The Highway of Heroes

Every now and again I like to give you a snippet of Canadiana in a series I call “It’s a Fact, eh?” Let me do so again today.

Become a Patron

Yesterday I had to drive down to Buffalo to pick up my sister and my niece who are up here for a short visit. I pulled onto the highway and, as I did so, noticed that parked on the overpass was a pair of firetrucks and a few police cars. Lining the bridge facing east was a crowd of people, holding flags and standing solemnly. As I joined traffic I noticed that on the bridge ahead of me was another crowd, much the same as the last one–firefighters, police officers, citizens, flags. I remembered then that somewhere behind me, driving out of Toronto and toward Brantford, was a convoy carrying one of Canada’s fallen soldiers. Trooper Larry Rudd Rudd was based with the Royal Canadian Dragoons and was recently killed by an explosion, becoming the 146th member of the Canadian military to die in Afghanistan since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. And yesterday morning he was driven back to his hometown.

The Highway of Heroes is a new Canadian tradition and one that is grassroots to its core. Just a few years old, the tradition has picked up steam in the past few months.

When a soldier loses his life in service overseas, his body is sent back to Canada in a flag-draped casket, arriving at Trenton Air Force Base. The family of the fallen soldier waits here and, as the body is taken from the plane, stands through a short ceremony. The body is then taken to the Centre for Forensic Sciences in Toronto, some 100 miles distant. And this is where a fascinating little tradition cropped up. Average citizens, with some members of emergency services, began to stand on the overpasses en route as the bodies were driven along the highway–100 miles’ worth of overpasses. What started as just a few people on a few bridges quickly grew into a new tradition with hundreds or even thousands of people participating.

This video tribute to the soldiers raised awareness not only of the war in Afghanistan, but also the new tradition that had arisen around it.

Even Americans have noticed this phenomenon, as evidenced by this report by NBC:

As a result of this new movement, a position convinced Ontario’s government to rename that section of highway leading from Trenton to Ontario. As of September 2007 it is officially known as The Highway of Heroes.

And though Rudd was driven down the official stretch of the Highway of Heroes a couple of days ago, yesterday was the day he was taken to a funeral home in his home town. Even along a different stretch of highway, all the way through Mississauga, Oakville, Burlington, Hamilton and Brantford, Canadians came out to pay tribute. I found it very stirring to drive along and to see all those people waiting, paying their respects to one of our nation’s heroes.

Recently the east coast band The Trews penned a tribute to the soldiers in a song called, not surprisingly, “Highway of Heroes.” (listen to it here)

The day I shipped out,
They numbered a dozen.
Upon my return,
Were a hundred or so.
From the coast and the prairies,
I bet they keep coming.
Add one more name from Ontario.

Chorus:
Carry me home down The Highway of Heroes.
People above with their flags flying low.
Carry me softly, down The Highway of Heroes.
True Patriot Love, there was never more.

I served with distinction,
No visions of glory.
I served without question of personal gain.
Seek no justification, it’s not part of my story.
And it offers no comfort to the ones who remain.

I took up my vocation,
I was called by my nation.
Without hesitation,
My answer I gave.
Now I am not wondering,
The things that I might have been.
I’m no consolation, to the forgotten brave.

To understand the importance of the Highway of Heroes you have to understand that Canadians are not known for their patriotism. A relatively quiet and humble nation, Canadians do not have an equivalent to a song like “Proud to Be an American.” We do not have the equivlent to the chant of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” Yes, most Canadians have some sense of patriotism, of national pride, but it is usually quite subdued. It also bears mention that few Canadians support the war in Afghanistan. Most see it as an American war and one that we have little business being involved in. And yet Canadians are still eager to support the troops and to honor them for their willingness to put their lives on the line in their duty to the nation.

Somehow the whole Highways of Heroes phenomenon seems strange to me, it seems un-Canadian; it is just so unusual, so unexpected. And yet I am glad for it; I’m proud of it. I don’t know that I’ve ever been more proud to be Canadian as I was as I drove along yesterday, seeing those flags draped and all those people standing at respectful attention.