Woman who comforted Cpl. Nathan Cirillo urges Canadians to be brave every day in small ways

Four years after the Parliament Hill shooting, Barbara Winters says she still thinks about Cpl. Nathan Cirillo every day.

Barbara Winters was by soldier's side during Parliament Hill attack

Barbara Winters, an Ottawa lawyer, had just stopped to snap a photo of the honour guards at the National War Memorial a few minutes before the sound of gunfire rang out on Oct. 22, 2014. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)
Listen26:04

Read Story Transcript

It's been four years since Barbara Winters comforted Cpl. Nathan Cirillo as he lay dying from gunshot wounds at the foot of the National War Memorial in Ottawa — but she still thinks about him every day.

The 24-year-old reservist from Hamilton, Ont., was gunned down while serving as an honour guard at the cenotaph on Oct. 22, 2014. The gunman was later killed in a shootout with security staff on Parliament Hill. 

"There's not a day that goes by that I don't remember Nathan or the situation or what I've gone through or what others have gone through," Winters told As It Happens host Carol Off ahead of Monday's anniversary. 

"It's difficult to watch news. It's difficult to watch other terrorist attacks, either in Canada or abroad."

Comforting a dying soldier: An animation of Nathan Cirillo's final moments 

The last thing Cpl. Nathan Cirillo likely heard before he died from a gunshot wound on Parliament Hill on Oct. 22, 2014, was the voice of Barbara Winters telling him he was good, brave and loved. Winters told As It Happens host Carol Off about his final moments. (Animation by Ben Shannon) 3:15

'I told him he was loved'

Winters, an Ottawa lawyer, was walking to a meeting that fateful morning four years ago.

She had just stopped to snap a photo of the honour guards at the cenotaph a few minutes before the sound of gunfire rang out.

While those around her ran away, Winters, a former naval reservist, turned and ran toward it.

She was one of six people who came to the dying soldier's aid along with nurse Margaret Lerhe, bureaucrat Martin Magnan and soldiers Col. Conrad Mialkowski, Cpl. Kyle Button and Cpl. Anthony Wiseman.

While Lerhe and the others staunched Cirillo's wounds and tried to save him, Winters held his hand and spoke words of comfort.

"I told him he was loved and that he was brave and that he was a good man," Winters told Off four years ago, shortly after the shooting. 

The following year, all six Good Samaritans were awarded the St. John Ambulance Service's gold Life Saving Medal. They have also been recognized by the Governor General and the Department of National Defence for their bravery. 

'Nothing else in the world'

The first few minutes after the shooting were eerily quiet, Winters said. Most people had fled in fear and first responders had not yet arrived.

"Slowly, it built up in terms of noise, in terms of chaos, in terms of yelling or panic and as the minutes ticked by and the help wasn't coming, I think that those voices got louder," she said. 

"I remember thinking: He can hear this. He can hear this and that's not what he needs to hear."

Cpl. Nathan Cirillo was serving as an honour guard at the memorial when he was shot and killed. (Facebook/Canadian Press)

Even as the crowd ballooned around them — journalists, photographers, tourists snapping photos — Winters and the others remained focus on the task at hand.

"I can't describe it in any other way other than to say that in those minutes, there was nothing else in the world but that man and what he was going through," she said.

"And there was nothing else in the world but to try and save his life and to try and provide comfort through words and gestures — and that's a very rare moment."

There are moments when we need to stand up for somebody.- Barbara Winters, lawyer 

When she got home later that day, Winters said she immediately went to the bathroom and threw up. 

She said she felt "broken" and sick to her stomach, as if she'd been "slammed into a wall at high speed."

To this day, she said she still feels that way a lot of the time, but takes comfort knowing she's not alone. 

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, Winters dismissed the idea that she did anything out of the ordinary, telling As It Happens that it's "human nature to run toward somebody to help them."

These days, she says she's not so sure.

"It's very probable that any individual will not run to help, and we know that because we see the pictures," she said, referencing the recent mass shooting and van attack in Toronto. 

"We see the pictures of people fleeing. We see the pictures of people callously walking by others. We see the pictures of people photographing and filming with their iPhones in some sort of perverted idea that that's an appropriate action rather than helping the person who need the help."

The six people who tried to keep Cirillo alive are, Margaret Lerhe, front left, Martin Magnan, Barbara Winters, Cpl. Kyle Button, back left, Col. Conrad Mialkowski and Cpl. Anthony Wiseman. (Cpl. Philippe Archambault/National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces)

But she hasn't grown pessimistic. Rather, she said she's come to believe that selflessness is something we need to practice every day. 

"We often hear how we should stand up for our rights and how we should be empowered and I think that that's all true — but there are moments when we need to stand up for somebody who is vulnerable or somebody that is not yourself," she said.

"It's OK to call out bad behaviour and it's important to call out bad behaviour when you're not being affected, because you need to let society know — people need to know — that it's not all self-interest."

It's those traits — compassion, sacrifice and selflessness — that Winters says should should be held up as the epitome of Canadian values.

When she dies, she said she hopes to be remembered as "a good Canadian."

"I believe Canadians are kind. I believe Canadians sacrifice. I believe Canadians are good people," she said. 

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Produced by Kate Swoger