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A Living Tribute

author: Denny Manchee  

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 A project to plant trees along the Highway of Heroes from Trenton to Toronto will honour all those who have died in service to Canada since Confederation

YOU MAY NOT HAVE NOTICED THEM YET, the whips of maples and evergreens or the larger caliper trees at the interchanges in Port Hope and Cobourg, but they represent the beginning of a beautiful idea: to commemorate our fallen armed-forces personnel with new life.“I have always loved trees, even as a kid,” says Mark Cullen, gardener, author, institution. “When I brought together 14 not-for profit tree-planting organizations, we agreed that we could accomplish much together in an effort to double Canada’s tree canopy. The only problem was finding a focus that would help us get there one step at a time.”

According to Cullen, it was a fine October day three years ago when the Executive Director of Landscape Ontario, Tony DiGiovanni, put up his hand and said, “We just reforested the Veterans Memorial Parkway in London, Ontario. Why don’t we reforest the Highway of Heroes?” Thus was born an idea that has resonated with both environmentalists and those who appreciate the military commitment and sacrifice of our armed forces.

The goal is to plant 117,000 trees (native species) on the Highway of Heroes between CFB Trenton and the Coroner’s office in Toronto, one for every soldier who has died in service since Confederation. There will be an additional 1,883,000 trees planted in communities near the highway, acknowledging all the people who volunteered for military service in war times.

“Nothing excites me more than to see those trees planted on the 401,” says Cullen, founding chair of the Highway of Heroes Living Tribute. “Each tree represents a transformational experience on the country’s busiest highway for generations to come.”

While that may be a dream, anything that makes driving the 401 a more pleasing experience is laudable, even when you’re stopped – or stranded – at an ONroute. There will be interpretive information at the four ONroutes between Trenton and Toronto, as well as specific plantings at those sites.

Ron Koudys, the landscape architect (LA) who designed the London memorial, speaks in the poetics of design. “A person moves through the world with a 60° cone of vision,” he said at a July meeting of LAs who are consulting on the project. “We can manipulate the landscape to create a string of pearls for the eyes, painting with spring, summer and fall colour.” The people gathered around the table that day think in terms of decades. This is vision and ambition, and both are needed to advance the project.

It helps to have a maverick like Michael de Pencier involved, too. At 82, the entrepreneur and publisher has more energy than people half his age and, along with fellow board members Cullen and DiGiovanni, is driving the Living Tribute forward with fundraising, networking and a volcano of ideas.

They need to raise $10 million and are at $1.2 million so far. The project’s Canada 150 campaign allows people to purchase an individual tree for $150, knowing it will receive two years of maintenance from partners Landscape Ontario, Forests Ontario and Maple Leaves Forever. About 15,000 trees have gone in to date, with more plantings scheduled in the fall. Note, not just anyone can pull onto the shoulder of the 401 and plant a tree. You need a permit and “Book 7” training to do it, and there are specific contractors authorized by the Ministry of Transportation for this work. Members of the public can participate in the community plantings near the 401, though, and that can be a profoundly healing act for those who have lost friends and loved ones.

“It has a personal part in my heart,” says 61-yearold Ena Newman, who spent almost 32 years in the military and served in Air Force support in the covert military base Camp Mirage in Dubai in 2006. “I did a six-month tour and we had nine deaths in that time. A Hercules brought them from Kandahar and we received them on the tarmac in Dubai and did a service for everyone that died.”

Newman’s first planting was at Afghanistan Park in Trenton where 30 to 40 attended the ceremony. “I like trees. They’re strong, they protect us like our veterans and they represent the promise of life. I think it’s a fantastic way to honour our veterans.” For more information about the Highway of Heroes Living Tribute, go to hohtribute.ca.

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carl wiens

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meghan sheffield

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