The race to finish Checkpoint Charlie is over.
That’s the new security gate at the bottom of Parliament Hill, just off Bank Street. And it’s a dandy. The East German Vopos, the border guards who manned the Berlin Wall, would have been envious. It was finished just before the new crop of MPs showed up. It’s definitely the opposite of a big, warm hug, reminding them just who’s in charge.
Checkpoint Charlie, with its thick steel posts and concrete foundations, will stop any madly-rushing vehicle or vanload of lost tourists. I could get into its technical niceties, but people are paying a lot of tax money for Hill security. Suffice to say that it’s more than enough concrete and steel to stop anything with wheels.
The Hill is definitely becoming fortified against the hordes of – well, of what? – that seek to attack the place for evil purposes unknown. If there was ever a struggle between those parliamentarians who wanted the Hill as public space and those who wanted it to be a walled enclave, the wallers have won.
The big iron gates, built 140 years ago to keep out rowdy Bytown rioters, are always closed. There’s a new bunker for riot police that’s getting a lot of use. Cameras are mounted on all of the buildings and plainclothes cops wander the place, inside and out. And I’ll tap-dance a bit around some of the other, finer points – and the weaknesses – of the fortifications of Parliament Hill.
This didn’t begin under Stephen Harper. It began in the 1960s and accelerated under Jean Chrétien, a bully who also was plagued with a wide yellow streak. He should be remembered for throttling a protester at the Hull flag day rally on Feb. 15, 1996. But don’t forget that it was his wife who saved him from the kook who slipped past dozing Mounties and got into 24 Sussex three months earlier.
At the beginning of the Chretien era, you could drive onto the Hill, park without too much hassle, wander around looking for famous politicians, have a picnic and enjoy the view.
The gradual and steady ratcheting of Parliamentary Hill security was well underway by 9-11.
There was some security inside the building. People hadn’t had free run of the Centre Block since Paul Joseph Chartier accidently blew himself up in a third-floor washroom with ten sticks of dynamite on May 18, 1966. Chartier had planned to toss the dynamite into the House of Commons from the visitors’ gallery, but the laugh was on him.
And at least one other similar plan was thwarted by police during the Trudeau years. The guy behind it later went on to run a psychiatric patient advocacy group in Toronto.
In 1996, a distraught man drove a jeep up the Hill and plowed it into the front door of the Centre Block. In the 1990s, someone left a car full of propane canisters on the Hill. Ten years earlier, a guy hijacked a greyhound bus and drove it onto the lawn.
In 1984, Denis Lortie, who shot up the Quebec National Assembly with guns he stole from the Diefenbunker nuclear shelter in suburban Ottawa, stopped by Parliament Hill but decided there were better pickings elsewhere. (Last I heard, Lortie was running a convenience store in Gatineau, across the Ottawa River). Jeffrey Arenburg, the Nova Scotian who gunned down CJOH sportscaster Brian Smith in 1995, lurked around the Hill before he went off to the local CTV studio to shoot the first on-air journalist who walked out the door. (He’s now living in Barrie, Ontario, after being “cured” at Penetang’s psychiatric hospital and serving two years in a New York jail for punching an American border guard at the Peace Bridge.)
And last week, a Senate page did a quick and silly protest during the Speech from the Throne. (Hey, kids, if you have any interesting photos on Facebook from your G-20 protest or Google shows you were a member of the Brock University NDP club, forget your plans to apply for the Parliamentary page program.)
All of these people, except for Chartier the bomber, were either thwarted by the existing security or caused no lasting damage. But each one gave security more reasons to turn the screws. Walk into the main Parliament building with a fish hook in your cap and security guards will seize it. This happened to a friend of mine. Or carry in tweezers and risk having them bagged and processed, as happened to my wife.
Kids going to Christmas parties are frog-marched through scanners, since, as everyone knows, four-year-olds have been known to launch fish hook and tweezer attacks without any provocation at all.
Security guards have become less friendly, or downright hostile, over the past few years. The Hill has gone from being public space protected from criminals and terrorists to private space in which everyone can be challenged and harassed by security guards.
Strangely, it’s the Senate guards who are the meanest. It’s not uncommon to see them berating families of tourists for standing on a road while taking pictures or deliberately trying to embarrass and harass journalists as they enter the building. Some of the Senate security guards treat everyone like dirt, making a visit to the place unpleasant for anyone who doesn’t tip-toe through the place, touching their caps, avoiding eye contact and saying “yes sir” every time a rude security guard opens his or her mouth.
All this attitude does not stop terrorists, unless you think chubby retired school teachers with bass hooks, grade eight students from Belleville, families on vacation from Saskatoon and six-year-old Christmas revelers are actually agents of mass destruction. It is a way of telling ordinary taxpaying Canadians that the Hill is no longer theirs. It is now private space, and those who go there are allowed on the grounds only on sufferance.
I expect to see it get worse when the Centre Block is renovated. I’ll be long gone from the Hill by the time workers clean the asbestos out of it, replace the firetrap wiring and antique plumbing and restore the building. By then, you probably won’t be able to get into the Centre Block without some kind of criminal record search, an invitation and an escort.
And that will tell us something about Canadian democracy and its true health. Parliament Hill is really the physical incarnation of our democracy, and our rights to feel a sense of ownership and to feel included in it are slipping away.