Highway of Heroes – Cpl. Nathan Cirillo

It has been a few years since we have lined up on the highway here in Quinte West, along the route that has been dubbed the Highway of Heroes. Yesterday I found myself standing on a ridge overlooking the highway along with my neighbor and her husband. They had taken the Canadian flag from their house and hung it off a fence along the highway. We were there to pay our respects to Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, who was shot and killed in Ottawa on Wednesday October 22, at 9:52 am.

Mickey Harrington and her husband Dennis took their Canadian Flag off their house to honour Cpl. Nathan Cirillo on Friday October 24.
The attack was the second in three days on Canadian Forces personnel. Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent was killed after being hit by a car in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que.

I have attended a number of repatriation ceremonies in Trenton, both as a member of the media and as a private citizen. I have photographed flag draped caskets as they were ceremoniously unloaded from the plane and placed in hearses before being driven to Toronto; I have photographed my fellow Trentonians as they lined the streets and the highway, many holding flags in their attempt to pay tribute to the returning soldier who made the ultimate sacrifice.

This time it feels different, sadder.  Cpl. Cirillo was not killed fighting a war in a foreign land. He was shot while standing at attention with an unloaded weapon. Taking part in a ceremony to honour Canada’s war dead much like many who came out to hold a flag as the hearse rolled down highway 401 yesterday.

The funeral procession for Cpl. Nathan Cirillo makes it's way through Quinte West along the Highway of Heroes on Friday.

While on the treadmill jogging on Thursday morning at the Quinte West YMCA, the news showed Sergeant at Arms Kevin Vickers enter the House of Commons for the first time since Wednesday’s shooting. Vickers, a 29-year veteran of the RCMP and still in his ceremonial garb, engaged the shooter and played a role in his killing.

Members of Parliament from across the nation and the political spectrum gave Vickers a lengthy standing ovation that seemed to move the 58 year-old to tears. As I watched this trying to keep pace with the moving rubber sidewalk below my feet, I felt the hairs rise on the back of my neck and my eyes begin to well. I have never considered myself particularly patriotic; I do own a team Canada Hockey sweater, but I have a lot of hockey sweaters. My response to the moment being televised nationally on our public broadcaster felt out of step with my own time and place. I looked around me to see if others on stationary bikes and treadmills were experiencing the same moment. What I found was lines of televisions tuned into daytime talk shows and the Food Network.

While it may have not been evident at the YMCA, Canadians are feeling the emotions I felt, as well as the physiological responses, from Coast to Coast to Coast as we say. It is at times like these when it is most important to take a step back and try to reflect on all we know, all we have as individuals, as a people and as a country.

The deaths of two members of the Canadian Military are a great tragedy and having the attacks take place on Canadian soil makes us all feel a little less safe. My wife and I have experienced this feeling before here in Trenton. When the former Colonel Russell Williams was arrested in the Quinte region a few years back, our bubble of safeness and small town identity came crashing down. Before that, it would have been rare to find the doors locked while we were home; not any more.

I wonder if people in Moncton experienced similar feelings in June when a young man targeted and killed three members of the RCMP. Did that act of senseless violence make them feel terrorized in their homes, unsafe to step outside their doors?

Security services and the media will analyze the recent attacks in the weeks and months ahead. Of course security on Parliament Hill will be upgraded. The Prime Minister has already referenced the Islamic State in response to these attacks. We do not have a lot of facts, yet we do know that Michael Zehaf-Bibeau was a very troubled person. We have seen reports that he attempted to rob a MacDonald’s in Vancouver with a pointed stick, hoping a lengthy incarceration would help him kick his drug habit. Other reports have him telling friends the devil is after him.

Recently we have begun to have serious public discussions about mental health, from Clara’s Big Ride to Clint Malarchuk’s recent personal memoir The Crazy Game. We can’t ignore the Jihadist narrative being spelled out by our Prime Minister and Canada’s security agency; let’s not ignore the role played by mental health in this country’s recent tragedies either.

The hearse carrying the body of Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, a reservist of The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada carries him home to Hamilton on Friday.

A fund has been created for the families of both the soldiers who lost their lives this past week. You can donate to the Stand on Guard Fund with monies being divided equally between the families of Cpl. Nathan Cirillo and Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent. To donate or get more information on the fund follow the link below