Anxious workers pressed their faces against the windows of nearby offices, trying to figure out what had happened in a city so peaceful that pedestrians can usually walk unimpeded into the Parliament building before being checked by guards.
“I never thought this would happen,” said one woman, who refused to give her name as she hurried along a main street after the police allowed people in her building to evacuate the area in the afternoon. “This is Canada.”
The killing of a young guard at the National War Memorial on Wednesday, by a gunman who later continued shooting inside the nearby Parliament building, was only the fifth murder this year in Ottawa, a city of about 885,000 people. Mayor Jim Watson, who expressed sorrow for the loss of life, noted in an interview with the Ottawa Citizen, a daily newspaper, that the city is “still one of the safest cities in the world, not just in Canada.”
On most mornings, the streets on Parliament Hill are filled with workers grabbing coffee and moving among the area’s many government offices. But for most of Wednesday, the streets were eerily silent, except for occasional bursts of intense police activity.
The police told businesses to shut down, and signs on shop windows said they were closed for the public’s protection. Some office workers, confused about how to proceed, clustered near the front doors of their buildings, hoping to get cellphone signals.
At one point in the afternoon, a line of about a dozen police officers in paramilitary gear, rifles at the ready, charged up Metcalfe Street, leaving the security perimeter to sweep the area in front of a Marriott hotel. Onlookers scrambled as the police shouted at them to stand aside. A pregnant woman who had fainted during the charge was helped into a coffee shop that had stayed open even as nearby stores closed.
“Whoever did this wants us to shut down, but people need us,” said the owner, Khoder Ibrahim.
“It was very frightening,” a government worker who identified herself only as Helen said of the more than four hours she had been kept in lockdown. “I’ve been worried about this happening here, especially after what happened to the two soldiers in Quebec,” who were struck by a car this week in what politicians suggested was a terrorist attack.
That fear continued throughout the day as it remained unclear if the police were searching for suspects besides the gunman, who was killed inside Parliament.
Even amid the anxiety, most people retained an air of politeness, which is often regarded as a national character trait.
“The thing I noticed was that the police were almost polite,” said Don Gravelle of Niagara Falls, Ontario, who was a block from the war memorial minutes after the first shooting. “They just moved us back, saying, ‘You’re in a dangerous area.’ ”
By nightfall, many people had left the area near Parliament after the police partly lifted the lockdown. But the lockdown was reinstated at least once later in the evening, and the police said that the situation was “evolving.”
A blackboard outside a shop on Elgin Street bore a handwritten message, “Stay strong, 613,” referring to the capital’s area code.
Patrick Snider, who works in Ottawa, said he feared the shootings would change the capital’s culture of openness. “I’ve always been kind of proud that you could just walk up to Canada’s Parliament buildings,” he said. “They’ve gotten a little more secure over the years, but I was always proud that we don’t have the same kind of security as in D.C. Now, it’ll be different.”
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