When Justin Boyes of Saskatoon announced to his mother Angela that he was going to join the Reserves, she did not approve. “This wasn’t in our plan of what we wanted for our kids,” she says. That was in January 2001, and after Sept. 11, Angela was begging her boy to quit. “Please, please, please,” she said to him. “Quit today. Go down there and quit today.”
But Justin was committed. As a teenager, he’d read about genocide and human rights violations in places like Rwanda and Afghanistan, and he wasn’t going to sit idle. So Angela resolved to support him. Still, she says, “I had a foreboding in my heart. I knew our lives were going to be affected by this.”
On Oct. 18, 2009, Justin arrived in Kandahar for his second tour of duty. The 26-year-old was leading a platoon focused on mentoring Afghan National Police officers. Ten days later, Angela’s phone rang. It was Justin’s younger brother, also a soldier, calling to say that Justin had been killed by an IED blast. “That can’t be,” she recalls saying to her son. “I had researched what would happen if the boys were hurt or killed—what the process would be—and I read that it would always involve someone coming to the door.” Within minutes, her doorbell rang.
Justin’s death was the 132nd since Canada’s Afghan mission began in 2002. To date, 152 Canadian soldiers have died. To commemorate their lives, Toronto-based filmmaker Andrew Gregg travelled the country for nine months, collecting memories from families who have lost their loved ones in the war. We Will Remember Them, his new documentary with 90th Parallel Productions, will air on CBC Nov. 11. All will be honoured, and 33 of their stories, including Boyes’s, will be told through interviews with the mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, spouses, and children they’ve left behind.
Gregg is adamant that the film will not make a political statement about the war. Instead, he notes, “In our society, we have somehow figured out how to have war without having wartime. We are willing to send them off, then we don’t pay attention to them.”
During research for the film, he found that a number of things unite the families, besides their loss. One, says Gregg, is that almost all of them can’t quite believe their loved one died, and still in some way expect him or her to return from the mission. More profound, perhaps, was the openness he encountered every time he walked into the family home of a deceased soldier. He knew he was stepping into “an immense amount of grief, asking people to relive the worst moment of their lives,” but again and again, he found family and friends who wanted to share. “Everybody wants to talk about their son or daughter,” he says.
In the documentary, there is Tara Dawe, who shares what it felt like to fall in love with her husband, Matt, and then lose him to a blast in Afghanistan on the day their son Lucas turned two. There’s Jim Seggie in Winnipeg, who shows the wreath from his son Mike’s grave, which he now hangs on the wall. He just can’t throw it out, he explains.
There’s also James Boyes, the son of Justin, hugging a teddy bear that his dad had made and gave him before shipping out. When he squeezes it, a recording of Justin’s voice plays: “Hug your daddy bear, and remember that daddy loves you.” Justin’s wife, Alanna, says their son still turns his head whenever he sees a soldier to check if it’s his dad.
Angela Boyes and her husband, Brian, also make an appearance. They now live in Fort McMurray, Alta. Moving on has been difficult, but Angela has found some solace in line-dancing. “Sometimes I felt so guilty for dancing,” she said in a phone interview. “You just think, my son will never dance again, and he’s the one who should be.” Now, remembering her son is most important. When she saw Justin’s brother head off to Afghanistan, she asked him what he was most afraid of. His response: “Of being forgotten.” For her, Gregg’s documentary is a way to make sure Justin’s story never is.