The flowers and cards are piling up outside the gates of Canadian Forces Base Gagetown in New Brunswick, while in the nearby town of Oromocto a steady stream of people sign the book of condolences in the town hall.
“Everybody’s pretty low,” Gwen Young, a real-estate agent and a military wife, said on Wednesday. “As far as the town, I think right now it’s almost a numb feeling because it’s not until the men actually arrive back here that a lot of things kick in.”
“The men” are the bodies of the soldiers killed last week in Afghanistan, six Canadians who died when a powerful land mine ripped apart their LAV III armoured vehicle. Of the six, five came from Atlantic Canada: two from Newfoundland and Labrador, two from New Brunswick and one from Nova Scotia.
Two more soldiers died on Wednesday night in a Taliban bomb attack. One lived in Pembroke, but was originally from Newcastle, N.B., and the other was from Gagetown, N.B.
On Thursday, New Brunswick Premier Shawn Graham said: “It is never an easy task to give a statement like this, and to do so twice in one week is particularly difficult. Words seem inadequate to describe the sadness we feel as a province at this time.”
Is it just coincidence that seven of the eight dead were born or grew up in Atlantic Canada? Is it just that the units in Afghanistan at this time are from the East? Does chronic unemployment in the region guide Eastern Canada’s young men and women toward the military, where they can receive an education, gain a career and lead a life of adventure — perhaps in exchange for accepting a disproportionate amount of the risk overseas?
In 2005-06, 23 per cent of the Canadian Forces’ recruits came from Atlantic Canada, according to a military spokesperson in Ottawa, while 26 per cent were from Quebec and 33 per cent were from Ontario. About 19 per cent came from the West.
But Michel Desjardins, a petty officer at the recruiting detachment in Bathurst, N.B., estimates that the number for Atlantic Canada is even higher.
“Eastern Canada, we do provide a lot of people for the Canadian Forces,” Petty Officer Desjardins said. “I believe last time I looked, about a third of the Canadian Forces are from Atlantic Canada, and for a region of the country that only comprises something like 10 per cent of the Canadian population, it’s a lot.”
Jonathan Vance, Canada Research Chair in Conflict and Culture at the University of Western Ontario in London, agrees that it is a high proportion and suggests that military recruitment should be viewed as another form of out-migration in the region “because you sign on not really knowing where it’s going to take you. And out-migration is itself almost entirely for economic reasons.
“It may well be, for Maritimers with limited job prospects, joining the military is not that much different from going to the oil sands in Alberta, except for the fact there’s a chance you’ll get killed. It does fit in with the decades-old pattern of Maritimers leaving the province in one way or another.”
Since 2002, 53 Canadian soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan, 21 of whom were born or grew up in the Atlantic provinces.
From 2001 to 2006, the population of the Atlantic provinces dropped to 7.2 from 7.6 per cent of the country’s total, but within the last year it has stabilized, according to Statistics Canada. Unemployment remains high, with rates ranging from 7.4 per cent in New Brunswick in March to 14.3 per cent in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Back in Bathurst, in northern New Brunswick, Petty Officer Desjardins, 40, said he joined the military in 1991 at the age of 24. He was married with two young children and needed a job. “I couldn’t find a job in New Brunswick at that time, so for me the armed forces was a way out.”
And so it is these days for other young people who show up at the Bathurst recruiting office, where 300 to 400 people a year tell Petty Officer Desjardins that they want to make a difference.
Another draw is that the Canadian Forces pays for their education.
But many recruits say they want a job that offers adventure, something that’s not 9-to-5, the same thing day in and day out. “The adventure is a big selling point for us and, of course, our target audience of 18 to 24. It just works right into what they’re looking for,” Petty Officer Desjardin said.
Certainly, that’s one aspect that attracted Trooper Patrick James Pentland, 23, one of the soldiers who died on Wednesday. From his home in Oromocto, his father, Jim Pentland, told The Globe and Mail that his son sought “adventure” in the military.
Fay Tidd, the mayor of Oromocto, says Eastern Canada has always provided a high proportion of soldiers. She points to Vimy Ridge and the large number of men from Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador that fought there.
While Mrs. Tidd believes that jobs attract recruits — her husband, Wallace, left his home on New Brunswick’s Grand Manan Island and joined the military in 1943 partly for work — she said Eastern Canadians like to stick together. “They make very close friends and that’s what you do in the military: Your friends are your family.”
Professor Vance pointed to a long tradition of military service in the East simply because the region is older than the rest of the country. Because of well-established garrisons at places such as St. John’s and Halifax, the military tradition runs deep, he said.
That military tradition can extend through families as well. Petty Officer Desjardin said everyone you speak to knows someone in the forces, whether it’s a cousin, an uncle or a brother. “Our best recruiters are family members,” he said.
Mrs. Young, the real-estate agent in Oromocto, disputes the idea that all Atlantic Canadians are attracted to military service because of a poor economy. She said some join for a job, but everyone has different reasons. Her husband, James, is a master warrant officer in Afghanistan with the 2nd Battalion, Canadian Regiment — the same regiment that lost six men last week. Mr. Young, 44, joined the forces in 1984 partly for a career, but also because serving attracted him. “For my husband, it’s who he is. It’s what he does.”
Charles Cirtwill, acting president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies in Halifax, doesn’t buy the economic argument for armed forces recruitment. He argued that while the military may be a significant employer in parts of the East, many of the people on the bases come from elsewhere, including the West.
“I don’t think it’s a question we’re seeing the depletion of the resource of our youth in our communities because they’re all going into the military.”
Instead, Mr. Cirtwill pointed out that the East is not the only region with large blocs of service families. He noted that Edmonton has a long tradition of enrolment.
Units currently serving in Afghanistan largely are made up of reservists or regular members of the forces who are based in or come from the Atlantic region, Mr. Cirtwill said. “So when they take casualties, it comes close to home.
“We all need to remember that it wasn’t that long ago there were Western communities out there losing five, six, seven people at a time. Now, we’ve seen a shift to the units in place and the losses are moving around.”
As true as that may be, it will not ease the grief in Oromocto when the bodies of the soldiers arrive at the Gagetown base and the loss truly hits home.
Charles Mandel is a writer based in Rothesay, N.B.