Registry will help identify Canadian war dead in unmarked graves

February 18, 2021 - Defence Stories
World Anthropology Day

Caption

Captain Sye VanMaanen, Padre, leads the burial party from The British Columbia Regiment on June 12, 2019 during the burial ceremony of First World War fallen soldier, Private George Alfred Newburn at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s Loos British Cemetery outside Loos-en-Gohelle, France.

Photo: MCpl PJ Letourneau, Canadian Forces Combat Camera
IS06-2019-0026-003

In the spirit of World Anthropology Day on Feb. 18, I wanted to share with you what I do as a forensic anthropologist: I am the Casualty Identification Coordinator for the Canadian Armed Forces. I analyze the newly discovered skeletal remains of Canadian service personnel who were killed in action during the First and Second World Wars, as well as the conflict in Korea, and who have no known grave.

The Casualty Identification Program aims to identify the remains of more than 27,000 Canadian war dead so that they may be buried with their name, by their regiment, and in the presence of family. Since 2007, the Program has successfully identified the human remains of 31 Canadian soldiers, while five sets of remains have been buried as unknown soldiers when identification was not possible. The families of those we have identified and those who are still missing show us why this work is important. I have heard many stories of families continuing to honour their ancestors who died in conflict and have no known grave, no matter how much time or how many generations have passed.

People are often surprised that the remains of Canadian war dead continue to be discovered today. It is certainly not a daily occurrence; however, a number of new cases come to my desk every year. My goal, as a forensic anthropologist, is to return the names and faces to those who died in service to Canada, some of them more than 100 years ago. The process is not as easy as what television shows such as “Bones” and “CSI” make it out to be. Due to a number of circumstances, it can take many years before we are able to identify remains. Some of the remains I continue to work on were discovered 10 years ago.

Why not use DNA? We do. DNA is a very valuable tool that helps us identify unknown human remains; however, it is not as straightforward as many people think. Some types of DNA do not survive very well, which can limit what we are able to obtain from the remains. If we do not have a sample from a family member, the DNA from the remains does not reveal much to help with identification. Finding viable donors willing to donate their DNA can take a very long time. Over the years, I’ve had some interesting conversations on the phone with family members to reassure them that the Casualty Identification Program is legitimate, there is no cost to the families, and we will respect their private information. It is an unusual request, after all.

Today, I am asking for your help in identifying Canada’s war dead, including someone who may be from your family. The Casualty Identification Program has created an online registration form for the families of Canadian war dead who have no known grave. We only ask for your contact information and information about the soldier who is a part of your family. By registering with us, you can help accelerate the identification process. You can sign up here: https://www.canada.ca/en/department-national-defence/services/military-history/history-heritage/casualty-identification-military/register-missing-military-family.html. And who knows, someday you may get a phone call from me.

For more information on the Casualty Identification Program, visit: https://www.canada.ca/en/department-national-defence/services/military-history/history-heritage/casualty-identification-military.html.

Dr. Sarah Lockyer is the Casualty Identification Coordinator and forensic anthropologist for the Canadian Armed Forces. She is based in Ottawa, Ont.

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