The Power of Death: The Legacy of Corporal Nathan Cirillo’s Murder

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October 22nd 2014 has been etched into the memories of Canadians. The sound of gunshots ricocheting through the marble walls in Parliament still echo. The screams of innocent citizens fleeing in panic still ring. The image of bystanders – a nurse, a lawyer, a bureaucrat, and three veterans – coated in blood, hovering over a lifeless body under the shadows of the National War Memorial, still upsets. The picture of Corporal Nathan Cirillo, with tilted Glengarry, pressed shirt, shined shoes, smiling, taken only moments before he was shot, still brings tears. The questions, why and how, are still left unanswered.

October 22nd will forever remain a day when Canadians’ ideals of freedom, safety, security, and unwavering democracy were shattered.

At 9:52am, four rounds were fired from a 30-30 Winchester Model 94 rifle, which fatally wounded Corporal Nathan Cirillo. Unarmed, Corporal Cirillo was on ceremonial sentry duty at Canada’s most recognized and most sacred symbols of war, the National War Memorial and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. He was just eight minutes shy from being relieved of duty for the day with his two other comrades, Corporal Kyle Button and Corporal Branden Stevenson. Donning his DEUs (Distinctive Environmental Uniform) of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders (Princess Louise’s) of Hamilton, Ontario, Corporal Cirillo had been given one of the highest honours – to guard the national memorial, which commemorates all of the fallen Canadian soldiers from armed conflicts, past, present, and future, and to guard the remains of the unknown soldier who died at Vimy Ridge in the Great War. He had dreams of becoming a regular force soldier and providing his five-year old son with the best and brightest future possible. He had committed to serving his country, and had enlisted as a Cadet at the age of 13. But at the age of only 24, his heart stopped beating, no pulse could be found in his wrist or neck. Despite the frantic efforts of six complete strangers to save Corporal Cirillo, he was pronounced dead, taking his last breaths atop the memorial, which he only moments before, proudly and ardently defended and protected, before being taken away on a blue-blanketed gurney.

Within minutes, Canadians around the world were sharing stories of a shooting on Parliament Hill in the Centre Block. Reports of a third shooting were also being circulated around the Byward Market and the Rideau Centre; they were quickly laid to rest. Canada, a country known for its extreme friendly mannerisms and always-apologetic antics, had been infiltrated and its image destroyed. Someone or something had attacked the heart of democracy and what it meant to be Canadian. And all within only three short minutes.

Before 9:52am on that sunny Wednesday morning, Corporal Cirillo was merely an unknown soldier. A man who wore a kilt, sporran, white spats, and a badge. He fit the mould of the infantry: physically fit, intelligent, and dedicated. And his charming good looks rarely went unnoticed. He played guitar, drank, and partied. He was an everyman and nothing out of the ordinary. But at 9:52am on October 22nd 2014, Corporal Cirillo became the Unknown Soldier. The epitome of war.

His death connected the past with the present, with the future. He was the victim of a violent, brazen crime, and one man’s inner mental turmoil – a war of the mind. There was no declaration, no rules of engagement, no just cause for this war. But his death was not without meaning. As he lay dying on the sarcophagus of the tomb, he embodied the remains of the Unknown Soldier, a symbol of war. As two bystanders frantically performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and chest compression after chest compression, while another held his legs in mid-air to slow bleeding from his chest and back, Corporal Cirillo transformed from the everyman, to the soldier of war, to the soldier of death.

And his death was public. Unlike the corpse beneath him, hidden under thick granite. Corporal Cirillo was slain, shot dead on a bustling street, busy with morning commute. His agony was televised and photographed. His suffering and final breaths were public. Unlike the corpse beneath him – who was he, how did he die, when did he die? The soldier in the tomb was from another time, a distant war, he was unrelatable. But Corporal Cirillo garnered attention. He had the spotlight. And he made a statement. His death did not go unnoticed.

He was murdered in Canada. Canada. The land of the free. The True North Strong. This wasn’t a distant, impoverished and third world country like Afghanistan. This wasn’t Korea. Japan. Germany. This was Canada, a country rarely stained from bloodshed. A country that had been disenchanted from the realities of war – that is until October 22nd 2014. Everything came flooding back: the tears, heartbreak, dismay, anger, and sadness. Canadians were reminded that their world was not safe. Their country was not impervious to war, hate, and violence. And Corporal Cirillo’s body was the trigger for that memory. Their remembrance.

Until October 22nd 2014, the memories of the 116,000 Canadians killed in combat from the Great War through to Afghanistan were neatly tucked away, hidden beneath the granite. Their identities, forgotten, only to be remembered on November 11th, a day of national mourning and remembrance. But on October 22nd 2014, as Corporal Cirillo’s chest heaved one last time, Canadians took note. Remembering shouldn’t be confined to just one day. Remembering shouldn’t be constrained to the rising and setting of the sun on November 11th. No, remembering should be a daily service. As a soldier so valiantly defends a position or bravely earns our freedoms, we should remember. As a soldier, dripping in zealous glory, ardently sacrifices his or her life, we must remember. After all, war is not confined to just one day a year. Nor is death.

Corporal Cirillo’s death was Canadians’ unwelcomed and uncomfortable reminder of the sacrifice of service men and women in the past, present, and in the future. His death was the unwelcomed and uncomfortable reminder of the wars raging on worldwide. His death was the unwelcomed and uncomfortable reminder that Canada is not safe, Canadians are not safe. Whether peacekeepers or peacemakers, blood will be shed, at home or abroad. His death was the unwelcomed and uncomfortable reminder that we must do more to support and respect those in uniform. His death brought the weight of military service and the ideal of devotion unto death back home.

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With the anniversary of Corporal Cirillo’s death looming, Canadians must ask, what has changed since October 22nd 2014? What has his death brought about?

One of the largest changes that have come from the murder of Corporal Cirillo is the federal government’s change to reservist benefits. Reservists, like Corporal Cirillo, are part-time members who provide assistance to Canadians, during times of catastrophes, including floods and severe weather, by creating supply lines, providing search and rescue efforts, sandbagging, among others. When injured in the line of duty, reservists only receive $24,300 annually in assistance for lost earnings, a dismal amount, and significantly less than a full-time regular Canadian Armed Forces member, who begin at $42,426 and increases by two percent annually. If killed in the line of duty, his or her family estate would receive $1.8 million less in benefits than his or her counterpart in the regular force, due to unequal payouts in supplementary death benefits, survivor benefits, and the earnings lost benefit.

Corporal Cirillo’s death, however, pushed forward the efforts of Veterans Affairs Canada, which were first addressed in Canadian Parliament in 2003, to ensure fair and equal treatment of Canada’s part-time employees in the Canadian Armed Forces. A soldier is a soldier after all, and there should be no discrepancy. Upon Corporal Cirillo’s death, the federal government bent pre-existing rules to allow his family, including his five-year old son, to receive substantial death benefits, equal to regular forces members. With public opinion stacked in staunch opposition against current legislation, which inhibited Corporal Cirillo’s family, including his now parentless son Marcus, to receive a proper payout, the federal government was forced to act, and to act appropriately and justly. But what about the 14 reservists killed in Afghanistan? Would policy bend for their families? Or was their death of lesser importance since they were not public, not televised, and did not happen on sacred and solemn Canadian grounds? What about the hundreds injured in the line of duty, whether working in Canada, or providing necessary services in the air, on land, or on water?

Thankfully, in March 2015, policy changed, granting reservists, past, present, and future, full benefits, equal to their full-time counterparts. Reservists are now entitled to the same injury and death benefit payout. And this provided additional coverage to the 14 families of those reservists killed in the line of duty in Afghanistan, as well as an additional 200 soldiers injured, including those living with an amputated limb, enrolled in rehabilitation programs.

Aside from the long over-due change in benefits for reservists, Corporal Cirillo’s death also unleashed a zealous band of support for the Canadian Armed Forces. The symbol of remembrance in Canada, the red poppy, underwent its largest campaign in 2014, immediately following Corporal Cirillo’s death. Support for service men and women had begun to falter at the turn of the twenty-first century and tip in favour against overseas peacekeeping and peacemaking missions and international intervention. However, with the death of Corporal Nathan Cirillo, coupled with the murder of Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent just two days before in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec, support for those in uniform sky rocketed. In 2013, 18 million red poppies were sold across Canada; in 2014, just four days before Remembrance Day, 19 million had already been sold, causing poppies to be in short demand across the nation. 2014 was the most success poppy campaign in the history of Canada since it was first sold in 1922. Poppies were also being worn earlier than in previous years, and donations for each poppy averaged between $10 – $50 apiece, with all proceeds going to support veterans.

With millions of Canadians now fully supporting and backing Canadian forces members, more supports were urged through public opinion to be put into place to better serve and protect members. The first service put into place, was an honour guard to guard the honour guard at the National War Memorial and Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Starting in April 2015, two Ottawa police officers began guarding, with loaded weapons, the sentry duty Canadian Armed Forces members, in hopes of preventing any such attack like that of October 22nd’s from happening again.

Yet, such services, like the newly arranged police officer honour guard, did nothing to protect the mental well-being of service men and women, directly affected by the October 22nd 2014 attack. No changes have been implemented in provincial or federal governments to address issues of mental health, arisen from tours of duty or those subjected to traumatic situations. Canadian Armed Forces members, and their families, are still very much unsupported and left to deal with traumas on their own terms. And while Canadians across the nation and others around the globe, still struggle at the sight of pictures from October 22nd 2014, showing the corpse of Corporal Cirillo lying in the shadows of the National War Memorial, we must ask, how are his fellow comrades, Corporals Button and Stevenson, who were on sentry duty alongside Corporal Cirillo on that fateful Wednesday morning, coping? How has that day forever scarred them, mentally and emotionally? And will there ever be enough supports for soldiers like Corporals Button and Stevenson, who have to relive such trauma day after day? What has to happen to bring about further sweeping change for those in the Canadian Armed Forces? How many have to give the ultimate sacrifice? How many have to die?

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