What happened inside Parliament Hill during the Ottawa shooting: Q&A with Justin Ling

Justin Ling, a freelance journalist in the Parliamentary Press Gallery, was locked inside the cafeteria for hours after shots were fired on Parliament Hill last week. By Aeman Ansari, Reporter Justin Ling, a freelance journalist in the Parliamentary Press Gallery, was locked inside the cafeteria for hours after shots were fired on Parliament Hill last…

Justin Ling, a freelance journalist in the Parliamentary Press Gallery, was locked inside the cafeteria for hours after shots were fired on Parliament Hill last week.

By Aeman Ansari, Reporter

Justin Ling, a freelance journalist in the Parliamentary Press Gallery, was locked inside the cafeteria for hours after shots were fired on Parliament Hill last week. Ling spoke with J-Source about how events unfolded on Wednesday and how he covered them.

J-Source: Can you describe in detail your experience on the morning of the Ottawa shooting? Where were you when the shots were fired, and what happened inside the cafeteria during lockdown? 

Justin Ling: My normal walk to work is going through the Hall of Honour to the third floor where my office is. Then I come back down to the Hall of Honour, especially on Wednesdays to cover the caucus meetings. They MPs usually come out and do scrums. I had skipped breakfast that morning and I was heading to the centre block to get something to eat. I was walking into the cafeteria probably when he open fired in the centre block.

The line was too long in the cafeteria so I headed back towards the stairwell to go to my office. While I was going to my office, MP Jamie Nicholls jumped out into the stairwell and said that there was someone actively shooting in centre block and we need to get somewhere safe. Your initial thoughts are that someone is joking and this is a horrible prank. Then I saw a security guard bolting down the hallway and I realized this was the real thing. I ran back to the cafeteria and told everyone what was happening. We didn’t even lock the doors at first, we were all just stupefied. The security guard later came in frantically and told us there was still a shooter in the building. At this point the shooter was dead, but they were still operating under the assumption that there was more than one of them. We all headed to the back of the room, behind a wall, got very low and stayed quiet for a long time. My BlackBerry kept going off and I had to mute it. We were absolutely terrified and eventually the nervousness led to some laughter and giddiness. We heard loud bangs at one point—someone said it was gunshots—but we found out later that it was just officers breaking down doors. We spent a couple of hours just hiding behind walls or under counters. There were security guards with us who were unarmed. They picked up kitchen knives and were holding onto them the whole time. Around 11 o’clock, I felt we were safe enough and I was getting all these media calls. I would ask who it is, and it was CNN, ABC or another news organization asking me to go live right now and I would say sure. It was basically call after call of doing live hits for hours. It was pure chaos.

I got calls from radio talk shows in Toronto, Alberta and BC. I talked to organizations like the BBC, Sky News, MSNBC, TNN, CBS and even some American radio stations. I only spoke with a few TV stations like Australian Television. But I got very few calls from Canadian media. I have no idea why. I ended up filing copy for the National PostThe Guardian and MSNBC.

J-Source: Was it challenging to do your job when your life was potentially under threat?

JL: Not really. Once you start working in these scenarios, you put everything else aside. If you saw Josh Wingrove’s video, he wasn’t hiding. He ran out and started filming with his phone. What he did is braver than what I did. It’s the same instinct, though. You do your job and it doesn’t matter that there is a possible threat.

J-Source: How did the scene in the cafeteria change over time?

JL: It was long periods of nervous tension interspersed with seconds of absolute fear and occasional laughter. The weird thing is that people react very differently. Some people didn’t speak the whole time and they just sat there staring at the wall. Some of the kitchen staff were cracking jokes and laughing. At certain times you had to tell them to shut the hell up. It lightened the mood, though. There was a security guard there who was unarmed and every so often he would go around the room to ask people if they were OK. It was weirdly calming. Once they started moving people into the cafeteria, it turned into an office. There was a collection of MPs and Justin Trudeau having meetings. There were a bunch of people doing interviews all around the room. Kitchen staff got to work on putting some food together. Trudeau started working the room to allay fears and calm people down. I lost all track of time. I’ve been in that situation before when your adrenaline is just kind of fuelling you and you need to know what’s happening.

J-Source: In these sorts of situations there are two different views on whether journalists who are witnessing police activity should be reporting. It could be a potential safety threat because police locations can be revealed. At the same time, it’s really valuable for the public to know what’s happening. What is your view on this?

JL: If you’re not an idiot, it’s not a problem. Initially I had tweeted a location, then I realized I shouldn’t and didn’t from then on. Whenever I did media interviews, I said I was in an undisclosed location somewhere in the building. Some people thought they would geolocate us through our tweets and there is no real concern of that. There is so much public good that comes from telling the public what is happening. And more importantly, it keeps the people in the building who didn’t have a TV or access to a computer updated. If there were four or five shooters, that information would have been absolutely critical. Being able to say I saw the guy running down the hallway and giving people a chance to react is really important. You can’t tweet locations or police cars passing by, that’s just operational stuff, but overall everyone behaved pretty responsibly. The coverage I saw was really good.

J-Source: There has been some discussion among the media about whether the term “terrorism” should be used for this incident considering that we didn’t know if the motives of the attacker were political. What is your view on this?

JL: I have had this debate with a couple of other reporters and I hate it. I hate the petty word play associated with whether something is or is not a terrorist attack. The fact is the propaganda machine of ISIS radicalized otherwise vulnerable and destabilized Canadians into committing acts of terror. They initially acted like vessels for this ideology and resulted in events that would not happen otherwise. The discussion of deciding where it falls is insufferable. It was a terrorist attack. It was aimed at terrorizing people. It was aimed at inflicting damage. It was aimed at hurting Canadian Forces members that represent the country. Just call it a terrorist attack.

J-Source: Has covering this incident better prepared you to cover breaking news or changed your approach to reporting?

JL: It hasn’t significantly changed anything for me. I have covered breaking news before like the student strikes in Montreal and I have lots of memories of that. I have been arrested, I have been beaten up and I have run from the cops/to the cops. This for me was just another breaking news event, other than the fact that we thought we were in mortal danger. This was just a situation where you have to sit down, learn the facts and report them as you know them best. This doesn’t change anything besides the fact that I will have a headache getting to the office every day now.

J-Source: What did you do as soon as the lockdown ended and you got to leave?

JL: I quit smoking a year ago, but the first thing I did when I got out was I had a cigarette. I then headed to where the TV crews were set up around 10 p.m. After that, I popped into a hotel to do radio hits with a station in Montreal and multiple TV stand-ups. Then I went into a bar and had a big glass of whiskey and a couple of beers. When I went back to the hotel, I did some more stand-ups. I made it home by 2 a.m. and continued to do BBC interviews and I managed an hour and a half of sleep. The following day I woke up, did more BBC interviews and throughout the day I was doing stand-ups for MSNBC, filing copy for The Guardian and doing radio hits. I didn’t get a full night’s sleep until midnight that night when I slept for 12 hours and then went back to work to start filing news.

This interview was edited and condensed.