Opinion
September 13, 2012

Sadness and celebration: The highway of heroes

It was minus ten Celsius, damp, with a wind chill that bit through your clothing. It was one of those days that made me wonder why I’m still here, writing columns, rather than living in a warmer climate.

I stood on the bridge, my back to the wind, shoulder to shoulder with a housewife and a farmer. With tears in our eyes.

Private Brian Richard Good, the 107th fatality in Afghanistan, was making his last trip, on 401 Westbound, January 10, 2009, from the repatriation ceremony at Canadian Forces Base Trenton to the Centre for Forensic Science in Toronto, for an autopsy.

Across every overpass between Trenton and Toronto, people gathered in twos, twenties, and hundreds, to say “thank you” and “farewell,” to show their respect and appreciation.

Each April, this magazine celebrates Canada’s contribution to the world, and to good public service in other countries. This year, particularly, we celebrate and appreciate those who have sacrificed themselves in foreign lands.

Canadian public servants have a long and noble history of willingness to sacrifice for the safety of their own citizens. The Police and Peace Officers National Memorial Day, the last Sunday of September, is held on Parliament Hill, with the motto: “They are our heroes, we will not forget them.” (See www.capc.ca/memorial for more information.)

The Highway of Heroes recognizes those who make that sacrifice for citizens of a land they don’t know, so Afghan girls can go to school, women can vote, people can walk more safely on their streets, and people of faith can worship as they chose. Canada is not in Afghanistan to conquer it or gain control over its resources; the mission is altruistic.

The tradition began in April 2002, as Pete Fisher, a reporter for Northumberland Today, tells it. His dad had been watching the repatriation ceremony on television, and suggested Pete go down to the highway to get a photo. He found 40 others there, on the Cranberry Road overpass in Port Hope. “I asked them why they were there, and they said, ‘We saw it on TV and wanted to show our support and condolences for the families.’ They had gone spontaneously, in ones and twos, to watch the convoy pass.”

“I don’t know him or his family,” the housewife told me. “We don’t have any family members in the military. I’ve been coming here for five years, each time I can. It’s to show my respect. Nobody organizes it, it just happens.” The farmer was more taciturn: “It’s the right thing to do.”

The spontaneous became more organized, when Toronto reporter Joe Wormington suggested naming the route “The Highway of Heroes” and Jay Forbes, a young man from London, Ontario, began an online petition. Comments related to the petition included: “How proud we are and grateful for their sacrifice;” “I don’t condone the war but I support our troops;” “My company lost nine men in six months…when our boys who escorted the fallen home returned to theatre, the pictures they brought of the packed overpasses, the people holding flags and supportive signs, brought tears to my eyes,” (Brian).

That 60,000-signature petition contributed to the Ontario Government’s decision to designate that stretch of road as “The Highway of Heroes.” At the dedication ceremony in 2007, Premier Dalton McGuinty said, “the Highway of Heroes reminds us that our freedom, safety, and prosperity is often purchased by the sacrifice of others. We owe them a great debt – and while we can never repay that debt, we can see to it that their courage and commitment will always be remembered.”

Fisher, a driving force behind the recognition (and whose photo is on our cover) wrote in support: “Every person who stands on a bridge will tell you it’s a feeling like no other. As you wait, you talk with people who have been there before, who you’ve come to know. People smile, share feelings, talk about how many times they’ve stood on various bridges. It’s a mix of pride and sadness.

“When the convoy of vehicles is seen approaching, murmurs in the crowd can be heard: ‘Here they come.’ There’s silence as people get ready. Then, there’s a sudden sea of arms waving Canadian flags, wanting to let family members in the procession know we are there for them, that we share their pain and are proud to be Canadian.

“It’s not unusual to see a soldier’s hand waving a beret from a hearse, or a family member waving from a limousine, to acknowledge the people on the bridge. Those waves are simple gestures, but more than enough for everyone to know in that split second that each has made a connection to the people in those vehicles.

“…hundreds of people – farmers, business people, firefighters, paramedics, police officers, Legion members, kids – pay tribute to the husbands, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters who have given their lives for their country. People have lined bridges on cold winter evenings and rainy nights. People have stood for hours waiting with their flags, with their homemade signs, some with red ‘Support the Troops’ shirts.

“Canadians are not trying to conquer a country. They are trying to help the people of Afghanistan. Talking to soldiers, they say we are there for the right reasons. Soldiers give first-hand accounts of the good Canada is doing. And, out of tragic times come good things. [The Highway of Heroes] is a fitting tribute to all the people who stand on the bridges, for all the families who have lost loved ones.
 
“Most of all, it honours our soldiers who die so others can live a better life.”

If you can join the people on the bridges, do so. It will be good for your soul. And it will be good for those who serve and sacrifice, for others, and their loved ones.

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