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An easy way to make Parliament Hill safer

National Post - October 24, 2014

By Matt Gurney

On Wednesday, when Michael Zehaf-Bibeau stormed Parliament Hill after gunning down Canadian Army Corporal Nathan Cirillo at the National War Memorial, things went well. As I wrote in Thursday's National Post, the sudden attack was quickly and efficiently stopped, the Prime Minister was secured, the downtown area quickly locked down and wounded evacuated for treatment. You never, ever want to have your emergency readiness tested like that. All the same, Ottawa passed.

But I also wrote that there would be lessons to be learned from the event that would need to be applied. Indeed, as life in Ottawa begins to return to normal and our government gets back to work, it's clear that one thing that needs changing was obvious even before Wednesday's tragedy: Parliament Hill's security is provided by a overlapping mess of separate agencies without a centralized command, and some of those agencies don't even issue firearms to their officers. This needs to change, immediately.

The problems were identified by federal Auditor-General Michael Ferguson in two 2012 reports. Mr. Ferguson found that there were four separate agencies tasked with securing and protecting Parliament Hill and federal buildings in the immediate vicinity: The RCMP protects the grounds and outdoor approaches to the buildings, the Ottawa Police patrol the surrounding streets, the House of Commons Security Services secures most of the federal buildings, the West Block and half of the Centre Block, and the Senate Protective Service protects the East Block, the other half of the Centre Block and the Victoria Building, which houses the offices of senators and their staffs.

There are historical reasons and jurisdictional details that explain this arrangement. But these forces may one day again be called upon to react in an instant to an attack - potentially a much more threatening attack than one deranged terrorist with a shotgun. You don't want any ambiguities when bullets are flying. As an example the Auditor-General provided of how these jurisdictional divisions can cause problems, in 2009, when environmental activists scaled the exterior of the buildings, while it was clear that the RCMP had authority over the grounds, and the House and Senate each had a security force inside the buildings they controlled, no one knew who had jurisdiction over the roofs.

That's, of course, silly. The easy solution is either creating a unified Parliament Hill security force or at least establishing a central command authority that can issue orders to various units that may be assigned to it. What uniforms are worn and who issues the paycheques isn't important. What is important is that this hub of sensitive government buildings be competently defended.

In a real emergency, of course, with multiple armed attackers storming the Hill, we can trust our officers on the ground to use their best judgment. No armed police officer or security official would hesitate to step over a jurisdictional line and rush into danger if they knew that there was an active shooter on the loose. But our police officers and security agents shouldn't be put in a situation where they have to break the rules in order to save lives, especially when the rules can be easily changed. The government has been contemplating the Auditor-General's recommendation for a more co-ordinated defence for two years. It's time to act.

It is also time to make sure that every one of those officers has the means to fight back. Some members of the House of Commons Security Service are armed. The Ottawa Police and the RCMP, of course, also carry their duty sidearms and can access heavier firepower - shotguns and automatic weapons - in an emergency. But as Senator Colin Kenny told Postmedia on Wednesday, while the Senate has been moving towards issuing sidearms to the members of the Senate Protective Services, it has not yet done so, largely because of the complexities of fully training the officers in the safe handing and use of weapons. Senator Kenny told Postmedia that "My guess is that [the deployment of firearms is] going to go ahead real fast now." Let's hope.

A more unified force, armed with appropriate weapons, is the right response to Wednesday's tragedy. Preserving the free, public character of Parliament Hill should be a priority for the government, which means that, sadly, there remains the chance that there may come a day when armed attackers again force their way into Parliament Hill. Let's make sure their first step inside the door is the last one they ever take.

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