October 30, 2014 / 5:23 AM / in 3 years

Canada wrestles with low-key security approach after attacks

OTTAWA/HAMILTON Ontario (Reuters) - Just over a week after an armed man charged into Canada’s Parliament and fought a gun battle with guards as lawmakers were meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, there are few signs of increased security in the nation’s capital.

Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa October 29, 2014. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

Leading politicians and top officials can still be seen in the streets without any obvious protection. The visible new security measures at the Parliament building have been modest, and some have even been eased in recent days.

After telling lawmakers on Monday about the threat from homegrown extremists, Assistant Director for Intelligence Michael Peirce - one of Canada’s top spies - stepped out of a parliamentary office building and onto an Ottawa sidewalk where he strolled several blocks protected only by his long overcoat and mirrored sunglasses. There were no bodyguards in sight.

Minutes later, Justin Trudeau, leader of the opposition Liberal Party and son of late Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, passed by, also unencumbered by security detail.

In contrast, in Washington, D.C. senior officials spend much of their time cocooned in heavily secured government buildings and on the move they are often accompanied by armed guards.

There has been soul-searching in Canada about the nation’s low-key approach to security after two soldiers were killed in the two attacks last week - the Ottawa assault and an earlier one outside Montreal.

Canadians are struggling with the need to better protect their leaders without creating such a fortress mentality that the public loses access to them. In Canada, where gun laws are much tighter than the United States, people are also wary of creating a gun-based society.

The low level of security surrounding politicians was demonstrated in August when an intruder broke into Trudeau’s home while his wife and children were sleeping there. The intruder turned out to be a drunk 19-year-old who thought he was entering a friend’s place and not the house of the Liberal leader and son of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, but it underlined vulnerability.

“I hope they increase security a little more but I would hate things to get like they are in the United States,” said Kim Sass, a 49-year-old medical assistant, as she stopped in Hamilton, Ontario, to write a note of gratitude to Corporal Nathan Cirillo, who was shot dead on Oct. 22 by the gunman who later charged into Parliament.

“We are Canada, we’re supposed to be more relaxed,” Sass said. “It’s a balance, I suppose.”

The reaction in the capitals of Canada’s allies was anything but relaxed in the wake of the Ottawa attack, which began when Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, 32, shot Cirillo while he was standing a ceremonial and unarmed watch at Canada’s war memorial in the city.

Officials in London stationed armed soldiers at the Horse Guards Parade, where the military pomp draws crowds of tourists. U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson ordered stepped-up security at government buildings in Washington and other major cities.

FEW ARMED GUARDS

The Oct. 22 attack ended when Zehaf-Bibeau was killed in a shoot-out with parliament security and Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers, or Mounties. No one had challenged him outside the building, and it was only an unarmed House of Commons security guard who struggled briefly with him inside the front door.

That had changed by this Wednesday’s caucus meeting, when an armed Mountie stood guard outside the meeting room. Inside Parliament, two armed House security guards checked people coming in, as plainclothes officers patrolled the rotunda inside the building.

But the grounds of Parliament Hill, on the Ottawa River, reopened to the public on Saturday, with visitors able to freely walk around without facing inspection.

The Parliament building itself reopened to visitors Monday.

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, police had raised the retractable posts aimed at blocking cars or trucks from driving onto Parliament Hill, but by early this week they had returned some posts to their down position.

It is not only the level of security that has been questioned but the way in which the four separate agencies charged with protecting Parliament are organized and coordinate.

Many of the security officers assigned to protect the House of Commons are not trained in the use of handguns, though officials said they planned to increase that training after the attack.

The different services - the House security guards, the Senate security guards, the RCMP and the Ottawa city police - don’t share one single radio frequency.

“I’ve been recommending for years that the security services (on Parliament Hill) be put under one umbrella,” said Pat Martin, a member from the New Democratic Party. “It’s a kind of dog’s breakfast of security services.”

Prime Minister Harper, who hid with some of his Conservative party colleagues in a room the size of a coat closet in Parliament during last week’s gun battle, vowed that night that Canada would not be “intimidated” by such actions.

On Tuesday, he traveled to Hamilton for Cirillo’s funeral, standing with mourners outside a church on a street crowded with thousands of onlookers. Dozens of uniformed and plainclothes security officers were in evidence, some positioned on rooftops overlooking the street.

Onlookers expressed disquiet at the rooftop officers, describing them as “snipers” though no rifles were visible from street level.

Karen McMaster, a 43-year-old barber, noted the irony that Cirillo was carrying an unloaded rifle at the time of his killing.

“We need armed soldiers instead of unarmed,” McMaster said. “Canadians should always be free to walk into Parliament, that is the house of the people. I would not want to see that change. But some things will have to.”

At Parliament, Thomas Mulcair, leader of the official opposition National Democratic Party, said on Wednesday that the fact of the attack illustrated the weakness of security, but also pledged not to rush any changes.

”Obviously there’s a problem, because somebody walked across the lawn carrying a rifle,“ Mulcair said, standing in front of one of the doors hit by a bullet during the Oct. 22 attack. ”We’re going to be taking our time, we’re going to be looking at it, we’re going to be discussing it not only with the forces that were involved but, one would hope, outside forces.”

Additional reporting by Mohammad Zargham in Washington and Kate Holton in London; Editing by Martin Howell

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