A city begins to breathe again



It took some time for the awful realization to dawn on the outside world, but when it did, the tweets, text messages and emails poured in from all over the country and beyond. Good friends and relatives and even a few people I haven’t seen or spoken to in years all wanted to know: How was I holding up?

A darn sight better, I would say, than residents of a triangle of Moncton’s northwest end, apocalyptically dubbed “the red zone”. That’s where Codiac RCMP had a heavily armed Justin Bourque – the alleged killer of three of their fellow officers last week – holed up for 30 hours. Their message for that neighbourhood: Lock your doors, head for the basement, stay away from the windows and, of course, try not to worry.

It was good advice for anyone, a somber yet determined Mayor George LeBlanc, declared. The important thing now was to do what we were told and let the police do the job for which they were trained. But, really, I wondered, can anyone ever be fully trained to handle the scope of tragedy that transpired in the evening hours of June 4?

I covered the cops as a general assignment reporter for the Toronto Globe and Mail in the 1980s. In those days, shootings (often fatal) were an almost daily occurrence, but they were usually drug or gang related. Even so, those peace officers knew that when they put on their uniforms in the morning, they were also, to some extent, painting bulls eyes on their backs.

In interviews (or just over a few beers after work) they would tell me that the worst type of call they had to make in the course of their duties was in response to report about a lone gunman. Fortunately, it didn’t happen often. Still, they would say, drug lords are predictable. Their violence was calculated; just business. A crazy with a semi-automatic is a whole different animal.

Under those circumstances, then, when cops tell you to stay put and keep your head down, it makes sense to heed them. And, fortunately, thousands in Moncton did just that last week. But, for some of us who were not near or in the quarantined area, the temptation to answer the question the world was posing was irresistible.

How, indeed, were we holding up?

The city was in lockdown. No schools or government offices were open. Most stores and private businesses were shuttered for the duration. My neighbourhood, which is usually full of old people walking their dogs and young mums pushing their strollers en route to some happy rendezvous, was bizarrely quiet. And, yet, here and there, as we strolled down the leafy streets of the old west end, my wife and I detected small signs of life as usual.

“Oh, look, there’s so-and-so weeding her garden,” one of us would comment.

“Yes, and look, it seems that her neighbour so-and-so is getting ready to mow,” the other would remark.

We felt a little like anthropologists observing the habits and customs of a newly discovered tribe of humans, oblivious to the cargoes of violence just beyond their apprehension. 

On the other hand, we knew that we, too, belonged to that community of vigilant putterers who seemed determined to, as the British foreign ministry commanded at the outbreak of World War II, “keep calm and carry on.”

As we stopped to chat, our conversations seemed almost defiantly cheerful. 

Yes, the current predicament was horrible. Yes, our hearts went out to the poor families of the fallen officers. 

But, also, yes this was an exceedingly rare event in a city that boasts a stellar record of orderliness and bonhomie. Yes, the RCMP will prevail. And, yes, we will pull together and get through this, just as we have other travails in our municipal history.

In fact, the good news for the general state of our shared civilization is that most communities in this country do surmount their tragedies.

That, of course, is the subtext of the question: How were we holding up? 

Last week, we were managing. Now, with faith and an unbridled sense of community, it starts to get better.


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