TRENTON, Ontario – The bodies of four Canadian soldiers accidentally killed by a U.S. bomb in Afghanistan were welcomed home with a solemn ceremony Saturday, as Canadians expressed grief and anger over the accidental deaths.
A gunmetal-gray Airbus carrying their remains touched down at the Canadian Forces Base here on Lake Ontario's shore, met by Prime Minister Jean Chretien, the country's top military officials and grieving relatives.
A lone bagpiper played as four coffins — each draped with Canada's red-and-white maple leaf flag — were lifted from the plane one by one and carried by grim-faced pallbearers to waiting hearses. They were driven under police escort to Toronto for examination by a coroner.
"This is a very difficult day for all of us ... a very difficult day for all Canadians," Gen. Ray Henault, the head of Canada's armed forces, told reporters before the ceremony, held in a biting wind under a bright sun.
The soldiers who were killed — Sgt. Mark Leger, Cpl. Ainsworth Dyer, Private Richard Green and Private Nathan Smith — came from the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, which is based north of Edmonton, Alberta, and provides the bulk of the troop commitment to Afghanistan.
Col. Stuart Beare said at the Edmonton Garrison Saturday evening that the four bodies would be returned to their home towns where funerals would be held at dates to be determined by the families.
He said flags will remain at half staff across Canada until after the funerals.
Leger will be returned to Lancaster, Ontario and Dyre will be returned to Toronto, Beare said. Green's body will go to Hubbards, Nova Scotia and Smith will be returned to Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, he said.
Military chaplain Capt. Larry Wright said the Canadian Army's chaplain general had ordered special prayers for the four on Sunday at all military chapels across Canada.
In addition, a memorial ceremony is scheduled for April 28 in Edmonton, said Col. David Barr, chief of staff for the Canadian army's western area.
The fatalities — the Canadian military's first combat deaths since the Korean war — have prompted many Canadians to question the country's role in the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, where its troops are fighting alongside American and European soldiers.
"I am angry," said Marie Blosh, in front of Toronto's war memorial, where four fresh daffodils had been laid at the base.
President Bush is "charging ahead like some kind of lone cowboy and expecting everyone to follow along," she said. If Canada is to continue its involvement in the war on terrorism, "there needs to be more consensus."
Alexa McDonough, an opposition politician and leader of the New Democratic Party, said she felt a "sense of rage" that Canada is being "taken for granted" in the U.S.-led war against terrorism.
Some Canadians have complained that Bush respond quickly enough to the deaths, which occurred Wednesday when a U.S. fighter mistakenly dropped a 500-pound bomb on Canadian troops during a training exercise. Eight other Canadian soldiers were wounded.
After Bush made five public appearances Thursday without mentioning the accident, Canadian Deputy Prime Minister John Manley said that "it would have been a comfort to the families to hear the president's own words."
Bush said Friday, "I wish we could bring them back. But we can't."
Bush pledged to work with Canada in an investigation to find out what happened in what he called a "terrible accident." Canadian Defense Minister Art Eggleton said a Canadian board of inquiry will meet Monday and present an interim report within three weeks.
Chretien said Thursday that the deaths were the cost of defending freedom, and some Canadians accepted that.
"Death by friendly fire, nobody likes to see it happen, said Sgt. Joe Hillier, a parachute instructor who trained some of the dead and served as a pallbearer at the ceremony. "But it's been happening since wars have happened, so it's something can happen. Bombs, bullets, rockets, mortars — they don't know friend for foe."
Despite bitterness, few foresaw lasting damage to the neighboring nations' friendly relationship.
"There are too many other important areas of interest the two countries share," said Joseph Zboralski, a political science professor at Toronto's Ryerson University.
"It is unwise and inappropriate to add angry nationalism to the lamentable consequences of this incident," the National Post newspaper said in an editorial Saturday. "It is not a U.S.-Canada morality tale."