Does Ottawa City Hall need increased security – really?

While we have come to expect heightened security cordons these days, we might want to make sure they are all necessary.

This piece appeared in The Ottawa Citizen on December 18, 2019


There is an old saying: “You can’t fight city hall”. In Ottawa we might want to amend that to “You can’t fight city hall without first going through a security checkpoint”.

The Ottawa Citizen reported on December 17 that the city is installing security access gates at two entrances, and that security staff will check bags, purses and overcoats starting in January, making sure no one brings in noisemakers, banners, sharp objects, compressed gas not needed for medical purposes, flammable items and firearms.

In other words, getting into Andrew S. Haydon Hall will be as aggravating as going to see a Sens game at the Canadian Tire Centre although not quite as bad as trying to board a flight at YOW.

We are living in a time where security checks are the norm and have been doing so since 9/11. Every time something happens – or almost happens – when it comes to terrorism we see a ramping up of measures. Thanks to Richard Reid’s shoe plot in 2001 we have to doff our Hushpuppies before we get on planes. Similarly, you have to throw out your bottle of Perrier ever since the 2006 transatlantic liquid plot. Flying anywhere, seldom a pleasurable experience, is now a nightmare. We seem to be in reactive mode when it comes to security.

What occasioned the change at City Hall? Was it a threat assessment from CSIS or the RCMP? Is there intelligence pointing to the venue as a terrorist target?

But even if we have resigned ourselves to this increased scrutiny we can still ask if it is really necessary. What occasioned the change at City Hall? Was it a threat assessment from CSIS or the RCMP? Is there intelligence pointing to the venue as a terrorist target? Are we on the cusp of a wave of bombings or shootings by angry ratepayers? Are Ottawans finally going to go ballistic over the light rail debacle?

If CSIS or the RCMP indeed advised city staff that threats are real I am fine with that. After all these two agencies – and ONLY these two – are qualified to make that assessment. Were they to give this message to our municipal representatives we would likely not be told as the briefing was probably classified. The current plan apparently stems from the aftermath of the October 2014 terrorist shooting at the National Cenotaph up the street from City Hall. That was five years ago and not a lot has transpired since then.

Ottawa City council chambers in Ottawa Wednesday Oct 23, 2019

On the other hand, if this decision was taken to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ we should push back. There are already too many places where security is onerous with no real justification. Does anyone really think a terrorist is going to attack a Sens game? While the team is ok, based on what I saw in the stands last Saturday afternoon, there are not enough bums in seats to warrant a terrorist’s focus.

Look, anything can happen at anytime. A terrorist or a mass shooter can hit an infinite number of locales. Yet we do not accept overbearing security willy-nilly. Nor should we. If we were to demand 100% safety we could neither afford it nor do we (I think) want to live in such a society. Many US high schools have metal detectors because of that nation’s gun insanity. Does anyone want to replicate that here in Canada?

Does anyone really think a terrorist is going to attack a Sens game? Based on what I saw in the stands last Saturday afternoon, there are not enough bums in seats to warrant a terrorist’s focus.

I believe that the city needs to explain, and to defend, this decision to up security. If there is an identifiable threat I am ok with it and I imagine my fellow citizens would be so too. In the absence of further information, however, Councillors Leiper and Menard are right to ask for the whole thing to be debated and reconsidered.

We want to feel safe wherever we are. We also want our tax dollars to be wisely spent. Is this the case for heightened security at City Hall?

Phil Gurski is the Director of the Security, Economics and Technology program at U Ottawa and a retired strategic analyst at CSIS.

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