Monday, November 3, 2014


The call came in as I finished washing the morning dishes.  My mother, not to my home phone, but to my cell.

"Are you home, or downtown?"  Home, I replied.  "Oh.  Well, you shouldn't go downtown today.  One of the guards at the Cenotaph has been shot."  And my immediate thought was one I come back to, after all this.

That poor son of a bitch.

If you live in Ottawa, you know that guarding the National War Memorial is a ceremonial post.  One that wasn't even necessary until one Canada Day a few years ago, when some obviously well-educated drunk was observed urinating on it by a veteran.  Uniformed guards have been on site ever since.  And though the post is ceremonial, it's of such high profile that I can only assume those assigned to be the finest representatives of their ranks, and that they hold the post with immense pride.

With this happening only days after a fatal vehicular attack on Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent in Quebec, it was immediately easy to guess that this guard had been targeted for a similar reason... for the wearing of a Canadian soldier's uniform.

Thus Corporal Nathan Cirillo was fatally shot while standing honour guard over the National War Memorial.  Shot in the back, while bearing an empty rifle.  As you know, much happened in the immediate aftermath, leading to vigorous national debate over who did it, why, and what should be done about it.

I'll leave that for others.  I'm here for the poor guy.

I have no idea who he really was, how he felt, what he wanted.  Seemed like a nice enough fella, posing for pictures with tourists only minutes before.  It was a clear morning, and I'm guessing he would have been looking into the sun when it happened.  I know he died in agony, because he was a single father with a five year old boy, and god knows that's the only thing I'd care about had I been him.  But take another look at the photo of Corporal Cirillo above, which I understand to have been taken within the hour of his death. 

That's a proud son, doing his job.  Showing up, looking right, giving a damn about what he's been assigned to do.  It was probably not difficult, might not be the most glamorous assignment, might even have been a little boring... but regardless, that's a guy who believes in it.  And he was killed for wearing a uniform, the notion of which rankles me.  I have no immediate connection to the forces, and no one should think I have to.  But that uniform represents me.  As do the uniforms of police, firefighters, anyone who wears a uniform in service of the public.  That uniform is the will of a community rendered in fabric. 

So when anyone attacks that uniform, he's attacking me.  And my family, my friends, and my son.  Corporal Nathan Cirillo knew this, and that's why he would don that uniform and go stand next to a giant block of granite on a cold morning.  And all I can do is thank him for coming in to work that day.

People want to debate whether he's a "hero", but I believe it doesn't really matter.  And I know that at first, I thought of him as that poor son of a bitch, in the wrong place at the wrong time... but I was wrong.  Sportsmen and fans idealize the notion of a player going out on top, leaving the game after a big win, stepping away before someone else tells him to.

So take a look at that picture one more time.  That's a guy at the top of his game, making the shot, hitting the note.  He is perfect. 

As is everyone who comes in, does the work, stands on guard.  Thank you, for coming in today.

I'm done now.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Man On Fire

I have never forgotten the man in the black suit.

In May 2000, I made my second trip out to Vancouver to visit my mother, who was living and working there at the time.  As part of the trip, I spent a weekend with my friend Mario in nearby Surrey.  On a steamy Sunday morning, we hit the road on Mario's motorcycle, starting the day on the famous pier at White Rock.

White Rock, if you've never been, is postcard-perfect... or at least it was, back then.  A sleepy little town rolled down to tranquil Semiahmoo Bay, where it spilled out onto the Promenade, a sun-drenched tourist zone built along eight kilometres of sandy beach.  We arrived well before noon, and strolled the boardwalk, grabbed some ice cream, checked out the shops.  As the area became flooded with young people out for a day on the shore, we were in full people-watching mode.  It was just a very laid-back place.

In the midst of all this, one figure stood out, no matter how he tried not to.  It must have been 40+ degrees C on the sand.  Back toward one of the pavilions, near to where we found ourselves at one point, a fellow stood in the shade, staring out across the water.  And unlike every other person along the coast that morning, he was dressed in what must have been his Sunday suit... black wool, white shirt, dark tie fully knotted.  He was of indeterminate origin, definitely Asian but from which country I could not say.  With one hand he would intermittently wipe his head and neck with a handkerchief, understandable given the day's heat.

His presence was so unexpected that I pointed it out to Mario.  "Oh my god, check out the guy's neck!" he replied.  As the fellow wiped the back of his neck again, I saw, just over the top of his collar, a burn mark that encircled his throat.  "That guy must have been hanged!" Mario thought.  One never knows.  Perhaps hanged... perhaps tortured... what country was he from, anyway?  How far away was his home?  What had they done to him back there?

One never knows.  One man on a beach, in a black suit.  I was in my mid-thirties, in t-shirts, shorts and sandals, checking out women on a hot day.  What had that guy been through?  What might being on that beach on that day have cost him?  What did it mean to him?

No matter what you go through in your life, the next person you meet may have their own thing to live with that you can't imagine.  You learn to understand it, and to respect the miles they can only walk alone.  It's a lesson I've observed many times since... but I have never forgotten the man in the black suit.  It's funny.  I went to White Rock that day to look at the girls.

I don't remember a single thing about a single one of them.

I'm done now.