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Canada's top soldier apologizes for repatriation delay

The Globe and Mail

Canada's top soldier issued an apology late Thursday after it was revealed the military plane carrying the remains of Trooper Karine Blais dropped off troops in Ottawa — where flags weren't lowered — before heading to Trenton for her official repatriation.

While the Canadian Forces refused to say if the practice of making pit stops with a soldier's casket on board was common, some military observers said it is.

Trooper Blais, the 117th Canadian soldier killed in Afghanistan, died Monday when a vehicle she was in hit a roadside bomb. Her death fell within a troop rotation. As such, her body was scheduled to be flown home along with more than 100 returning soldiers, who yesterday were dropped off first in Ottawa, which is about an hour closer than Trenton to their Petawawa, Ont., base.

An anonymous Canadian soldier e-mailed CTV before the scheduled stop, complaining of the "shoddy treatment of a fallen Canadian soldier." When the network arrived at the Ottawa airport, the comments were echoed by some disembarking soldiers.

"None of us on the flight would have minded stopping in Trenton first," soldier Scott Holmes said.

Altogether, the incident forced Canada's Chief of the Defence Staff to issue an apology.

"I want to offer my sincerest apologies to anyone who may have been offended by the decision to return troops to Ottawa prior to the final repatriation of our fallen comrade Trooper Karine Blais," General Walt Natynczyk, who was with Trooper Blais's family for the Trenton repatriation, said in a statement.

"I can assure all Canadians that our goal is to treat all fallen soldiers with respect, dignity and honour."

The Canadian Forces refused to comment further, pointing only to the brief apology, which came as some experts slammed the forces for the error.

"When landing in the capital of the nation, and you forget something as basic and as universal as lowering the flag, it's unacceptable," retired Colonel Michel DrapeauÍ told CTV. "I'm shocked. It's a breach of protocol."

But a former top soldier said he didn't think it was an error. Retired Major-General Lewis MacKenzie said the Trenton repatriation has only recently become a regular tradition, but it is not "chipped in stone" that planes fly directly there.

"I don't think it's necessarily dictated by the presence of caskets on board that they would pass over another scheduled stop," he said. "I personally think the trooper would have been the first to agree and say: 'Yeah, let's let these guys and gals off.' "

Mr. MacKenzie said planes often stop in Europe to refuel, and another stop wouldn't be unprecedented.

"I doubt very much that every repatriation of fatalities has gone directly from that refuelling to Trenton."

John Thompson, president of the Mackenzie Institute think tank, said the decision was a practical one made with equipment availability strained during the troop rotation. "And logistics trump everything: operations and ceremony," he said.

Trooper Blais's uncle, Mario Blais, was unfazed by the stop, describing it as a mistake by the military. "They're not too sharp," he said.

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