Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Repatriation Ceremony

When a fallen soldier returns home...
After spending more than a decade living away from Ontario, living in BC, I decided to move my family back home - home for me anyways. We settled in the Quinte area and I slowly re-familiarized myself with the culture here. Soon after the move we planned a trip to Toronto. We headed West on the 401, and just after passing Trenton, we came to a bridge draped in a Canadian flag. It was not Canada day. The bridge was full of people wearing red. There was a fire truck there with lights swirling, cars were honking, people were waving and I was confused and proud at the same time. The next bridge and every bridge thereafter was the same; police cars, emergency vehicles, more fire trucks at every bridge and overpass. More honking- more people- more pride. It was quite moving.

It was only afterwards that I learned I had been following a repatriation motorcade. The year was 2002. Repatriation ceremonies are a part of the culture here that is not witnessed in many parts of this vast country. I was far removed from it living in BC. I wanted to find out more about this ceremony, so I made a visit to CFB Trenton to speak with Jaimie Corriveau and Wendy Synnott. Jaimie is originally from NFL and has been with the military for the past three years. When I asked Wendy where she was from, her response was “Canada”. Her father was in the military, her husband has retired from the military and her oldest daughter, Erica, is currently serving overseas. She states that the Canadian military is voluntary– they choose to join knowing they may go overseas. They know it is an important role for the general good, to respect and to protect our lifestyle. And part of that volunteer involvement may be a repatriation ceremony.

It all starts in Trenton. It starts with the local paper and a solemn story about a fallen soldier, or civilian, and a date for the upcoming repatriation. The city readies itself. Dignitaries such as the Defence Minister, the Chief of Defence Staff, the Govenor General and so on, arrive in Trenton on those formal days to welcome home the brave Canadians whom have given their lives in the name of peace. What other small town can compare the high profile visitors it receives. This privilege, however, has its price. On the day of the repatriation, the grey military air bus arrives at CFB 8 Wing and the traditional, structured ceremony is conducted on the tarmac at CFB Trenton where for the first time the family receives their family member home. The ceremony is a very private and an emotional one; the “needs of the family” are considered foremost, Jaimie expresses. The flag draped caskets are unloaded and lade into their respective hearse. With this, the family follows, and the journey to the coroner’s office in Toronto begins. The stretch of road from CFB Trenton to Toronto along the 170km of highway 401 has become known as “the highway of heroes” where thousands flock to the bridges and overpasses taking part in this ceremonial procession.

Hundreds of Trentonians have created their own “grassroots” structured ceremony, showing “dignity and respect”, remarks Wendy. They have assumed a sense of ownership for each soldier; “they are all our sons and daughters”. On the day of the repatriation they religiously take up their post at the fence line or along the sidewalks where the motorcade proceeds. Their station is the same each time, much like church on Sunday, “people pick their pews” says Jaimie. A fire truck rests at one end of CFB, its flashing lights signal the beginning of the motorcade. Amidst the civilians lining the fences at CFB are soldiers in fatigue and retired military personnel- civilians and military alike support one another through this emotional observance. With honour and pride they attend, most feeling a duty to do so. Whether along the fence; lining the sidewalks or on a bridge, there they wait. They wait through the weather, through rain, freezing temperatures, they wait “because it matters, because every loss is a personal loss.” says Wendy. And the people of Trenton know this military loss. Over 150 casualties have made their way through this small town since 2002, and each time “Trenton stops, hats come off, and you can hear a pin drop” as the motorcade makes its way slowly through the town, says Jaimie. This statement gave me chills as I have witnessed it, and it is nothing less than chilling.

The military recognizes the “whole community mourns every loss”; there is comfort and support in attending the ceremonies. Dignitaries acknowledge the support of those at the fence and have on occasion approached and thanked them for coming. A reception is now offered to the mourners after the motorcade has left the city. The military recognizes the supporters locally, and after being involved in such an emotional event, Jaimie explains that this reception offers people a chance to “exhale”. “Whether related or not, if you are military you are a part of this big family” says Wendy.

One can only wonder the impact this has on this already repressed town. When asked this question, Wendy responded “it is hard on the members of this community”, and Jaimie followed with the military response, “they must cool in order to cope” These people bear the responsibility of all Canadians whom do not have the same opportunity to show their physical support to the family. It should be the duty of all Canadians to recognize that Trenton represents.

Jaimie Corriveau is the Special Events Coordinator with the Military Family Resource Centre.

Wendy Synnott is with Volunteer Services with the Military Family Resource Centre.

Check out the beautiful fall issue of County and Quinte Living magazine at http://www.countyandquinteliving.ca/