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The Return of Petty Officer 2nd Class Craig Blake

My view of the procession of fallen Canadian soldier, Petty Officer 2nd Class Craig Blake, May 5th, 2010.

Although, there was nothing petty or 2nd class about him or his reason for return.

The Taliban fighter that planted the remote-detonated explosive device, took out what he believed to be the "enemy," and in doing so, also took out a community volunteer, husband, and father of two children.

Last April, I was assigned to cover a report on the Highway of Heroes. I stood on one of the most renowned overpasses on Hwy 401 and busily gathered interviews and footage of the unique display of support and patriotism. Almost too busy, because before I knew it, the police escorted procession carrying the 117th fallen soldier, had raced quickly under us and onto the remainder of that solemn stretch of road. I didn't have time to properly process what I had just witnessed. My feeble attempts at capturing the moment for both television and our blog can be found here, and here,

Today, a year and 26 fallen soldiers after my report, I sat annoyed in the passenger seat because of traffic on North America's busiest stretch of highway. We had a full day in the field and I just wanted to be home. Like yesterday. Police on motorcycle blocked off one section of the highway, for what reason, I didn't know. Just chalked it up to yet another detour on our path home. As I looked up at the overpass ahead, I saw an ambulance flashing and Red, White and Maple Leaf blowing in the wind. My heart sank and I gasped out loud. I knew exactly what was happening. The Navy man that I had heard passed earlier this week, was making his final return home. The path had been cleared for him. His heroes song sung. At over 50 overpasses, by hundreds of Canadians, for nearly 100 miles. The only detour he would have is at the morgue in downtown Toronto.

I flew across the driver's seat and out the window to snap the above photo. The last time I saw such a sacred repatriation, it was my job to cover it and I missed my opportunity to give a citizen (or proud permanent resident) salute. I rode the rest of the ride home with perspective and thanks that I was doing it alive and in freedom. Largely because of a willing soldier's sacrifice.

I said it before and I'll say it again. This American has never seen Canada look so lovely.

Canada, eh?

As an American residing in Canada, I often get asked by Canadians and Americans alike, "how do you like living in Canada? Is it a huge culture shock?" and my most favorite, "how do you find the Canadian [people]?" And as the 2010 Vancouver Olympics draw to a close, and the sense of patriotism reigns high on both sides of our long and shared border, I find thoughts surrounding the nation-to-nation relations relevant and poignant.

Those same questions were posed to me again as frequently as last night by a friendly stranger looking to pass the time on the hour-long train ride from Toronto to Hamilton. You'd think I'd have the answers to the questions memorized and in bulletin point format in my head by now, but each time I'm asked I'm still a little taken aback and want to think carefully before I answer them. It's not that I'm so concerned about diplomacy, because tact has never come as natural to me as honesty has, but I do pause and for several reasons. Mainly because the answers to the questions are ever-changing as my time in Canada has lengthened and my friendships here have grown and been strengthened.

I also pause because when the Canadians ask what I think of them, I hear sincere curiosity mixed with a bit of timid wondering. Like a woman who loves her little black dress but is still unsure of its fit. The vulnerability posed to me triggers a sympathetic twinge in my heart. And so I smile, I take a breath and wonder how to best generalize a varied nation of people who deserve more than this American's sweeping assumptions based on only four living years of experience.

Below is my 2010 response to the Go-train stranger:

"I have found that Canadians are like a good spring just waiting to emerge from a long winter. All they need is a good thaw. Once you've scratched the surface of their sheltered little hearts, you will find some of the friendliest and most interesting people you will ever encounter. Canada has become a slow but beautiful reveal to me."

With that answer, the Go-train stranger laughed and went onto describe how much he loved living in the States for a time. Permission for him to glow on about the U.S. had been granted.

Tom Brokaw said it well in this moving and well-produced NBC piece for the Olympics. "Life in the Canadian North is only for the hardy."

Canadians are a strong and durable bunch who know the value of sticking in it long enough to see the results. It shows in their appreciation for when warmer temperatures do eventually arrive, in their economy that seemed to be built less on immediate satisfaction and more on long-term gains, and in their hope for their Olympic athletes, who may trail in the overall medal count, but still manage to light this big expanse of a nation on fire with each advance to the hockey finals and every time one of their own does make it to the podium to hear their anthem raised.

Oh, Canada, you really are a 'True North strong and free.'