Photos by Steve Holt
Funny how quickly things happen. I happened to be in Montreal one day, on September 13, 2006. I was walking to meet a friend, when I simply found myself inside a police perimeter. On that day, on that walk, I was not expecting to see literally thousands of pedestrians on the move, hundreds of police, medical teams, SWAT. Like a set for an epic movie. Extras over here please. Places everyone.
Then I heard an odd sound in the distance which gradually became louder and entered my consciousness through the din. It gradually became known to me as a woman screaming in pain. She had been shot, and was being wheeled down the street toward me, to one of the many waiting ambulances in front of me. The crowd murmured and then fell into a hushed silence as her screaming got louder. It was a sound I will never forget. A sound I would like to forget. That young woman’s screams and the men in bullet-proof vests crowded around her stretcher as they rumbled down the street toward us. One officer gripping her outstretched hand while running along side the gurney. A dark grimace on his face. All at once the scene was transformed. No longer a movie set, but a dark and terrible thing. Everything came into focus, sickening and real.
Nobody wants things to be that real.
We – the thousands of people who had suddenly merged – didn’t know what was happening. Without realizing what we were doing we became a composite mind and body, inching our way closer to Alexis Nihon Plaza, the mall bordering the college. The word was passing electrically through the crowd… there were two shooters, one in the mall. This people sea, getting closer to the mall.... like the tide, stupidly closer. Then with no warning, the tide turned and the sea became an ugly panic wave. Everyone was screaming and running at full tilt away from the mall. I was caught up in the surge, running flat out. Then we halted, like a collective crouched animal. We waited. Pulse pounding in our ears.
More police moved in. Reporters crushed into a circle around a police spokesman who was making a statement. A giant man made larger still by a bullet proof jacket, he was enjoying his moment. I was armed with a camera and attitude, so I too became a reporter, jostling to the centre of the circle - demanding answers. Seemed there was only one shooter. Riflemen trotted in and crouched behind nearby cars. They seemed more wary of a bullet than we did.
On that terrible day in the history of Dawson College, I interviewed several people, many of whom had been unwilling players in the drama as it had unfolded. One young girl told me of how she and other students had been corralled back into a classroom by a security guard and locked in. She and her fellow students waited in sickened silence for more than 45 minutes, while they heard gunfire sporadically erupting outside their door.
Police released these and hundreds of other youngsters and their teachers in small clusters, a few dozen at a time. We watched at the edge of the police barricade as they ran for their lives to the safety of the yellow tape, some with their hands in the air in a wordless plea of “Don’t shoot!” as if they feared being shot by police as they ran.
It did not seem like Montreal.
Later that evening, I went about my more normal business in Montreal. But it did not seem right that people were going about their normal business. They were being too normal. They were doing too many normal things like laughing, chatting with friends, listening to music, going to restaurants. It seemed wrong. A girl had died. A young student, her life just beginning to unfold, only a year or two out of high school. Anastasia would have been thinking about her assignments, or her teachers, or perhaps friends she was to meet after class. It didn’t seem right that people in Montreal were doing normal things. There were victims in critical condition in hospital, their lives changed forever.
It didn’t seem right that I should be going to the gym for a workout. But I did.
Perhaps in times such as these we need to do normal things. Perhaps we try to hang on to a perceived sense of order in an senseless world. Who wants to dwell on the truth - that this is not a civilized place?