Two RCMP officers killed in Haiti’s devastating earthquake began the final journey home Friday with the words “Highway of Heroes” marking the way, crudely scrawled on cardboard in Haiti and emblazoned on massive road signs in Canada.
A procession of hearses carried the remains of Mark Gallagher and Supt. Doug Coates along the stretch of Ontario pavement renamed in honour of soldiers killed in Afghanistan.
In Port-au-Prince, Haiti the cardboard sign, likely made by a Canadian soldier familiar with the blue billboards marking the “Highway of Heroes,” showed the way as a truck ferried the steel caskets to a waiting military transport.
Gallagher and Coates were among 16 Canadians confirmed by the Department of Foreign Affairs to have died in the massive magnitude-7 tremor, which toppled buildings, ripped up roads and claimed upwards of 200,000 lives.
Mounties in their red serge dress uniforms saluted as the caskets were taken from military transport plane to hearses by RCMP pallbearers at CFB Trenton in eastern Ontario. More than 100 people gathered outside the base, some in RCMP uniforms, to pay their respects and watch the repatriation ceremony in the biting cold from behind a chain-link fence.
“I’m in shock. I think anyone who knew Doug is in shock right now,” said Andy Brooke, a former Mountie who said he served with Coates in Ottawa on a counter-terrorism team in 1988.
“When I see the outpouring of support, there’s just something extremely humbling. Doug is going to be remembered for so much. He was so involved with peacekeeping and that will be a part of his legacy.”
The notes of a piper’s skirl carried through the frigid air as Mounties saluted. Family members clad in black came out to the hearses to pay their respects and mourn.
Brooke said the tragedy has shed light on the importance of the efforts of police and military service across the world.
“This is something that is a very positive thing, although it’s very tragic circumstances and very sad there’s also positive elements,” he said.
Sarah Rylott, also stood outside the base watching, echoed that sentiment.
“I think Canadians are more aware and the mission in Haiti is making us more aware of how broadly the public service reaches.”
In Port-au-Prince, more than 200 Canadian soldiers and police officers were on hand for Friday’s impromptu ramp ceremony, along with Jamaican troops and officers from China, all of whom were in Haiti to meet with Coates when the quake hit.
They gathered solemnly around the two steel caskets, each draped in Canadian and United Nations flags, as pallbearers carried them to the waiting aircraft.
Coates was the UN’s acting police commissioner in Haiti when he died. His death, along with those of several other top UN officials, including mission chief Hedi Annabi and his deputy Luiz Carlos da Costa, essentially left the mission leaderless in the wake of the tragedy.
Eduard Mulet, special representative from the secretary general of the UN, remembered Coates as an officer willing to tackle issues others were content to ignore.
“Doug reached out to all sections,” Mulet said. “He was looking to establish a new dynamic in which the mission would work more cohesively.”
Mulet relayed the condolences of the UN’s secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, who called Coates a “true friend of Haiti and the United Nations.”
Coates had served two previous tours in Haiti and headed the RCMP’s branch of international peace operations.
“I knew Doug as being a very value-driven individual, who wanted to do what was right,” RCMP Supt. Jean-Michel Blais said after the ceremony.
“I would say he’s an individual who would do the hard right rather than the easy wrong, on all occasions.”
Gallagher, 50, had been tasked with program co-ordination at the UN mission in Port-au-Prince. Before starting his tour in Haiti, he spent several years working as a public relations officer in eastern Canada.
“Sgt. Gallagher was popular with his colleagues, with his pleasant demeanour and engaging smile,” said Col. Ibrahim Moussa, the UN’s chief of police in Haiti.
Gallagher, who had just returned from leave when the earthquake hit, was remembered for being an officer with the common touch.
“I knew of his reputation as being very well known by the community and the media and police agencies all throughout the Atlantic region,” said Blais.
Coates’ replacement, RCMP Insp. Michel Martin, vowed to use the memory of the two fallen officers to guide the department’s work in Haiti in the months ahead.
“We will stay here as long as needed,” Martin told the ceremony. “The example of Doug and Mark will continue to inspire us and we will do our work thinking as much about them as all of those we will help here.”
Three RCMP officers have now died in Haiti in recent years. Mark Bourque, who retired from the RCMP after 35 years on the force, was part of the UN mission when he was shot and killed in Cite Soleil in December 2005.