HAMILTON Ontario (Reuters) - The body of a Canadian soldier shot dead while guarding the country’s war memorial in Ottawa returned to his hometown on Friday, after thousands of his countrymen paid tribute along the nation’s “Highway of Heroes.”
Crowds of people lined much of the roughly 500-km (310-mile) route along Lake Ontario while a black hearse accompanied by dozens of police vehicles bore the slain soldier, Corporal Nathan Cirillo, 24, back to Hamilton, Ontario.
Police said a home-grown radical, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, killed Cirillo on Wednesday before running into the Parliament building where he was shot dead near where Prime Minister Stephen Harper was meeting with lawmakers.
More than 1,000 mourners packed the street around the funeral home, raising their voices in a soft chorus of the Canadian national anthem as the motorcade bearing Cirillo’s body arrived.
They watching silently as more than a dozen soldiers from his unit, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, dressed in ceremonial kilts, white boots and garters, carried his flag-draped coffin from the hearse while bagpipes played.
Cathy McLennan, 43, said she had come out to pay tribute to a man she had met through her ex-husband, who had served in the same unit as Cirillo.
“I remember him for the courage, the bravery, the selflessness. I just wanted to be here to support him and his family,” said McLennan, who works from her home in nearby Burlington, Ontario.
Cirillo’s family thanked residents of their industrial city of 520,000 people and across the country for their response.
“Nathan was Canada’s son,” the family said in a statement read by Captain Robert Andrushko, the commanding officer of Cirillo’s unit as he stood in front of their small home. “He belonged to all of us. We’ve always thought we lived in the best country in the world but people just proved it.”
All along the route from Ottawa, crowds waved flags and broke out in applause as the motorcade including Cirillo’s hearse passed by.
The “Highway of Heroes” tradition dates to 2002 when Canada’s first war dead began returning from Afghanistan, said Pete Fisher, author of “Highway of Heroes: True Patriot Love,” which was published in 2011.
The route leads to a coroner’s office in Toronto from an air base in Trenton, Ontario, where soldiers killed overseas were first taken. Mourners in the past have flocked to overpasses, hanging flags as a sign of respect.
“It’s extremely emotional for everybody who stands on the bridge. Nobody knows what that family’s going through but if in some way we can pass along our respects to them, it brings Canadians closer together,” Fisher said.
Cirillo was one of two Canadian soldiers killed this week by homegrown radicals, dying in a Wednesday attack two days after a man in Quebec ran over two soldiers with his car, killing one, 53-year-old warrant officer Patrice Vincent.
Several members of the crowd in Hamilton said the attack on Cirillo was particularly horrifying for having come while he guarded a military memorial.
“Everyone who puts on the uniform knows they are taking a risk but I‘m sure he never imagined he would be shot while guarding the tomb of the Unknown Soldier,” said Keven Ellis, a 52-year-old resident of Hamilton who was part of a motorcycle group that came out in tribute.
Editing by Howard Goller and Frances Kerry