The body of Canadian fighter Joseph Hildebrand, who died earlier this month battling Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, was cremated in Kyiv on Tuesday. The spartan ceremony was attended only by a few representatives of the unit he served in, and a single Canadian Forces veteran who is now struggling with the logistics of transporting Mr. Hildebrand’s remains home to Saskatchewan.
The veteran, who served alongside Mr. Hildebrand in the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI), said he and Mr. Hildebrand’s family were distressed by the lack of help they’d received from Global Affairs Canada and the Canadian embassy in Kyiv. Josiah Napier, who was in Ukraine volunteering as a combat medic when he heard of his comrade’s death, said that he had been left on his own to figure out how to get Mr. Hildebrand’s remains out of Ukraine, across the border into Poland and then home to Canada.
The 33-year-old Mr. Hildebrand was killed Nov. 7 in the besieged city of Bakhmut, in the eastern Donbas region. He had been a member of the International Legion for the Defence of Ukraine, a unit of foreign fighters that is officially part of the Ukrainian army and whose members receive the same salary as Ukrainian soldiers.
Canada officially discourages citizens from travelling to Ukraine, and particularly from enlisting to fight. “Your safety is at high risk, particularly if you engage in active combat,” the government’s travel advice reads, adding: “Our ability to provide consular services in Ukraine is severely limited.”
Mr. Napier alleges that Canadian government representatives were rude and unhelpful to Mr. Hildebrand’s family, with a Global Affairs official suggesting at one point that the soldier – who had served two tours with the PPCLI in Afghanistan before leaving the Canadian military and volunteering in Ukraine – had no more right to government help with repatriation than someone who had died on vacation in Mexico.
“It was all beyond disrespectful. And that was from Global Affairs, that was from the embassy, that was from the Legion,” Mr. Napier said after watching the brief ceremony, which was presided over by a Ukrainian military chaplain. “I expected just a little bit of dignity of care from our government.”
Mr. Hildebrand’s coffin was draped in the Canadian and Ukrainian flags, and the Ukrainian anthem was played, before the casket descended into the lower chamber of the crematorium.
There was no representative of the Canadian embassy at the ceremony, nor was anyone available at the embassy on Tuesday when Mr. Napier and a member of the International Legion tried to get Mr. Hildebrand’s passport annulled, a key step in bringing Mr. Hildebrand’s urn and personal belongings out of Ukraine.
The Canadian embassy in Kyiv closed and staff moved to Poland on Feb. 24, the day that Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The embassy formally reopened during Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s visit to Kyiv in May, shortly after Russian troops abandoned their attempt to seize the Ukrainian capital. However, the mission has been operating with only skeleton staffing since then.
Mr. Napier, who took on his role at the request of Mr. Hildebrand’s family, said he expected to be in Ukraine for another 10 days dealing with bureaucracy. He called it “an honour and a privilege” to be charged with escorting the remains of a fellow PPCLI veteran home to Canada, adding that the family was upset by the delayed repatriation.
He can’t help thinking of the different treatment Mr. Hildebrand would have received had he died fighting in Afghanistan.
“There’s ramp ceremonies and there’s guards and there’s escorts and pallbearers. They pull out all the stops for somebody who gets killed in combat in Kandahar,” Mr. Napier said. In contrast, the Canadian embassy in Kyiv had told the family that Mr. Hildebrand’s body would be shipped home on a cargo plane, he said, with no guarantees about when it would arrive in Saskatchewan, or via which route.
That won’t happen now that Mr. Napier has duty of care over the remains. There’s also an online GoFundMe campaign that by Tuesday had raised more than $23,000 to help get them home.
He said the International Legion has also provided little assistance, offering to help him transport Mr. Hildebrand’s remains only as far as the western Ukrainian city of Lviv.
Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly declined to answer questions on the embassy’s conduct and whether the government is acting to address the complaint.
Her press secretary, Adrien Blanchard, said in a statement that Canada expresses its sympathy at Mr. Hildebrand’s passing.
“Our thoughts are with the family and the loved ones of the Canadian who lost his life. This is a tragic loss, and we want to convey our most sincere condolences,” Mr. Blanchard said.
“Global Affairs Canada officials are in contact with the family and are providing consular services. GAC is taking the necessary steps to ensure that the family is well supported and treated with compassion.”
Members of Mr. Hildebrand’s unit told The Globe and Mail that he and another foreign fighter were killed by Russian artillery fire on Nov. 7 while transporting wounded comrades to a front-line medical centre near Bakhmut.
The city remains the epicentre of some of the worst fighting of the 272-day-old war. On Tuesday, Mykhailo Podolyak, a top adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, named Bakhmut as the most difficult spot on the front line because Russia was concentrating its most experienced forces there.
Mr. Hildebrand, whose family live in Herbert, Sask., is the second Canadian to die fighting for Ukraine. Émile-Antoine Roy-Sirois, a 31-year-old Quebecker, was killed in July, also in the Donbas area.
A fellow PPCLI veteran who was a member of the same unit of the International Legion as Mr. Hildebrand said his friend had been “always the most calm, cool and collected guy in the world, and always knew how to add humour when it was just too harsh.” The fighter, who hails from Alberta, was unable to attend the Kyiv ceremony because he was still deployed.
For security reasons, The Globe isn’t naming the other ex-PPCLI fighter. The Albertan said he and Mr. Hildebrand had been in contact most recently during the fall counteroffensive that liberated much of the eastern Kharkiv region from Russian occupation.
“With that offensive, we touched base afterwards and we said it’s a surreal feeling to stare at something for a couple months and then realize that one push and you liberate it. And the whole time you were staring at it, you didn’t realize that it was full of civilians in a way that you just didn’t expect. Between women, kids, young people, old people, it’s surreal to see how these cities were still operating, and it really substantiated why he was here, why I’m here.”