The true north strong and free

As I write this column, I am watching the CBC news coverage of Parliament Hill under siege by a gunman (or men).  It’s a little difficult to concentrate on what I was going to write about, which is the WTO decision on COOL, which sided with Canada and Mexico.

At this point, no one knows how many shooters are involved, or why the attack happened. We don’t know whether this is connected to ISIS, to any other known terrorist group, or to something entirely new. For all I know at this very second, this could be related to pipeline activists.

My media career started shortly after the Columbine school shooting. At the time, I was working as the content producer for a morning talk show at a radio station in Winnipeg. It was my job to find people the talk show host could interview the morning after the shooting. I managed to find the aunt of a dead student who was willing to talk, but succeeding at that task made me feel dirty and shallow.

I’ve thought about that many times over the years… whether that interview helped the grieving aunt deal with the loss of her loved one, or whether it helped our listeners better understand the tragedy. In other words, did I ultimately cause more harm or did it actually make things better in some small way? I became a journalist because I wanted to help people. As cheesy as it sounds, I truly wanted to make the world a better place.

That may have been the first time I felt like a leech in my media career, but it wouldn’t be the last. In later years, part of my job as a reporter meant that I had to attend tragedies such as fires where families lost everything they owned, and fatal highway accidents. Each and every time I would cover something like that I would question why I was there, and what purpose my presence served. The only answer I could ever come up with was to try and prevent it from happening again. As a result, I would ensure a large portion of the subsequent article would be educational – the importance of driving to conditions, of having functional smoke detectors, the fire hazards around real Christmas trees, not driving fatigued, always wearing a helmet when riding a quad… the list is as long as the number of tragedies you can imagine. Regular reporting also helps draw attention to problem intersections that have a really high collision rate, and it can help dispel typical small-town rumours that drinking was involved in an accident when it wasn’t.

Still, despite knowing that, nothing will erase the memory of when I was attacked by a woman who had been involved in a highway accident. There were no serious injuries, and I was standing a safe distance from the scene, taking photos of the damaged vehicles. The woman was enraged, and she began pushing me, and she called me names I cannot repeat in print. I felt awful. I cried all the way home. The self-doubt and angst I had experienced all throughout my career were crystallized in that one moment on a snowy night on the TransCanada Highway.

It wasn’t long after that incident I became a firefighter. I’d always wanted to be a firefighter. In fact, when I was a little girl, my parents were worried that if I ever saw a building on fire, I would rush in to try and help. And of course, because of the generation I grew up in, I was told girls simply couldn’t be firefighters. When I joined, it felt like I was giving back, or making up for all the times I stood by the side of a wreck doing nothing but taking photos. Today I do it because I love it. I love helping people, and I love the sense of family that being on the department brings.

That family includes our emergency medical responders, our police, and our military – and you know what? I’ve finally learned it includes journalists too. This family is comprised by everyone who runs toward the danger  – even though every instinct of self-preservation tells us to run away from it. We all do it in different ways, wearing different uniforms and with different tools, but we all do it for the same reason – to help people, and to make the world a better, safer place.

Just now, I have learned the soldier that was shot at the National War Memorial has died. One gunman so far as been shot, and it seems there may be a second suspect unaccounted for. I am monitoring social media and watching the reaction of Canadians as they weigh in with their thoughts and feelings – mostly, they are weighing in with their feelings, and while that’s understandable, it’s not always well-advised.

Between my career in journalism and my role as a firefighter, I have attended quite a few emergency scenes. One of the things we are trained for is not giving in to developing tunnel vision. Firefighters especially are known for sometimes reacting with too much gusto, thanks to adrenaline. (Like kicking down doors when they were unlocked the whole time, for example.) But what I have learned through experience and training is to take a deep breath and get as much information as possible before acting, because consequences can last a lifetime or longer.

In the time it has taken me to write this column, I have seen people call for a total and complete end to immigration in Canada, a call for all Muslims to be put into camps until all terrorists in the country are found and detained, and a call for movement restrictions in Canada’s public places, like Parliament Hill.

Canada’s military has a long and proud history. I have not served, but both of my grandfathers did. Both were the sons of immigrants. They did not fight so that Canada could become a country that reacts out of anger and fear, one that chooses to battle back by curtailing democracy and freedom, or by redefining what it is Canada has always stood for.

Terrorist threats have always existed, in one capacity or another. Everyone remembers the FLQ, yet we did not force all Francophone citizens out of the country, even if they were separatists. At the time of this writing, we have no idea if the shooter(s) are Canadian or foreigners. We don’t know what religion they might subscribe to, or whether their motivation was religious or political in nature. For all we know, these are animal rights activists – but terror is terror.

Rural Canadians – and those in western Canada especially – can be somewhat isolated from a lot of the multiculturalism that is a large part of the Canadian identity. And let’s face it – there aren’t many mosques in our little communities. There are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world and more than one million Muslims in Canada. They are not all out to get everyone else – that is very, very clear. Radical ideology is always dangerous. We learned that with Justin Bourque who shot and killed three RCMP members in Moncton last June – and he came from an extremely Christian family.

Over the summer, we saw the threat of terrorist group ISIS rise, highlighted by the gruesome beheadings of two kidnapped journalists. It resulted in a coalition of many countries that are conducting military exercises to combat the group’s advances, and a coalition of many others that are supporting the efforts with equipment and supplies. But here’s the really important part – many individual Muslims, and many predominately Muslim nations have voiced their opposition to ISIS, supported the actions against ISIS, and even have actively participated in missions.

That’s a pretty big deal, and it represents a new era in the global war against terror. As we saw in Germany in World War Two, or in Canada with residential schools, and as Edmund Burke so aptly said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

But sometimes, “nothing” isn’t what we think. Sometimes it means not standing up for the people who need it the most – like the many Muslims living peacefully in Canada who are going to feel maligned and isolated if anti-Muslim sentiment continues to build in this nation.

Most importantly, we can’t win the war on terror only with weapons, and we can’t win it without the support of the global Muslim community. Just like any other abusive, manipulative human being, terrorist leaders – just like religious cult leaders – recruit those who feel left out of life, those who feel they have no place, no future and no family.  The absolute last thing we want to do is to create the kind of climate that encourages this kind of dangerous isolation.

I have confidence that as a nation, we will work together in this challenge and make Canada a stronger country as a result – no matter what the root of the shooting was in Ottawa. But in order to do that, we will have to resist both the fear-based knee jerk reaction, as well as the opposite end of the spectrum that fears taking any action at all. We can be patriotic while still being inclusive. We can defend our nation, but without victimizing another. We can seek justice without being unjust.

Whatever we ultimately decide to do, I know that the Canadian men and woman tasked with the job will make us proud. They always have, and they certainly did on October 22, 2014 at Parliament Hill.

sherimonk@gmaill.com

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