There are three flagpoles on the route between my house and the nearby grocery store – two outside schools, one outside the local Royal Canadian Legion branch. On Sunday evening, just a couple of hours after reports emerged that a Canadian Forces Snowbirds plane had crashed in a residential area in Kamloops, B.C., I noticed the flag outside the Legion was already flying at half-mast. The Snowbirds hadn’t yet released the name of Captain Jenn Casey, who died in the crash earlier that day, but a little flagpole in a residential area four provinces over had already absorbed news of the devastating loss.
Then it occurred to me that perhaps this flag, stationed outside a Legion branch that has all but been boarded up in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, had been lowered in response to the previous national tragedy: the crash of a military helicopter off Greece, where six members of the Canadian Armed Forces were killed. The repatriation ceremony for the fallen soldiers had been held only one week earlier. It’s not unreasonable that, given the current pandemic restrictions, no one had attended to the Legion building since then. Maybe we were still paying tribute to the last unconscionable loss of human life when we were interrupted with another one.
A child too young to remember what normal is supposed to look like might think flags are only supposed to go halfway up flagpoles. That the top parts of flagpoles are like chimneys on modern houses – mostly for aesthetic reasons, rarely if ever used. That’s because since the beginning of the year, Canada has seen one tragedy after another: the downing of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752, the outbreak of COVID-19, the senseless Nova Scotia massacre in mid-April, the Cyclone chopper crash off Greece and now the deadly Snowbirds crash in Kamloops. It’s hard to recall the last long stretch of time when the three flagpoles along my grocery route all flew their flags at full-mast.
Canada as a nation is affected by each tragedy, but nowhere has the suffering been more profound, acute and cumulative than in Nova Scotia. In early January, as people across the country hosted vigils for the Canadians aboard Flight 752, about 1,000 people filled an auditorium at Dalhousie University to remember the eight people with ties to Halifax who perished when the plane was shot down over Tehran. A couple of months later, the province announced its first three presumptive cases of COVID-19, and later, its first COVID-19-related death. There have been 55 more since then.
Then a denturist went on a killing spree across the northern part of the province, where he took the lives of 22 innocent people using arson and gunfire. Entire families, a pregnant health care worker, an RCMP officer and a two-time cancer survivor were among the neighbours and friends Nova Scotia was suddenly mourning. Because of COVID-19, the memorial had to be virtual this time.
Then Sub-Lieutenant Abbigail Cowbrough, originally from Nova Scotia, was identified as the first known casualty of the CAF helicopter crash. Two of the five other crew members – Captain Brenden Ian MacDonald and Sub-Lieutenant Matthew Pyke – were also from Nova Scotia. And then Capt. Casey, who flew with the Snowbirds for Operation INSPIRATION, ejected from her jet in Kamloops on Sunday, marking one more loss for the province.
Psychologists sometimes talk about “cumulative grief,” or the effect of multiple bereavements over a relatively short period of time. Researchers studied the phenomenon during the height of the AIDS crisis and found that while the intensity of grief didn’t necessarily correlate to the number of losses, those who had lived through multiple deaths tended to struggle with survivor’s guilt and a persistent need to find meaning in the devastation wrought on their communities. Though the AIDS crisis is obviously not directly comparable to what Nova Scotia has endured over the past several months, it’s possible the experience of sequential trauma will similarly rattle the province’s collective psyche – particularly since this is a psyche that often feels more like a vast small town than a province.
Respite from tragedy on a national level may yet be a long way off. The daily death toll from COVID-19 in Canada is still fluctuating between double and triple digits. Families of Flight 752 victims are still waiting for answers. The investigation into the motive behind the Nova Scotia massacre is ongoing. It will be months before we know what went wrong with the Cyclone helicopter and Snowbirds jet. Families in Canada can’t yet properly memorialize the dead.
For now, maybe it’s better if kids don’t realize that flags are supposed to go all the way up to the top. Wait until the flags are hoisted back up again – when they look like they might stay there for good.
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