Apocalypse now, Canadians fear
By ALANNA MITCHELL, The Globe and Mail
With reports from André Picard in Montreal, Rod Mickleburgh; in Vancouver, Daniel Leblanc in Ottawa, Kevin Cox in Halifax,; Dawn Walton in Calgary and John Barber in Toronto.
Wednesday, September 12, 2001
As people across Canada stood in shock and watched the terrorist chaos unfold in the United States yesterday, the words on their lips were stark: Conscription. A Third World War. No escape.
"This is our generation's Great War," said David McLean, 45, a researcher at KPMG Inc., who was waiting in downtown Toronto for a bus to take him home to nearby Georgetown. It was only midday but tens of thousands of employees already had abandoned their desks in an exodus from the city's core-area office towers.
Fear of the unknown -- and the fear that more devastation was to come -- became so powerful that many people simply stood rooted in front of any available television set or radio to glean information.
Some said they were afraid the terrorist attacks would spill over into Canada. In this era of globalization and tight ties to the United States, they said, whatever happens there may very well happen here as well.
"My mother called me and said: 'It's the start of World War Three,' " said Carol Hutchison, 46, a law clerk who works in the ScotiaPlaza bank tower and was among a throng of people at Union Station scrambling to find a way home. "It's another Pearl Harbor."
Her colleague Anne Gale, 34, said that all bets about how life will carry on are now off. "Anything's possible," she said.
Yasmin Hanidi, 44, couldn't hold back the tears. She is Muslim and was anxiously watching television in a deserted downtown Toronto mall for news of who would take responsibility for the attacks. Her sister and brother-in-law, both Muslim and doctors in New York City, had been called to the emergency wards to help out.
"You feel so scared," she said. "We can pray that the U.S. doesn't start a bloodbath. From poor to rich, everyone is going to be affected for 20 years."
She was angry, too. "We come from Third World countries for the sake of our children. And now we find we can't escape anywhere in the world today."
Even a generation accustomed to watching war on television couldn't quite believe what it was seeing.
Theresa Wiktorski of Winnipeg, who was visiting Ottawa, said she wondered at first whether it was all a media prank, like the famous Orson Wells radio program that caused such a panic in 1938. "This is like The War of the Worlds," she said. "I don't know what's true."
Other Canadians needed to see it on television in order to believe it.
Erica Coultas of St. John's was left looking for overnight accommodation after her transatlantic flight home from London wound up in Halifax.
"We heard about it right when we landed, and that was good because we didn't have time to worry about it," she said. "We saw all the planes on the runway and all the people and we didn't know what was going on. Until you walk in and see it on television, you don't think that it's as bad as it is."
Randall Bennington of Porter's Lake, N.S., heard about the tragedy when he came to pick up a friend at Halifax airport. "My heart just went to my throat and I didn't know what to think. Then I went and saw it on television. My God, it's horrible."
Across the nation in downtown Vancouver, people gathered en masse on sidewalks to watch television, with looks of horror on their faces. Some gasped audibly as replays showed both World Trade Center towers collapsing.
Callers to the city's famed radio hot-line shows were emotional. "To see all those people running for their lives, all that fire and explosions," said one. "My mother said it was like the Blitz in London in World War Two."
In Calgary, people focused on what they could do to help. The city's blood service was flooded with calls from would-be donors wanting to supply U.S. hospitals.
Other residents offered to open their homes to airline passengers diverted through Calgary. The city said this wasn't necessary, and found beds for the 2,000 people who needed them.
Owen Taylor, a Canadian computer trainer who lives a few blocks away from the World Trade Center in New York, said the attacks have made him seriously rethink his decision to live south of the border.
He was working yesterday in Montreal and panicked trying to get information about his family. Finally he learned -- secondhand -- that his wife and 3-year-old son were safe. However, he didn't know where they'd been taken, and he felt stranded with airports shut down and car rental agencies refusing to rent to clients planning to cross the border.
"It's a lot worse watching it on TV that it would be being there," he said.
Taylor said his family considered leaving New York City after the first World Trade Centre bombing in 1993. "I think maybe now it's time to leave. You feel too vulnerable."
Part of the horror was the fact that the attackers were faceless and nameless. People simply didn't know who was to blame, what they wanted or what other evil they had in store. They said the onslaught drove home for Canadians yet again the realization that their fate is inextricably linked with that of the United States.
David Ferguson, 49, is a commercial underwriter in Toronto for America International Group, the largest insurance company in North America and a symbol of the global economy. Some of his New York colleagues, he said, were in their offices in the World Trade Centre yesterday morning. He didn't know their fate. No one from his office could reach them by phone, and their cross-border computer system had crashed.
"You could say it doesn't affect us directly, but it does," Ferguson said as he stood on Front Street and flinched at the TV coverage of the World Trade Centre's collapse.
"The U.S. and Canada have had a symbiotic relationship for so many years. This is like something happening to a member of the family."
To prove his point, he gestured toward Toronto's financial district, which stood eerily empty at noonhour. Courts were adjourned. City hall had been evacuated briefly, and tours of the CN Tower delayed indefinitely. Shopping malls in the maze underlying the country's most powerful bank towers had ground to a halt as workers fled to safety.
"A lot of us," Ferguson added, "feel great fear for what the aftermath will be."
Lynda Rouse, 45, was one of the thousands sent home from her job at the headquarters building of the Bank of Montreal. She said the worst part for her was fearing that her 23-year-old son, a student at the University of Guelph, may end up being conscripted. "I'm worried, if this escalates into a full-scale war, our young people will have to become involved," she said.
As well, though, she was coming to terms with the very idea that a war could be fought on North American soil. "It's scary to feel it can come here. Our country could become involved and be targeted. It's like a domino effect."
For older Canadians, the scenes of terror brought back some very unpleasant memories.
Doris Krzak, 72, came to Canada seeking a peaceful existence after surviving the Second World War in Germany. Yesterday, as she and some German friends were turned away from the CN Tower, she could only wring her hands in dismay, and say: "Oh, dear. Oh, dear. Oh, dear."
Jean-Guy Dionne, 37, of Newmarket, Ont., was thinking of war, too. "How," he asked, "did World War One start? And World War Two? They started with small things. And this is much bigger than a small thing."
Among many, though, there was the sense that nothing can be the same.
"It's definitely going to change the way we live," said Terry Langdon of suburban Brampton, who went to the CBC headquarters on Front Street to watch the footage.
Just down the block, one distraught woman summed up everything. "Very evil," she commented, as commuters rushed by on their way home. "Very evil."