Canada's new Governor-General will face one of the most difficult aspects of the job when the body of the country's latest casualty in Afghanistan is brought home.
David Johnston, who took over from Michaëlle Jean on Oct. 1 and is commander-in-chief of the Canadian Armed Forces, intends to follow her lead and attend the ramp ceremonies held at CFB Trenton in person "as a rule," his official spokeswoman said Sunday.
"His Excellency does intend to attend [the repatriation ceremonies]" Joanne Charette said in an interview.
Corporal Steve Martin, who this weekend became the first Canadian soldier to be killed in Afghanistan since Mr. Johnston's swearing-in, died as the result of the roadside bomb blast of an improvised explosive device in Kandahar while on foot patrol early Saturday afternoon, local time.
Serving with 3rd Battalion, Royal 22e Regiment, he was the 154th Canadian to die in Afghanistan.
"While I have just begun my duties as Governor-General of Canada, I now feel the weight of my responsibilities as commander-in-chief," Mr. Johnston said in a statement released Sunday.
"Like his comrades-in-arms, Cpl. Martin displayed an admirable sense of duty to Canada, bringing great pride to his unit and to the Forces as a whole."
In the town of St-Cyrille-de-Wendover, about 100 kilometres east of Montreal, friends and family mourned Cpl. Martin's death.
"At first, I couldn't believe it," said Alain Joyal, 24, who has known Cpl. Martin "since we were in diapers," and is a close friend.
"It leaves a gaping hole," said Mr. Joyal, who recalled a conversation he had with Cpl. Martin this past summer in which the soldier said he had an eerie feeling he wouldn't return alive from his second tour of duty in Afghanistan.
But he expressed no fear, Mr. Joyal said. "He loved challenges, anything involving action."
Cpl. Martin, who would have turned 25 on Monday, also participated in the Canadian humanitarian effort in Haiti after the devastating earthquake in that country in January.
"He saw it as a mission just like any other," Mr. Joyal said.
Claude Joyal, Alain Joyal's uncle, said Cpl. Martin came from a "good family."
"It's a hard-working family. He was a good kid, one of three brothers," he said. "Everyone is finding this particularly difficult, especially coming just before Christmas."
Cpl. Martin arrived for his second tour shortly after burying his grandfather in his hometown.
"It's certainly a shock, especially during the holidays," town Mayor Daniel Lafond said. "This will be a very difficult holiday for the family."
Cpl. Martin's father, Eloi, works as a school bus driver and auto mechanic in the region.
When reached by phone Sunday night, a brother of Cpl. Martin said the family was not ready to comment.
Pallbearers carried Cpl. Martin's casket across the moonlit tarmac Sunday in a ceremony at Kandahar Airfield and loaded it onto a military aircraft as the piper's skirl pierced the chilly midnight air. The repatriation ceremony hasn't been officially scheduled but Rideau Hall is "pretty sure" that Mr. Johnston will be there, Ms. Charette said.
Similar to his predecessor, Ms. Jean, Mr. Johnston has made paying homage to the country's fallen troops a central component of his duties. As part of his installation, he and his wife placed a bouquet of roses at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier near Parliament Hill in Ottawa, and he also visited Afghanistan shortly after taking office.
Attending Cpl. Martin's ceremony makes sense, particularly given the time of year, said Jack Granatstein, one Canada's foremost military historians, adding that Mr. Johnston shouldn't necessarily feel bound to attend all of those that occur during his tenure.
"It's probably very good for the Governor-General to go some of the time, to show that the government and the people of Canada do care, but I do think it is not a responsibility of the office to be there at every one," said Prof. Granatstein, who is director general of the Canadian War Museum and co-author (with Dean Oliver) of The Oxford Companion to Canadian Military History.
"Because of the time of the year, it is something that probably the Governor-General should do, just to show that convenience and holidays do not interfere with duties.''
Ultimately though, whether a Governor-General attends every ceremony as a rule should be up to his or her "particular feelings about the matter," Prof. Granatstein said. "I don't think there's a right and a wrong, but I think they certainly should be there for some, if not all.''
Cpl. Martin's death comes as a grim reminder that despite months without a Canadian fatality in Afghanistan, the troops operating there are still working in an extremely dangerous environment. Also, it comes as questions resurface about how much safer Canadian soldiers will be next year when they start focusing their efforts on training Afghan security forces in Kabul as opposed to engaging in fierce firefights in Kandahar.
Speaking on CTV's Question Period Sunday, Defence Minister Peter MacKay said Canadian troops, as of July, 2011, will be operating in a "Kabul-centric, static environment," but didn't answer directly when host Craig Oliver asked if the Canadian Forces who are training Afghan soldiers or police could find themselves being targeted by insurgents.
"This engagement is going to build on the significant experience and investments that we've made as a country to date in Afghanistan," Mr. MacKay said. "Bringing their army and police, Craig, to a level which will allow them to defend their own borders, to do so in an aggressive way, this is the ticket home. This is what will allow this mission to succeed.''
Either way, Afghanistan remains "a part of the world we know has a history of volatility," the minister noted.
With a report from The Canadian Press