In the early hours of last Tuesday, following the end of classes celebration known as Bermuda Shorts Day, Matt De Grood, a University of Calgary graduate recently accepted into the school’s law program, arrived at a party and fatally stabbed five students. He was sober, having come straight from his job at a nearby grocery store. He was an invited guest. And though he’d brought his own weapon, described as “an instrument” by police, De Grood carried out the attacks with a knife he found in the house’s kitchen. Three died immediately. The other boy and the only girl died in hospital a few hours later. De Grood, having fled the scene, was chased down and apprehended within the hour by a police dog.
As Calgary awoke, hungover, face painted and oblivious, the news filtered across Facebook feeds and Twitter, hitting with a heavy stomached sickening. Calgary is a city which, for its million citizens, never shed that uniquely North American small town feeling, and it had just been dealt “the worst mass murder” in its hundred and fifty year history. And the perpetrator was a sober law student.
Calgary is The Town that Oil Built, and for the petroleum-illiterate, the province of Alberta (10 provinces, 2 territories) contains 96% of Canada’s oil and gas. Most of it is eight hours North, in the slushy lucre of Fort “Mac” McMurray, oilsands where riggers and toolpushers earn an easy six figures hauling the black stuff out of the ground. But operations, spending and decompression seem to trickle down to Calgary, where all persons oil spend their 3 days off.
For those who don’t ski or snowboard, the city of Calgary hasn’t much to offer, and unless looking for oil, one would be forgiven for skipping from Vancouver to Winnipeg. It’s fair to say that most people here have a purpose, and it’s fair to say that mine was meant to lead me to Toronto. I came to Calgary as part of an exchange program, relishing the chance to spend the year, without VISA or employment worries, in a big North American town. I prayed for Toronto, and landed in Cowtown, where I’ve been living since August, the 3rd of my 4 years reading English Literature at the University of Glasgow.
Between the resource extraction and the minus thirty winters, Calgary is a town characterized by a physicality which this Londoner had never encountered. Even by Canadian standards, Calgary is rugged, and it’s fair to say it isn’t at home to the conceptual, the political, or the artistic. The tiny English department I attached myself to bobs happily in a sea of engineering, and our inaugural film festival was woefully under-attended. Perhaps the punters were at a Flames hockey match, or cheering on the Calgary Fillies in Canada’s Lingerie Football League.
Likely the case with all local murders, quickly our horror turned to prurience. A morbid speculation emerged, surrounding first the identities of the victims and their killer, none of which had been released. Drip fed titbits by the starved media, the details that surfaced prompted more questions, rather than offering resolution. Was it true the suspect’s father was a cop? What could possibly prompt a boy of twenty two to commit so visceral a murder as stabbing, and not once, but five times? Friends, no less, who’d invited him to their house and wanted to celebrate with him? And most pressing, how had he managed to stab, one by one, five people without being apprehended, before making off into the night, bloody and on foot, headed God knows where?
I wasn’t alone in my curiosity. I watched as “Calgary Stabbings” overtook “Calgary Stampede” on search engines, and Mayor Nenshi assured us that our prurience was “only natural…only human”, as he appeared at a campus vigil. Recognizable from flood-era photos, grinning in wellies and poncho, Naheed Nenshi was summoned from City Hall to pick up the pieces. He barreled into the room with his usual charisma, but I saw him falter, and it took an aide to indicate, discreetly, the grieving mother of one of the boys, before he could scoop her in a bear hug. She disappeared beneath pinstripes and a bald patch, and I began to weep. So did the man next to me, Where the Wild Things Are tattoo sleeves heaving.
Mayor Nenshi followed the University President and two chaplains onto the podium, a burning candle projected on the screen behind him. He didn’t speak for long, from a spot generally reserved for oil executives and function compares, assuring us that we would get past this tragedy. A handful of cameras flashed, and the air was heavy with the word “community”. The dog that savaged De Grood has been wheeled out for the day, and lay curled and bored at its handler’s boots. I hope this wasn’t Nenshi’s idea.
Like Alpha Piper, or the July 7 bombings, nobody is distant from the events. This is mathematical. Take five undergrads from a pool of twenty five thousand, and you’ll never be more than a few people away. An older friend played a set with Zachariah and the Prophets, the band that Zachariah Rathwell and Josh Hunter played in, just weeks ago. A girl whose project I was assigned to in my first semester graduated high school with one of the boys. But there is another side. And this was something Nenshi, for political reasons, perhaps, or his suit still creased from that brave woman’s embrace, hadn’t felt able to voice.
For every five who knew one of the victims, there is one who knew their killer. One who, if not friends as such, has an identity to assign him. A memory, an anecdote, an image beyond the same three or four Facebook photos, plucked and dragged onto the news websites that refresh themselves on the hour. It was Raphael Jacob, the President of the Students Union who brought this solace, and addressed the elephant in the room. You have no reason to be ashamed, or to feel guilty, Raphael assured any of De Grood’s friends amongst the grieving. And it needed to be said.
Comatose students and citizens drifted out, and I saw the dog had fallen asleep. Some stooped to sign the flag. Canadian, mind. This is a nation unused to this sort of violence. Canada’s history is as bloody as any ex-colony’s, but there have been no Dunblanes, no Columbines. Gun crime isn’t really something that happens here, nor terrorism outside of Quebec.
I suppose the vigil brings a closure of sorts. The names, the timeline, the detail of the two knives, all slot into place, and we have a story. But there is no meaning. These events haven’t been tied together by explanation, or understanding. We know the order, but not the reasoning. We’ve learnt how De Grood killed those poor students after spending the day celebrating the end of the school year, but will we ever know why? No answer emerges from a dredging of his Facebook profile for photos and ideology, though speculation clings to a lyric he posted a few days before the act.
Dread and the fugitive mind- the world needs a hero.
A gobbet from the world needs a hero by American thrash metal band Megadeth.
There are no real answers though, and no solace to the 10 parents, or De Groode’s own family. His father, a 33 year veteran of the Calgary Police force, expressed horror stricken condolences to the families from behind short lived anonymity. But Calgary isn’t a big enough town for him to be anything other than the father of “The Bermuda Shorts Day Killer”.
Individually, those touched by Tuesday’s massacre will never recover. But the blow which seemed at first to strike the town itself, and the university which lost six students to an unexplained shambles? When an institution feels a tragedy as violently as Calgary University took the Bermuda Shorts Day Massacre, how does it ever move past it? How does a body so large progress through the grieving process?
“We’re going to get through this” says Nenshi, “It’s what we do”.