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117,000 trees will line the Highway of Heroes in memory of fallen soldiers

Mehreen Shahid

By Mehreen Shahid, Orillia Packet & Times

A project honouring Canadians soldiers, who died in wars since Confederation, will plant 117,000 trees along the Highway of Heroes. Pictured is Scott Bryk, executive director of the project called Highway of Heroes Living Tribute, at Veteran's Memorial Park in Orillia. MEHREEN SHAHID/THE PACKET & TIMES

A project honouring Canadians soldiers, who died in wars since Confederation, will plant 117,000 trees along the Highway of Heroes. Pictured is Scott Bryk, executive director of the project called Highway of Heroes Living Tribute, at Veteran's Memorial Park in Orillia. MEHREEN SHAHID/THE PACKET & TIMES

Just as people lined up to welcome back Canadians soldiers, 117,000 trees will now line the Highway of Heroes to pay tribute to those that did not make it back.

The trees are being planted along a 170-km stretch of road on the Macdonald-Cartier Freeway or Highway 401, from Canadian Forces Base Trenton to Toronto, as part of the Highway of Heroes Living Tribute campaign.

"We have three themes that permeate our campaign: remembrance, environment and community," said Scott Bryk, executive director of the campaign. "It's the unifying force that we've seen with the building of the Trans-Canada Highway and Transcontinental Railroad and essentially is the fabric that holds confederation together, 10 provinces and three territories that are so unique, yet somehow come together to form a community. That's why people can easily identify with it in their own unique way, including new Canadians."

Living Tribute kicked off in November 2015 with the help of initial contributions by Landscape Ontario, Forests Ontario, Maple Leaves Forever and the Garden Club of Toronto, said Bryk.

To date, over 8,000 trees have been planted with another 20,000 expected to go in this year. The trees have found home on the sides of the highway and in small communities along the way, said Bryk. The campaign has raised $850,000, all from individual private donors in its first year, toward a total goal of $8 million, he added.

All donations go to purchase, plant and maintain the trees, said Bryk, with administrative costs having been covered through donations as well.

"And now communities across the country are recognizing and remembering their local war dead," said Bryk, who was attending Orillia Thursday to talk to local groups, such as the Probus Club of Twin Lakes. "(Canadians) are wanting to organize and support our campaign to ensure that their local heroes are honoured in this living, breathing national memorial."

The start of the campaign was marked by a visit to each of the communities through which the highway passes. Local residents who attended launch events were able to plant trees in their communities themselves, but, for safety reasons, professionals did the work along the highway, said Bryk.

Aside from boosting the environment, the campaign hopes to keep alive the memory of all the fallen soldiers.

"This campaign allows us to talk about the importance of remembrance especially with school children, not just on Remembrance Day," said Bryk. "It also raises the importance of invisible wounds like PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and the need to have the conservation about mental illness and support our troops."

According to Statistics Canada, in 2013, one in six full-time regular force members of the Canadian Armed Forces reported symptoms of at least one of the following disorders: major depressive episode, panic disorder, PTSD, generalized anxiety disorder, and alcohol abuse or dependence. The 12-month rates for PTSD and panic disorder were twice as high among members who had been deployed in Afghanistan compared to those who had not.

At some point in future, Bryk hopes, the Living Tribute campaign can be expanded to contribute to mental-health services for military personnel.

Right now, the focus is on what is likely a five-year plan in getting all 117,000 trees to take root, he said, before they can move to the next stage and plant 2.1 million trees honouring all Canadian soldiers who have served since Confederation.

Bryk asked Canadians support the campaign by visiting their website hohtribute.ca and subscribing to the newsletter following its progress. Other ways people can participate is by making a charitable donation in the form of a tree for a family war hero or just someone they perceive as a hero and spreading the word about the campaign and sharing veteran stories, added Bryk.

"There are also some creative ways in which Canadians can support," he said. "You can donate some unused Aeroplan miles that we will use to bring families of fallen soldiers from across the country to our tree-planting events.

"Imagine a silver cross mother from rural Alberta to be flown to the highway of heroes to be able to plant a tree for her son or daughter," said Bryk.

mshahid@postmedia.com

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