My husband and I are certifiable news junkies. Every day we sit in the same room together, reading articles on our devices from around the world. We keep picking up our devices to check to see if something new has happened somewhere. But we never expect to read about our own town except in our local paper. Our beautiful, peaceful town in eastern Canada – Fredericton, New Brunswick – falls beneath the radar even in Canadian news nearly all the time. Even when our university hockey team wins the Canadian University men’s hockey championship year after year – Canada’s national sport – there doesn’t seem to be a lot of uptake in the national news. After all, we’re not Montreal, Toronto, or Vancouver, so it’s not really newsworthy. Probably just a fluke that we won again; it’ll pass. But when tragedy strikes, that’s another story altogether. Sadly, that’s very much on everyone’s radar.
We awoke last Friday morning to reports of a shooting on the “north side” of our town. (The “north side” refers to the north side of the beautiful Saint John River, which flows through the middle of our town.) There were no details yet, but it seemed that there were four people dead from a shooter. This is something that simply never happens here, but then again, as we have come to appreciate, the reality is that it can happen anywhere.
Suddenly, Fredericton was very much in the national news. Not only that, we were headlines in CNN, the Washington Post, the New York Times, Fox, BBC, the Guardian, and everywhere else we read our news. Wow, Fredericton, NB featured in international news! But we didn’t make the news for our rich indigenous, Acadian, and Loyalist history. We didn’t make the news for the beauty of our town and its surroundings, for our wonderful recreational facilities and trail systems, allowing us to walk, run, and ride bikes for miles along the river and through the woods for miles and miles all year round. We didn’t make the news because of our four institutions of higher learning, including my own university, the University of New Brunswick (UNB), Canada’s oldest English-speaking university and the first public university in North America. No, we were in the news because we had had a mass shooting. We had joined that very, very unpopular but growing club.
As the day went by, we learned that two of the four victims were police officers, shot when responding to the call of a shooting. That was hard to wrap one’s head around, suddenly being confronted with the hard reality of what risks our police officers take on our behalf every time they go to work. There was to be a press conference at 3:30 that afternoon to provide more details. We turned the TV on and waited. The press conference eventually started around 4:15. Our mayor looked shell-shocked. So did our chief of police. This is a small town of 60,000+; the degrees of separation are few. And people really care. The spokesperson read out the names. The very first name read felt like a knife going through me; it was the wife of someone I’ve known and admired for 30 years. Constable Sara Mae Burns was a very proud and caring police officer, serving her community in a role she took very seriously and carried out with great compassion. Fulfilling her dream. She happened to go out on that call before ending her night shift in order to help her colleague. And that was that.
I’ve known Constable Burns’ husband ever since he entered UNB after high school to study computer science. He and his wife are both stellar individuals, remarkably community-minded and heavily involved in their three sons’ many sporting activities. Steve Burns is the same person I mentioned in a relatively recent blog, Bucket lists, quests, and meaning in life, when he and a buddy raised $130,000 for a local charity that supports victims of domestic violence by walking the equivalent of a marathon a day for a week. This man will undoubtedly continue to make significant contributions to our community, while successfully running his business and nurturing their three sons, but he will do it without his soul mate. His life will never be the same again.
Of course, the families of the shooter’s three other victims are left with the same gaping wounds. I mention this one victim because of familiarity, but someone else could write similar words about the other three victims. And, as we all know, there are many tragedies throughout life. Life is not fair. There are times when life seems impossibly unfair for some people, perhaps due to illness, accident, natural disaster, or some form of social injustice. Knowing that doesn’t make it any easier, but maybe it can help remind us that sometimes there simply are no answers. We have to understand what happened, determine what might be able to be done to prevent it from happening in the future, and then accept and move on. Easier said than done, but important to keep reminding ourselves of. It was Steve Burns, in the midst of grieving for his wife, who advised the huge audience of first responders at yesterday’s regimental funeral, “Don’t burden yourself with the why, because you won’t find the answer. When it’s your time, it is your time. … And never, never lay blame.”
This advice, so wise and so meaningful, and coming from the grieving widower of one of the fallen police officers, is important for us all and especially for the hundreds upon hundreds of police officers and other first responders to whom it was aimed. The many uniformed responders who filled our large university hockey arena need to feel the strength of the community support and need to be encouraged to park any feelings of guilt or blame. I hope they can all hear these words of support again and again. Once isn’t enough.
Our community has come together to support our police force; we hope they feel it and that it helps them deal with their own grief. We all only wish that there could have been some less traumatic event to have reminded us of the personal risks our police and other first responders take every day on our behalf in making sure that our community is peaceful and safe.
Fredericton made it into world headlines because of a terrible, terrible, senseless act which took four lives, including two police officers. It would be nice if Fredericton could also make the world news for the ways in which a community can work together to sooth grief and promote healing. Of course, these kinds of things don’t make the news, but that’s a shame. They should. We all need as much help as possible in learning to cope.
Constable Sara Mae Burns
Constable Robb Costello
Bobbie Lee Wright
Thousands join hands along the trails lining both sides of the riverfront and across two bridges in the Hands & Hearts Across the City event, with 3 minutes of silence at 7:30 p.m.:
Lining up to pay condolences:
Regimental parade on August 18, rainy and cool, first such day all summer:
Regimental Funeral, August 18, UNB Aitken Centre:
Images: CBC News, CTV News, Ellen TS Photography