Charlottetown Bombing

Even for a symbolic act of violence it was a particularly cynical target - the tiny, perfect Prince Edward Island legislature in Charlottetown where the Fathers of Confederation once thrashed out the terms for the formation of Canada.

Charlottetown Bombing

Even for a symbolic act of violence it was a particularly cynical target - the tiny, perfect Prince Edward Island legislature in Charlottetown where the Fathers of Confederation once thrashed out the terms for the formation of Canada. The 152-year-old sandstone Province House, after all, is a magnet for tourists who stroll freely in and out of the building. And a class of visiting local high-school students had just left the premises at about 3:15 p.m. last Thursday when a powerful blast ripped through the structure. MLAs, who were on the verge of adjourning for the day, fell to the floor as glass and debris exploded into the legislative chamber. A cloud of thick smoke and the smell of gunpowder hung in the air while stunned and shaken politicians, staff and press gallery reporters hustled outside. There lay the sole casualty - Terrence Steele, 46, an unemployed local resident, according to police, who had been innocently enjoying the afternoon sunshine on a nearby bench, but was now being treated by ambulance attendants for a broken ankle and severed blood vessels caused by flying debris and glass.

Inside Province House, the legislature had just finished with Question Period when the terrifying blast brought the business of the day to a halt. A rush of air scattered shards of glass and debris on the floor of the legislature. Premier Catherine Callbeck was in a room next to the chamber when the explosion went off, but Speaker Nancy Guptill described how, after the blast, she and about a dozen others in the 32-seat chamber ducked under their desks and, fearing another, crept from the building. Provincial treasurer Wayne Cheverie, close to tears, said he was worried about his 15-year-old daughter, Joslin, who had been in the gallery visiting with her high-school class. "That was the first thing that went through my mind," Cheverie said. "I went downstairs but she and her class had already left, thank God." Also destroyed was the wooden wheelchair ramp into the building under which the bomb was hidden.

Clearly, the explosion shattered more than the calm of a Charlottetown spring afternoon. At the very least, the complex nature of the bomb - and the lack of police leads about who might have set it - raised unsettling questions about whether anyone is truly immune from acts of terrorism. And the blast also appeared to shake the psyche of a province that, in many places, still believes in its department of tourism image as an Atlantic paradise of pristine beaches, storybook farms and the smiling freckled face of Anne of Green Gables. "We tend to think we are immune," noted Craig McDowall, a criminologist and lecturer at the University of Prince Edward Island. "This is a wakeup call to let us know we've come of age."

Last week, though, Islanders seemed more interested in answers than self-examination. Eager to comply, local police and RCMP combed the legislature and its grounds for clues, while experts from Halifax and Ottawa examined the remnants of the high-powered pipe bomb, which police say was likely set off by a timed detonator and built-in power source. "Whoever built it had to know what they were doing," said Charlottetown police Const. Richard Collins. But even investigators working around the clock to hunt down leads and interview anyone who might be able to add a piece to the puzzle were stumped. By week's end no arrests had been made, and police admitted they had no real suspects. The bomber, police maintained, was almost certainly someone with a good grasp of the fundamentals of chemistry or, perhaps, a thorough knowledge of the use of explosives. They declined to discuss the bomb ingredients. Beyond that, even the experts seemed baffled by the question of why anyone would want to set off a bomb outside the smallest legislature in Canada.

Best bet, police say, was someone with a vendetta against Callbeck's Liberal government, which has been roundly criticized for some of the unpopular legislation it has passed in recent years. The Liberals took 31 of 32 seats in the Island's March, 1993, general election, but despite the lone Conservative voice in opposition, Callbeck has faced harsh criticism on several fronts. In fact, last May, Callbeck actually had to leave the legislature through a little-known secret exit when angry civil servants stormed Province House to protest wage cuts. But by week's end, the police had not ruled out another possibility: a copycat bomber who ignited the Charlottetown blast in a deranged attempt to mimic the bloodbath in Oklahoma City a day earlier. Declared Collins: "We're trying to rationalize an irrational act."

Even before the blast, it was clear that Charlottetown is not the paradise portrayed in tourist brochures. Police say that hard-drug use and violent crimes such as robbery and breaking and entering are on the rise. The city's most sensational trial, at the moment, involves two men charged with second-degree murder after allegedly strangling a middle-aged Charlottetown man in his apartment, apparently to steal prescription drugs.

Last week's bombing was not the first on the quiet island. In 1988, a bomb embedded in a large flower bed rocked the law courts building on the Charlottetown waterfront. The home of the provincial Supreme Court was empty at the time. No arrests were ever made. And the investigating team has reopened the file to see if the case bears any similarities to last week's blast.

In the meantime, authorities were taking precautions. House Speaker Guptill turned to police and RCMP for suggestions on how to prevent future attacks on Province House, where visitors circulate without security passes and there are none of the surveillance cameras common to other provincial legislatures.

Across the country, meanwhile, provincial legislatures beefed up their own security, and the House of Commons was reviewing its procedures in wake of the reminder from Charlottetown that tragedy can happen anywhere, anytime. Indeed, Canadian legislative buildings have not been immune from random acts of terror. In 1966, a man suspected of planning to throw a bomb onto the floor of the Commons blew himself up in a third-floor washroom, just off the public gallery, where he apparently was assembling the device. And in 1984, Canadian Forces Cpl. Denis Lortie, dressed in military fatigues, took over the Speaker's chair in the Quebec legislative chamber by force and, armed with a submachine-gun, killed three people and injured 13 others. Four years later, police shot and injured a man at the Alberta legislature after he had fired a gun blast into an elevator door.

Back in the streets of Charlottetown last week, citizens were reacting calmly. Typically, some said that Charlottetown was still safer than virtually any other city on the continent. Yet to some residents the events signalled nothing less than a loss of innocence. "It does not matter where you live," lamented Philip Hunter, 60, who recently moved to Charlottetown from the Toronto suburb of Mississauga. "Nobody is safe."

Maclean's May 1, 1995