The cheery ringtone of my cell phone jarred me from my reverie. I was travelling by bus through northern New Brunswick on a golden autumn day in late October. My companions were 20 New Brunswickers under the age of 40 with whom I comprise this year’s 21 Leaders cohort for our province.
I didn’t recognize the Ottawa number.
It was my father’s colleague, Ewan. “Your Dad’s OK,” he said. “Have your heard about the situation?”
It was, of course, Wednesday, Oct. 22, the day Parliament Hill was attacked, and Canada’s collective sense of national security was shattered. The day two men – one culpable, one innocent – would not live to see the end of.
The day when my father and his caucus colleagues barricaded themselves for 12 hours in a meeting room just steps from where Michael Zehaf Bibeau was killed after opening fire in Parliament’s grand entryway. The day they – and us – waited for hours to know if the threat ended with Bibeau’s death, or if other attackers lay in wait. Was this our 9-11?
The phone call shattered a peaceful feeling that had been building all morning. Minutes before I had been enjoying a meandering conversation ranging from personal histories to great works of literature (Voltaire, Tolstoy) to the genius of certain British comedians. The sun was shining, the passing natural scenery pleasing in the extreme.
Shots were fired in Ottawa, and the spell was broken. The jarring effect of that phone call and the ongoing tension as the story unfolded became the tense, surreal backdrop of the day, which included visits to the new YMCA Campbellton Youth Centre and the mental health ward at the Restigouche Hospital Centre, to learn about the programs and people at these worthy institutions.
I most wanted to be with my family that afternoon, the members of which were scattered across the province, the country and the world, and to hear my Dad’s voice telling me he was ok. But I didn’t want to leave the tour, either.
I’m glad I didn’t. Aside from the simple fact of my inability to do anything but wait, and my strong sense that my father and his colleagues were likely safe, the event solidified my sense that 21 Leaders was not just worthwhile, but possibly essential, a conviction the rest of the week strengthened.
The members of our cohort come from different towns, language groups, sectors and backgrounds, but we are united by our interest in the simple but daunting work of making New Brunswick better.
I thought of my father in Ottawa, and how his public service was motivated by that same impulse. Essentially, what led him to politics is what landed me on that bus, great as the gulf is between his role and responsibilities and mine.
Later in the week, when Stephen Harper hugged Justin Trudeau and Thomas Mulcair, I thought of the power of simple, authentic gestures, and of forgiveness, and our shared humanity that is so much deeper than political divisions, but so easily negated by them.
I thought of my privileged life, of growing up middle-class, educated and loved, a wish-list of benefits many of the people we would meet in our weeklong tour of the province cannot claim. New Brunswick is home, and it has given me an enviable life. I owe something back. And I get the feeling that my province, and my country, might need that more than ever. I have faith 21 Leaders will help me do my small part.