11 November 2010

Highway of Heroes: 65 overpasses on highway 401

arrival in Toronto

Christine Leu

The Highway of Heroes is a stretch of the 401 Highway between Canadian Forces Base Trenton and the coroner’s office at the Centre for Forensic Sciences in downtown Toronto.  It was renamed in honour of Canada’s fallen soldiers.
      Regardless of where a Canadian soldier is stationed, a soldier is repatriated at a ceremony at CFB Trenton, and then transported with a family and military automobile entourage to Toronto for an official autopsy.  The current count of fallen soldiers who have travelled this route is over 130.
      The Highway of Heroes began as a grassroots movement.  In an impromptu manner, people began to congregate on the 65 overpasses between Trenton and Toronto which represent the only safe and accessible opportunity for the public to pay their respects to the country’s fallen:  CFB Trenton is open only to family, military, dignitaries and media; the coroner’s office is also closed to the public.
    Despite the contentious nature of the Afghanistan War, the public ritual gained momentum and there were calls to officially name the route.  The big break was when an online petition was mentioned on morning radio airwaves.  The number of signees was a few thousand, but by 10:30am, the number had risen to over 9000.  A few days later on August 24 2007, the Highway of Heroes was officially designated by Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, in the midst of his successful re-election campaign.

Each overpass is different due to variables such as landscape, topography, adjacencies, span and the period in which it was built.  A few are exclusively for trains, but the vast majority is for motor vehicles.  Human occupation was not considered.  It is no wonder as overpasses are inhumane places – they are like standing in a blustery wind tunnel and a howling pit stop at the same time.  On a typical day, overpasses are used almost exclusively by motor vehicles to traverse the great divide that is the 401 Highway.
     Around the time the convoy is expected to pass, however, these overpasses are transformed into impromptu mourning grounds.  The east-facing guardrails overlooking oncoming westbound traffic are lined with locals: civilians, former military, fire, police, ambulance workers and the media.  There is a surprisingly jovial air as people wait – people chat while holding their Tim Horton’s double-doubles; others rig their Canadian flags to the guardrails.  Below, truck drivers honk their horns and drivers and passengers wave the peace sign; people on the overpasses wave in response.
     That air changes to respectful silence as the flashing lights of the motorcade appear on the horizon.  It takes only a few seconds for the police escort, hearse and entourage to pass.  Then the overpass community quickly evaporates until the next soldier’s death.

Leu, Christine.  'Highway of Heroes'  On Site review, no. 22 Fall 2009
©Christine Leu and On Site review

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