Identification and proper burial of pre-1970 war dead ‘a special thing’: coordinator

Article / January 25, 2018 / Project number: 17-0361

By Steven Fouchard, Army Public Affairs

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Ottawa, Ontario — You would expect higher public visibility for a Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) organization created to identify and respectfully bury  war casualties from conflicts dating before 1970, but CAF’s Casualty Identification Program (CIP) has remained low-profile for most of its decade-long existence.

That may be changing however, said Casualty Identification Coordinator Dr. Sarah Lockyer, who is also the program’s forensic anthropologist.

Dr. Lockyer joined the CIP, part of CAF’s Directorate of History and Heritage (DHH), in August 2016. She met Lieutenant-General Paul Wynnyk, Commander of the Canadian Army, this past August in France for the burials of four Canadian casualties of the First World War.

The meeting led to Dr. Lockyer’s invitation to a formal dinner event held in Ottawa during Army Week in September, where LGen Wynnyk shone a much-deserved light on the CIP in an address.

LGen Wynnyk just explained a little bit about my job,” she recalled. “I do frequently talk to people about it, and a lot of times the reaction is, even in the armed forces, ‘I didn’t even know we had somebody who did that.’”

Among those given burials in France this summer was one Unknown Canadian Soldier. While such cases cannot provide closure for the soldier’s next of kin, who are equally unknown, Dr. Lockyer said there is considerable satisfaction in having helped ensure he has a fitting resting place.

“At the end of the day, we found this soldier who gave his life for the country and now, rather than be buried somewhere we weren’t aware of, he’s buried in Canadian Cemetery No. 2 in France with his fallen comrades. That’s still a good outcome.”

“If more information becomes available in the future,” she added, “we can continue to test against the DNA profiles we have and continue to narrow down and hopefully in the future identify this individual. Then it’s a simple matter of changing the headstone.”

In some cases Dr. Lockyer herself contacts viable DNA donors identified through genealogical research, which offers welcome opportunities to interact with them.

“It is a very nice bonus to be able to talk to the families and see what it means to them because the vast majority of the next of kin from the First World War, they never knew the individual. So seeing them actively participate in the burial and their renewed interest in their own families is quite a special thing to be a part of.”

Despite the importance of hard science, particularly DNA analysis, to Dr. Lockyer’s work, anthropology falls under the humanities and social sciences umbrella. The actual lab work is not done in-house at DHH, but it falls to her to complete the puzzles presented by the evidence. The case of the Unknown Canadian Soldier given burial honours this past summer, for example, began with incomplete remains and nothing to tie them to a particular unit.

“He was found about 500 metres away from the Zivy Crater Cemetery, which is where about 50 individuals who died between April and May 1917 were buried – around the time of the Battle of Vimy Ridge,” she explained. “The Canadians were in that area from November 1916 to July 1917, so we can’t disregard anybody who passed through. I did have about 50 to 75 per cent of the remains available so I was able to get an age and height range – mid-20s to early 30s and 5’3” to 5’5”, which is kind of average. So even eliminating individuals based on age and height we still would have had too many candidates.”

For the layperson, stories like this will evoke images of crime scene investigation as seen through the lens of entertainment. Of course, the reality is always much less dramatic but Dr. Lockyer’s introduction to forensic anthropology was, appropriately enough, through television.

“I was 16 years old. I fell on a true crime show and a forensic anthropologist came on. She had determined that the skeleton found in the back yard of this house was in fact the mother who had been killed by the husband and who had not run away and abandoned her family as her husband had been saying. I remember thinking to myself, ‘That is incredibly fascinating.’”

Dr. Lockyer worked in more administrative roles in the public service before joining DHH and says the experience has been a positive eye-opener.

“It’s more relaxed than my pre-conceived notions of what the military were like. The environment at DHH is very collegial. There’s a lot of independent work but everybody here is so helpful and so nice. From the moment I set foot in here it was just a very pleasant and welcoming environment to work in.”

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