OTTAWA – Members of Canada’s tight policing family marched up to Parliament Hill in the thousands Sunday, standing behind the grieving relatives of seven officers who had died in the line of duty over the past year.
Hundreds arrived by motorcycle with arm badges from places like London, Ont. and southern Ontario’s Peel region, and a handful of Mounties rode in on horseback. But most of the more than 5,000 officers who came to pay tribute marched on to the lawn of Parliament Hill, greeted by onlookers who snapped pictures under the drizzle.
“My family’s very aware of what they give up in their lives to help us, and we want to support them and make sure that we’re out there to support all of the officers who help keep us safe,” said Sherry Jones of Ottawa, whose brother-in-law is in the RCMP.
Seven caps and stetsons of the late officers were laid in a line on a step leading up to the Peace Tower. Flags across Ottawa were at half-mast.
Two of the officers, RCMP Chief Supt. Douglas Coates and Sgt. Mark Gallagher, had died during the earthquake in Haiti last January. Two of the police were women in their twenties — RCMP Const. Chelsey Robinson, and Levis Police Service Const. Melanie Roy.
Three were born outside of Canada — Peel Regional Police’s James Ochakovsky, Ontario Provincial Police’s Vu Pham, and Ottawa Police’s Eric Czapnik.
Pham and Czapnik had both been murdered — Pham shot after he stopped a pickup truck on a rural road in southwestern Ontario, and Czapnik stabbed as he sat in the parking lot of an Ottawa hospital writing a police report.
“That makes a significant difference in all of this as well, not that it minimizes the other deaths of the other police officers, but certainly with Const. Vu Pham being murdered and our own Ottawa police officer as well being murdered, it brings a significant impact to the police family overall,” said Charles Momy, president of the Canadian Police Association.
Stephanie Metka, a cousin of Robinson, blinked back tears as she spoke briefly to reporters about the young Alberta Mountie. Robinson was searching for a suspected impaired driver when her cruiser was struck by a transport truck.
“She loved serving in the community, and she loved being in the RCMP. She was great. I loved her very much and I’m going to miss her very much,” said Metka.
“Chelsey would have been very proud. She loved serving in uniform. To see the support and turnout from agencies across the country, municipal and provincial, federal, it’s unbelievable.”
A smattering of politicians attended the ceremony, held only days after an emotional vote in the House of Commons on the gun registry. The debate has at times pitted the Conservative government against heads of some police associations who support the registry.
Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, Government House Leader John Baird and Ontario MP Lois Brown were the Conservatives in the crowd.
“Know that our thoughts and our prayers are with you,” Toews told the families of the fallen officers during a midday speech. “They will always be your heroes, they will always be Canada’s heroes.”
Liberal MP Anthony Rota and NDP MP Glenn Thibeault, who have been both targeted by the Conservatives for backing the registry in the Commons, sat in the front row during the ceremony.
“We had a contingency here from the North Bay (Ont.) police and I felt it was important to be here to support them, certainly to commemorate and remember those who stand up to defend us and make sure that our communities are safe,” said Rota.
The ceremony wrapped up with officers, including dozens of ceremonial bagpipers and drummers from the various forces, marching past the caps and stetsons of their late colleagues. Later, they flooded into Parliament Hill’s Hall of Honour to warm up and eat a lunch hosted by Toews. Groups in their red or their blue uniforms huddled together for photos in front of the Peace Tower.
The names of the seven who died over the past year were etched into glass panels near a memorial pavilion, which now includes the names of 771 officers.