, 53, was struck and killed by a car in Quebec. It was a targeted attack. Then, too soon afterwards, there was Corporal Cirillo’s death in Ottawa. There is no justification for these acts. Whether we think there was mental illness involved, or whether ISIS/ISIL was involved, the loss is no less tragic for either soldier’s family and friends. They have been taken too soon, and on our own soil.
Despite the horror of those two acts, and of Corporal Cirillo’s death in Ottawa in particular, what struck me was the bravery of those who tended to the wounded young solider. When others might have run into buildings for shelter, the story of Ottawa lawyer, Barbara Winters, who ran back towards the sound of gunfire and found Cirillo on the ground next to the monument speaks volumes of how love and light can dispel darkness. She held Cirillo in her arms, tried to revive him, but repeatedly told him, “You’re a good man. You’re a brave man. Your family loves you.” She told him that his parents were proud of him, that he was brave. Then, she said, “You are so loved.” As he struggled to survive, Winters gave him comfort, let him feel loved and cared for. She offered presence of heart at a time when presence of mind might have been hard to find. She, and the other first responders last Wednesday, at both the war memorial and in the Parliament Buildings, showed such bravery. They thought not of themselves, but of others first. Kevin Vickers, too, played a vital role in saving lives within the House of Commons. I wonder, in such a wretched and terrifying circumstance, in the midst of such horror, how many people would rise above their own human fears to reach out, with heart and hand, and lift up or protect others. The bravery these many people showed and embodied astounds me.
Nothing anyone writes will solve this. Our hearts, as Canadians, are deeply torn and saddened. We pray for the families of those lost this week. We think of how they must be feeling and wonder at their strength. I think we must all wish this had never, ever happened. The Cirillo family released a statement on Friday night that said, too beautifully and poignantly, “Nathan was Canada’s son. He belonged to all of us.” Yes, he did, and our hearts break now because of it.
With blessings for those who serve Canada, and for our beautiful country….for it truly is our home and native land. May God keep it peaceful, glorious, and free, a place where peace is honoured and valued.