Onlookers line Wellesley Street.
As Torontonians hurried home after work on a grey and muggy Friday evening, those whose path took them along Wellesley Street found it closed to traffic. Unlike past weeks when streets were closed for the G20 and related protests, Toronto Police closed Wellesley in order to allow the unimpeded progress of the funeral cortege of Sapper Brian Collier. Twenty-four-year-old Collier was a member of the 1st Combat Engineer Regiment of the Canadian Forces. He was killed in Afghanistan last Tuesday.
Unbeknownst to many, our city has been a regular participant in one of the more somber aspects of the continuing war in Afghanistan. When a member of the Canadian Forces is killed, the body is flown to the Canadian Forces Base in Trenton, where it is met by family, and then transported along Highway 401—the Highway of Heroes—to the Ontario Provincial Coroner’s Office on Grenville Street in Toronto.
Torontonians whose route took them along Wellesley Street between 4:45 and 5 p.m. would have been among the few to have witnessed this ceremony, which has repeated itself 151 times over the past eight years.
The practice of repatriating Canadian soldiers killed overseas is a relatively new one. Canadians killed in the major wars of the twentieth century were traditionally buried near where they fell. Graves of the 224 Canadians killed in the Boer War are spread throughout municipal and military cemeteries in South Africa. The Imperial War Graves Commission, formed in 1917 and existing today as the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), is responsible for the maintenance of the graves of Canadian and other Commonwealth soldiers who died in the First and Second World War and are buried in battlefields from Vimy Ridge to Hong Kong. The 516 Canadians killed in the Korean War are buried at the UN Cemetery in Pusan, as well as at other military cemeteries in Korea and Japan.
As late as 1967, Canadians killed in accidents or as the result of hostile fire as members of the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) in the Sinai were buried in the nearest military cemetery, the Gaza War Cemetery. This cemetery, run by the CWGC, was originally built to house the remains of Commonwealth soldiers who died while fighting the Turks during World War I or who died in nearby military hospitals during World War II. It also contains the bodies of twenty-three Canadian soldiers who died as members of the UNEF. Similarly, Canadian soldiers who died in accidents as members of the Canadian NATO contingent in Northern Europe were buried in the nearest CWGC military cemetery.
In 1970, the Canadian policy around military burials changed. Following a peacetime accident aboard the destroyer HMCS Kootenay—in which nine sailors were killed—the government ordered that members of the Canadian Forces killed overseas be returned to Canada for burial.
By the time Canada became involved in Afghanistan, this policy had been in effect for over thirty years.
Many of those who witness the cortege do not seem to realize that they are playing a part, however small, in welcoming Canadian soldiers home for the last time. Once they notice police officers and fire fighters salute the passing cars or the small yet growing number of their neighbours who purposefully come out to pay their respects, spectators become aware of what they are seeing. For most Canadians, particularly those living in communities like Toronto where there is less of a visible military presence, the war in Afghanistan has had little direct connection to their everyday lives. Still, every time a Canadian soldier is repatriated, a small group of Torontonians witnesses a reminder of the price that Canada is paying in pursuit of peace and stability in Afghanistan.
Photos by Jon Weier.