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Rewind 2014: Ottawa shooting grips nation amid terrorism concerns

A soldier, police and paramedics tend to a soldier shot at the National Memorial near Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Oct. 22, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

There are still visible reminders of the terror that gripped the nation’s capital on Oct. 22, and much debate about what motivated the gunman to kill a reservist and storm Parliament Hill.

“You can still see the bullet holes in the stone walls,” says CityNews political correspondent Cormac MacSweeney, who was caught in the mayhem that morning.

The bullet marks in MacSweeney’s chair and the other ones in the wood doors leading to the NDP and Conservative caucus rooms are stark reminders of just how close the gunman got to MPs and staff.

The attack began at 9:50 a.m. that Wednesday at the National War Museum, just steps from Parliament. The gunman fired two shots at Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, 24, killing the ceremonial honour guard from behind, while another bullet narrowly missed the second reservist standing by the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Security footage showed Michael Zehaf Bibeau, 32, moments later pulling up to the front of Centre Block in a stolen car and running toward the entrance armed with a rifle.

Video taken by a Globe and Mail reporter captured the thunderous gunfire exchange of at least 30 shots that erupted between Zehaf Bibeau, security guards and Mounties before he was killed. House Sergeant-at-Arms Kevin Vickers was credited with delivering the fatal shots that brought Zehaf Bibeau down.

The shooting put the Hill and downtown Ottawa in lockdown for much of the day as police tried to determine if there were other gunmen on the loose.

The attack came just two days after two Canadian soldiers were run over — one of them fatally — in a suburb southeast of Montreal by a radicalized man with jihadist sympathies. He was killed later that same day by police.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper — who hid in a small closet in the Conservative caucus meeting room before being ushered to safety — emerged later that Wednesday evening to address the nation on TV, calling the Ottawa shooter a terrorist and saying the shootout on the Hill was an attack on all Canadians.

Harper said the tragic incident would strengthen Canada’s resolve to track down would-be terrorists at home and help Canada’s international allies rout terrorists in Iraq.

“This week’s events are a grim reminder that Canada is not immune to the types of terrorist attacks we have seen elsewhere around the world,” he said.

But another picture of the shooter emerged as the nation mourned and paid their respects to Cirillo whose casket would make its way down the Highway of Heroes bound for his hometown of Hamilton where he was laid to rest.

The day after the shooting, the RCMP commissioner said Zehaf Bibeau, who was a Canadian citizen with a lengthy drug and criminal record, had acted alone and that police had no information linking him to the attack near Montreal.

“I can confirm that Zehaf Bibeau was not one of the 90 high risk travellers that the RCMP is currently investigating,” Bob Paulson said, who described the shooting as “a senseless act of violence.”

Bibeau had been in Ottawa since Oct. 2 to deal with a passport issue. Reports say he had hoped to go to Syria.

In another update, Paulson said Zehaf Bibeau made a video of himself prior to the shooting and that there was “persuasive evidence” the attack was driven by “ideological and political motives.”

That revelation came hours after a published report in which Zehaf Bibeau’s mother said her son acted in despair and expressed doubt he was radicalized.

In a letter published by Postmedia News, Susan Bibeau painted a picture of her son as an “unhappy person at odds with the world” and mentally unbalanced in his final days.

Two months later, security on the Hill has been beefed up with additional monitoring inside and outside the buildings. Public tours of Parliament on Wednesdays have been suspended. And MPs and staff have been going through a tough adjustment, CityNews political correspondent MacSweeney says.

“They didn’t realize the security threat that Parliament could face,” he  says. “A lot of people had to get therapy and counselling to try to come to terms with it.”

The separate investigations by Ottawa police, the RCMP and House security have yet to be completed. And there is still debate about how many bullets were exchanged, who delivered the fatal shot and whether it was a terrorist attack as Harper first claimed.

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair believes Zehaf Bibeau was a criminal with a history of mental illness. His comments in the House were met with condemnation from the Conservatives and the Liberals, who believe they were acts of terrorism.

The issue could be settled with the release of the gunman’s video. The RCMP initially said it would be made public but later said a partial transcript could be disclosed.

MacSweeney says the release of the video “would make it a lot clearer for Canadians as to what the motives were.”

With files from The Canadian Press