I saw them again yesterday and it made me recall the first time I saw them on the bridge overpasses and had nearly dismissed that showing as a protest rally or a union strike.
I was on the 401 on that first occasion, driving back to Cobourg from Toronto one twilit evening last fall. I initially noticed the distinct Canadian flags, and people dressed in warm clothing, like they had come out for a long vigil. The first sighting was on a bridge at the eastern tip of Scarborough. By the time I passed under bridges in Pickering and Ajax, the crowds on those overpasses had become denser. I realized this was no mere protest rally; nor could the weakened trade unions of today muster such support anymore, even though I was entering the automobile manufacturing heartland. By the time I cleared Oshawa, cars were parked even on the ramps of that city’s crowded bridges, and Canadian flags were waving full tilt in the draughty fall weather.
The Maple Leafs must have won, I thought. I quickly dismissed that idea. The Liberals have won the election. I dismissed that one too. As much as Canadians are crazy about hockey and apathetic towards politics, this showing of crowds did not fit with either possibility.
When I saw the sign of the newly re•christened Highway 401, calling it now the Highway of Heroes, it dawned on me that another load of dead soldiers were returning from Afghanistan and this was how we welcomed them home. Of course, the air force base at Trenton lay ahead of me and the motorcade, on its way back to Toronto, would pass on the other side.
I pulled off one of the ramps in Bowmanville, parked my car way down on a side street and walked back to the bridge connected to that off•ramp. There were young, old, black, white, Oriental – representing the multicultural mosaic of our country – lining the bridge. And they were silent. This was not a raucous hockey crowd, although they looked like they could have just come from one of those games. A police cruiser was parked off to the side, but the cops did not have to do much to enforce discipline – this crowd had come to honour, not to misbehave.
I had to get home and darkness was falling fast. I returned to my car and pulled back onto the highway. For the rest of my journey home I pondered: do we unify only around tragedy? Were those people on the bridge saluting the courage of the fallen or registering protest for western governments trying to force democracy onto a tribal society so far removed from us? After all, this land is open to those wanting our way of life – why try to reproduce our systems elsewhere? Was standing on the bridge an expression of grief over the many losses in our own lives: the loss of a job in the recession, a life threatening illness in the family, the loss of a loved one? Did those soldiers represent the human struggle that we all engage in and finally, with some successes and some losses and many lessons learned, succumb to by death? Were they our younger gurus? Had they encapsulated a whole life of experience into their brief span on this earth or had their lives been cruelly short circuited? Were we honouring the former, or mourning the latter?
It was only when I turned into my driveway that I realized that even my radio had been turned off for the rest of my interrupted journey home. Those lads had given me much to think about.