canada_parliment
Photo: W.LLOYD MACKENZIE

Penn alumni in Canada found themselves under lockdown in their office buildings after an armed gunman stormed Canada’s main Parliament building and National War Memorial, killing an honor guard and shutting down the nation’s capital.

Elisabeth Preston, a class of 1989 Law School alumna who works in counterterrorism, works several blocks away from the National War Memorial. She stepped out of the office around 9:45 a.m. and saw police cars flying to scene of the shooting.

“All of a sudden there were 20 or so police cruisers speeding as fast as I have ever seen through the light with sirens screeching. I looked up the hill, and the top of Elgin was literally ablaze with flashing lights of Ottawa police, [Royal Canadian Mounted Police] and ambulances,” she remembered. “Then I saw people running down the road away from the turmoil.”

While locked down in their office buildings, alums tried to reach family and friends through overloaded phone lines and broadband. They huddled around televisions and Twitter, watching the story develop.

The lockdown continued until evening when Preston and the other denizens of downtown Ontario were gradually allowed to leave their office buildings and return home in shock.

“Ottawa has the reputation as a quiet government town. It’s unthinkable that something like this would happen,” College senior and Ottawa resident Patrick Liao said. Liao spent most of Wednesday afternoon glued to press coverage of the event trying to reach his parents and family who work or attend university in downtown Ottawa.

The attack is not only shocking to alumni and students in its violence, it is also contrary to the nation’s ethos, they say. “I have lived in a city where you feel safe having a shower upstairs when all of your windows are open downstairs. Or puttering in your backyard with the front doors unlocked,” Preston said. “We talk to strangers here, give a stranger with shopping bags a lift from the bus stop in our cars, expect the best from others.”

This attack also comes just days after another attack on members of the Canadian military. An allegedly intentional hit-and-run crash killed a soldier and injured another in Montreal yesterday, and officials believe both attacks were motivated by radical Islam.

“I work in this area and am not naive about geopolitical risk,” Preston said “We are caught off guard by these sorts of events. Shocked. Mostly because we cannot understand how anyone who lives in Canada, in one of the most prosperous and most comfortable liberal democracies in the world, would grow up to revile a place so comfortable.” she added.

Paul Howard Gardener, a 1999 Wharton MBA grad and Ottawa resident said that a friend termed the day’s events “the end of the age of innocence.”

“It was disturbing and maybe we have a false sense of security and maybe that was brought to light,” he said.

Nonetheless, alumni insisted that the attack will not change what it means to be Canadian — “Idealistic … not jaded. They’re open. They’re kind,” in Preston’s words.

Mary Rue Brodhead, a 1968 College graduate, was proud to note that even while under fire, the police were polite while asking people to leave the area. “Its very Canadian to ask people to ‘please get back,’” she said. “Thank God in Canada we’re still saying ‘please get back.’”

She also stated with pride that the provincial and national Canadian government did not shut down today but continued the democratic process. “It was an attack on democracy and they decided not to stop the session,” she said.

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