Published in the National Post of May 18, 2016
As a dyed-in-the-wool political junkie at a relatively young age, I frequently sat in the parliamentary debates during the tumultuous Pearson-Diefenbaker years of the 1960’s. Most of their nose-to-nose exchanges were unforgettable, to say the least. John Diefenbaker, “his eyes blazing and his finger stabbing the air,” was surely the more colourful of the two, but ‘Mike’ Pearson certainly had his moments as well.
As I look back on it now (it was after all a half a century ago), it was not particularly difficult to enter the Parliament Buildings at the time. In fact, I think you basically ambled into the edifice relatively unhindered, made your way to the third floor of the historic structure and then picked the gallery in the House of Commons from which you wanted to watch the parliamentary deliberations.
Essentially, there were two possibilities, at the time, from which to choose – the Ladies’ Gallery at the south end of the ornate chamber and the General Gallery at the north end, immediately behind the Speaker’s Chair. Of course, there were also two other somewhat lower sitting areas called Members’ Galleries, for which, in order to access them, you were required to have a special pass from a Member of Parliament. Notwithstanding that minor restriction, basically anyone could walk in off the street and take in the daily proceedings. It was indeed astonishingly easy to assist in this fashion, in what was then popularly called the ‘Nation’s Business.’
Sadly, all that changed, in one afternoon, on Wednesday, May 18, 1966 – fifty years ago today.
On that horrific day, a few minutes before 3:00 P.M., an emotionally unstable Paul-Joseph Chartier, 45, accidentally blew himself up in a third floor washroom, just opposite an entrance to the Ladies’ Gallery. Only moments earlier, a visibly agitated Chartier had been seated in that same gallery, all the while inwardly planning his folly.
In reality, his do-it-yourself bomb was meant for the floor of the House of Commons, and definitely not purposed to end his own life in a toilet of the legislature. His plan boomeranged, and his demise occurred as the result of a fatal miscalculation about how long it would take for the wick to burn down before consequentially setting off its attached dynamite.
The House met at 2:30 that day and was engaged in fairly routine business, this time focused on the Seafarers’ International Union. John Robert Nicholson, the Minister of Labour, was speaking, when, as ‘Hansard’ later transcribed it, “at this point, a loud explosion was heard in the chamber.” Unaware of the cause of the blast, Nicholson continued with his remarks.
Only a few moments later, Frank Howard, M.P. for Skeena, rose on a question of privilege “to indicate that a page boy has just come in with a request that all doctors in the House now go outside, as their services are needed immediately.”
At 3:05 P.M., at the urging of the Leader of the Opposition, John Diefenbaker, Prime Minister Pearson suggested that the House adjourn until 4:00 o’clock in order to better assess the situation. Said Pearson: “It appears that there was a bomb explosion in the washroom at this end of the third floor and that a man has been killed, under circumstances that are not quite clear.”
When the Commons resumed its sitting 55 minutes later, it was still not apparent exactly what had happened. “I have no statement to make at this time, Mr. Speaker,” said Solicitor General Larry Pennell. “I understand that the R.C.M.P., and the Ottawa city police are co-operating in this.”
One of the first on the scene of the incident, Dr. Hugh Horner, Member of Parliament for Jasper-Edson, pronounced the Alberta-born Chartier dead in the heavily-damaged lavatory, and only steps away from the Prime Minister’s Office. One of Chartier’s arms had been ripped off by the force of the blast and his abdomen torn open. His battered remains were removed from Parliament Hill within a couple of hours of the occurrence, while the authorities continued to study the extremely gory crime scene in Ottawa as well as Chartier’s rented room in a Toronto boarding house.
As it turned out, there were so many issues eating away at the unhappy man that he had just weeks earlier written to the Clerk of the House of Commons, Leon Raymond, requesting time to address the body from the floor of the chamber. Raymond had little choice but to refuse his plea.
The incident did little to discourage Canadians from visiting the federal Parliament Buildings in Ottawa. In fact, on Victoria Day Weekend in 1966, only days after Chartier’s violent death, some 25,000 sightseers explored the edifice, with its celebrated Gothic Revival architecture.
With the passage of time, it became increasingly clear that the marred bombing was purely the forlorn act of a highly disturbed individual; an act that, nevertheless, fully exposed the significant shortcomings of the protection network in place at Parliament Hill at the time. That this was in fact the situation was all the more surprising in light of the frequent and nefarious activities of the Front de libération du Québec in the 1960’s.
Nowadays, however, in deeply troubled world, with potential threats emanating from a little bit everywhere, the requisite security in Ottawa is much tighter around all government property, a reality that was only strengthened by the equally deplorable events of October 22, 2014.
As we remember today the fiftieth anniversary of an appalling and pointless deed on Parliament Hill, we can only feel contrite about the beginning of a certain loss of innocence that started to crystallize with that event, now so long ago.
327S near both the pmo and the ex.aff off
It was a Wednesday, May 18 around …………..
Bomb assembled at his home in Toronto was hidden under his coat. It had to be manually activated by him in toilet 327S, Chartier, 45, was going to toss the bomb composed of ten sticks of dynamite onto to the floor of the house of commons. More dynamite was later found in his Toronto flat by the rcmp, along with two other bombs that he had made.
On his badly mutilated body was found two contradictory identity cards, along with a card indicating than he was being treated in a psychiatric ward of a Toronto hospital. Personal writings found in his Toronto flat also pointed in the direction of mental illness, and that he had the intention of throwing the bomb on to the floor of the house with intention to “exterminate as many members as possible.” (National Post, October 22, 2014)
He is believed to have spent the night of may 17-18 in the Ottawa ymca
He did not seem to have been after anyone in particular rather politicians in general
A bit of a drifter but at the end he was an unemployed Toronto area security card
The toilet was not far from the Prime Minister’s Office and that of the External Affairs Minister