WHITBY, Ontario — More than 200 people line an overpass above a stretch of Canada's busiest thoroughfare now known as the "Highway of Heroes" to pay final tribute to three soldiers killed in Afghanistan.
Veterans, families and firefighters respectfully applaud and wave maple leaf flags as the motorcade passes. The soldiers' families wave back in appreciation.
The ritual is repeated every time a fallen soldier returns to Canada.
On Saturday night, as three bodies moved down the 100-mile-long section of Highway 401 that connects the military base in Trenton, Ontario, to the morgue in Toronto, dozens of bridges along the way were packed with people.
Canada has lost 93 soldiers and one diplomat in Afghanistan — including three soldiers killed by a roadside bomb last Wednesday. The country first sent troops to Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks and increased the deployment after declining a U.S. request to dispatch troops to Iraq.
As the death toll in Afghanistan approaches 100, it threatens to rekindle a debate between those who argue a stable Afghanistan is needed to protect Canadians and global security and opponents who say too many soldiers are dying for a lost cause. That debate had largely dissipated since parliament voted in March to extend the mission to 2011.
Retired Maj. Gen. Lewis MacKenzie, the commander of a U.N. force in the Balkans, said the milestone could revive debate about the mission but is not likely to derail it.
"There will be a lot of attention but I don't think it will cause a change in policy," he said. "It's as tragic at 99 as it is at 101."
Afghan, Iraq wars seen as one
One idea that could fuel the debate is that some Canadians lump Afghanistan with the war in Iraq.
"Here's a U.N.-sanctioned mission carried out by NATO and you still have people referring to it as Bush's war and we're the lackeys of the Americans," MacKenzie said. "That's just knee jerk anti-American, anti-Bush rhetoric."
Canada's Conservative government had banned the media from showing live images of flag-draped coffins at the Trenton base in 2006, angering political opponents and some families who accused the government of trying to play down the growing human cost of the mission in Afghanistan.
The decision mirrored the Bush administration policy blocking media coverage of the coffins of slain service members arriving in the United States.
Canada's government has since changed its stance on media coverage of coffins in Trenton and it now lets the families decide if they want it.
Tom McFarlane, who has come out to the highway at least 12 times since Canada lost its first soldiers in Afghanistan in a friendly fire incident in 2002, is touched by those who turn out.
"It's a big number and it's growing. Every time I come to the bridge I always wish it was my last. But you know in the back of your mind that it's not going to be the last," said McFarlane, whose nephew served in Afghanistan. "It's the least that I can do for these guys who are giving their lives," he said.
The mounting toll in the fight against al-Qaida and the Taliban has exacted an emotional, if not political, price in Canada — a country whose traditional role as peacekeeper has left its citizens unaccustomed to seeing soldiers die.
Canada has not lost so many soldiers since more than 500 were killed in the Korean War.
Judith Churchill, a 36-year-old teacher, brought her two kids to an overpass in Whitby on Saturday night but she had no answer when they asked when the war would end.
"I never thought it would get that high," Churchill said of the death toll. "Canadians are traditionally peacekeepers and so for us to lose that many, it's hard."
Jim Flaherty, Canada's Finance Minister, praised his constituents who have been showing up each time a dead soldier is returned.
"It's a great outpouring of support by ordinary Canadians. None of this was orchestrated by the government or by the town or anything like that. It's just people that want to come out and pay their respects," Flaherty said.
"It's uniquely Canadian. It was spontaneous."
Increasing concern about Afghan war toll
Canadians — the majority of whom applauded their government for declining to join the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq — are increasingly concerned about the toll in Afghanistan.
In all, there are some 53,000 NATO-led troops from 27 countries serving there. But it has been Canadian, British, Dutch and U.S. forces — with support from Denmark, Romania, Estonia and non-NATO Australia — that have borne the brunt of the Taliban's attacks.
Canada has 2,500 soldiers stationed in Kandahar province, the former Taliban stronghold that has again emerged as the epicenter of violence.
This year will likely be the deadliest for international troops since the 2001 invasion. Some 188 soldiers from international forces, including about 101 Americans, have died so far, according to an Associated Press count. At that pace, the year's total would far surpass the record 222 troop deaths in 2007.
At least 500 members of the U.S. military have died since the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in late 2001 for sheltering Osama bin Laden, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.
John Pierrepont, 55, a retired Toronto police officer, does not agree with the mission in Afghanistan but supports the troops. He's been to the "Highway of Heroes" about 20 times.
"Some people cry. Some people clap. It's just amazing," Pierrepont said. "It's too bad we didn't have more politicians here that might be less willing to send them over there."
Steve Weiner, a 53-year-old dentist, pulled off the side of Highway 401 last week after another dead soldier was brought home.
"I don't think we're getting accustomed to seeing soldiers die. There were 100 people on the bridge," he said. "I left after a while and every bridge all the way home had a 100 people on it. It's a sign of how special each one of these people are."
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