I sat in the back of the car, straining to hear the conversation between my husband and the real estate agent.
“There really are no bad schools in this entire city,” the agent said, guiding the car slowly through the streets of Waterloo, Ontario. He was giving us a tour of our new home.
“There aren’t the same kinds of guns, drugs, and gang violence like you’ve experienced down in the States.”
I had to chuckle at his assumptions about the kinds of schools we were leaving behind in rural Pennsylvania, but I kept my mouth shut and listened as he continued.
“In fact, we only just started locking school doors last year. Not because we’ve had any threats — mostly because of everything going on in the States.”
This last statement struck me. While I wouldn’t say we came from a drug-infested, gang-run school district in south central Pennsylvania, we had been locking our school doors for years. And my eight-year-old Noelle’s stories of running school drills in case of an intruder were old hat.
“So are there any neighborhoods we should avoid?” Dwayne asked.
“A few. There are a couple where you wouldn’t want to make people mad,” the agent said.
Half-joking, I asked, “Why? Will you get shot?”
I spoke before I thought. Of course we wouldn’t get shot. Gun laws are different in Canada. I knew that vaguely in the moment, but didn’t yet know the specifics — how there is no legal right to own guns, or that it takes sixty days to buy a firearm, or that gun licensing is mandatory.
Every gun owner in Canada has to undergo a safety training course, and pass a mental, criminal, and addiction background check. For example, if you have any history of domestic violence, you are not allowed to own a gun.
Back in the car, the real estate agent put my comment in context.
“No — the worst that would happen is that someone would yell at you.”
Right then, something shifted for me. The surface of this new home broke open and I suddenly saw beneath the cultural crust. In so many ways, Ontario feels not much different than Pennsylvania: rolling farmland, horse-and-buggy Mennonites, world-class cities in driving distance. But it would be a mistake to assume that the fabric of our new home was cast with the same weft and weave as our old.
I had not realized how much the presence of guns had quietly marked my psyche in the States, the news stories streaming through my sub-conscious, the numbers ticking up and up and up: 153 school shootings since 2013.
Sandy Hook happened the winter Noelle started pre-Kindergarten and it would be a lie to say the images of a gunman barging into our sleepy Montessori school didn’t haunt me every day that I dropped her off. I had pushed these images away and told myself not to overreact. What were the odds, really? Statistically very low.
As the weeks have worn on in our new home here in Ontario, I’ve noticed, in subtle but clear ways, the absence of gun violence in places of education.
We moved here because my Canadian-born husband got a job in the residence life department at a university in Waterloo. Because of his work in higher ed administration, he deals with the mental health and assault issues that come up throughout the year.
Not one week into the fall semester they had their first assault. A man, perched in his fourth floor apartment on the outskirts of campus, was shooting at students passing by with a BB gun.
Tragically, he hit a young woman in the eye and blinded her.
When the police closed in on him, he shot at them with his pellets. Eventually, the officers backed off, saying, "Okay, we’ll get him another way."
Dwayne and I couldn’t help but note how differently this situation could have gone.
I was initially relieved that whatever other issues this young man clearly had, he didn’t also have access to assault weapons. The fact that I even felt this relief bothered me. Was I that jaded by living in the States, that I couldn’t feel the proper portion of empathy for this woman’s loss of her sight?
And Dwayne marveled at how differently the Canadian police handled the situation. “Can you imagine if that kid shot at American police?”
I have tried in the weeks since this incident on campus to put my finger on just why I feel safer here and if I really should allow myself that portion of relief. Certainly guns exist in Canada. There are 23.8 firearms per 100 people in this country. And there have been school shootings, although only 2 since 2013, and no children were injured.
I wrestle with myself. I feel safer. Yet am I naive? Am I romanticizing things in our new country?
In the end, we didn’t choose a house in the sprawling metropolis that is Waterloo. We took a home in a small rural town just outside the city. It reminds me of rural Pennsylvania: quaint, quiet, with lots of room for the kids to run and play. We can walk to school, the library, and the downtown shops. Kids run our streets playing ball hockey, riding bikes — all unattended by adults.
My friends in this town groan about the fact that due to the new practice of locking school doors, they can’t walk their kids all the way into the building anymore.
“I miss being able to help Olivia take off her coat, hang up her bag, and get her ready for class,” Kirsten tells me.
I nod respectfully, but I’ve never gotten to know what they’re now missing.
I want to be smart about my relief. I know there are certainly many ways my children can get hurt, even here. Still, I’m so grateful that my friends don’t know what I’m missing from life down in the States. I’m so glad that when I drop Noelle and Nathan off at the school doors each morning, I leave un-haunted.