2nd Canadian to die fighting in Ukraine repatriated by family, not Ottawa
A single trumpet plays the opening note of Last post past the spacious funeral home, crowded with people waiting. That includes the soldier clutching the vase.
Sad songs are an important part of military ceremonies, but there’s nothing traditional about the moment.
In June, Joseph Hildebrand, a 33-year-old Canadian veteran, left his hometown of Saskatchewan to help Ukraine fend off a Russian invasion.
Now he returned like ashes. His partner and his daughter stood still, crying. When the trumpet stops, they can reunite one last time as a family.
It took weeks of negotiations with Ukrainian and Canadian officials to get Hildebrand’s remains home this way. The family warned other Canadians will have to do the same if Ottawa doesn’t change the way it helps volunteer soldiers repatriate.
A ‘continuous attraction’ for the military
Carissa Hildebrand and her nearly 14-year-old daughter Jovi haven’t been the same since Hildebrand arrived in Ukraine.
“When Joe passed, that’s when we started to grieve,” Carissa told CBC News in her Swift Current, Sask., apartment in early December. They had been together for almost eight years.
Hildebrand joined the Canadian Armed Forces after graduating from high school and became a member of Princess Patricia Canada’s Light Infantry. He served in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2010.
After being discharged from the army, Hildebrand tried to volunteer to fight in Syria during the civil war, but was unable to enter due to border closures. So he moved back to Saskatchewan to work on his family and neighbours’ farm.
- VIEW | The story of Joseph Hildebrand on Nation on Mondays at 9 p.m. ET on CBC News Network and 10 p.m. local time on your CBC television station. You can also catch Nation online on CBC Gems.
Carissa said his love for Carissa grew and Hildebrand adopted her daughter — his “Jovi Bear” — in 2020. They’re becoming a veritable “family unit.” .
Then Russia invaded Ukraine.
“When he found out we weren’t sending Canadian soldiers to help, he was surprised,” she said.
His decision to leave was one she respected, but did not understand.
“He was always in a constant traction,” she said.
“He wanted farm life and family life, but he also wanted to constantly be with his brotherhood and go help. Those are two different worlds.”
Being killed drags others to safety
On November 7th, Carissa’s phone rang around 7am
“I just knew right away,” she said.
A man with a heavy Ukrainian accent told her that Hildebrand was dead. She still doesn’t know who called.
Through conversations with Hildebrand’s comrades, Carissa learned he died on 7 November in the eastern city of Bakhmut, dragging his dead and wounded comrades to safe territory. Carissa is informed that artillery has struck and killed the love of her life.
“I wanted to open people’s eyes to what happens to a volunteer fighting for another country,” Carissa said.
Request an escort
federal official strongly advise Canadians against to Ukraine during the war.
“Your safety is at high risk, especially if you are engaged in active combat,” the travel advisory warns. “Our ability to provide consular services in Ukraine is severely limited. You should not depend on the Government of Canada to help you leave the country.”
So when Hildebrand died, Ukrainian officials were responsible for what happened next.
Support Ukraine, a third-party company that works with the Ukrainian military, has begun the repatriation process. The group took his body to the crematorium and organized a cremation. It also stacks documents like death certificates.
The company usually transports the remains back to the country.
“That just feels wrong,” Carissa said. “He was alone on the cargo plane. It’s hard to believe.”
Carissa and Crystal Martens, the director of Swift Current Funeral Home, then worked together and asked an escort to bring the remains to Canada.
The company said it had to follow the original plan.
At the time, Carissa and Martens were emailing several agencies: Ukraine Aid, the Canadian Embassy, Canadian Global Affairs, and the Ukraine Defense International Corps, which Hildebrand fought with. .
Martens said it seemed like no one on the team was in contact with each other, so she became a “nonstop” liaison.
“Some people are very indifferent and wonder why we are arguing about this,” she said.
Don’t want remains shipped ‘like Amazon’s package’
In Niagara Falls, Ont., Steve Krsnik is also fighting to get his friend home from Ukraine. He helped Hildebrand register for this war.
“We didn’t want him to be shipped alone in a box like the Amazon package,” he said.
Veteran Princess Patricia helped train Hildebrand as a rookie. They served in Afghanistan at the same time.
“Many people who have served abroad, when they return, have difficulty adjusting to civilian life because it is so different,” Krsnik said.
“Guys are always trying to experience those peaks again because they’re so addictive. Endorphins run through your body when you’re at those peaks – in a way, it’s exhilarating. the guy will supplement that feeling with thrill-seeking activities . . . but it doesn’t work. It doesn’t answer the calls we want.”
They kept in touch while Hildebrand was in Ukraine. Krsnik said Hildebrand believes he is “doing the right thing” and feels he’s done gaining ground against the Russians.
When Hildebrand died, Krsnik knew the volunteer soldiers did not participate in the grand ceremonies or the convoys down the Avenue of Heroes. Nor did they receive extensive help from Ottawa.
“The Canadian government hasn’t really intervened to do much about repatriation,” he said.
Krsnik has raised more than $27,000 through an online fundraiser for repatriation, attorney, funeral home and accounting fees, among other unexpected expenses. What remains will belong to Hildebrand’s daughter.
A volunteer, veteran escort
Krsnik, Martens and Carissa spent November trying to convince the authorities to hand over the remains to their escorts, who were already in Ukraine.
Josiah Napier, another veteran of Princess Patricia who knows Hildebrand, is on her second voluntary tour in Ukraine.
Although preparing to return to his family in Alberta, Napier delayed his trip by a month to become Hildebrand’s escort.
Napier told CBC News from Kyiv in early December: “If it were me and there were no supporters here, it would have been a pretty horrible process.
“So I stayed. It was the right thing to do.”
Hildebrand will be ‘heavily disappointed’
The four Canadians worked daily on their duties, arranging paperwork, including passport copies and consent letters from the Canadian Embassy approving the escort.
By December 2, everyone agreed that Napier could take Hildebrand home.
Martens said a repatriation process like this would normally take months, so doing it in a few weeks is “extraordinary”.
One major caveat is that families have to pay for the journey home – an expense they have not yet counted on.
Carissa said she never expected the federal government to pay for the repatriation, but she wanted more coordination for her partner’s remains.
“He will be very disappointed in his government right now,” she said, thinking about his time serving in the Canadian Armed Forces.
“He fought for Canada.”
The company said the repatriation did not experience ‘a single delay’
In an email to CBC News, Ukraine Support said it did “more than necessary” to get Hildebrand’s ashes back to Canada immediately in accordance with Ukrainian law.
According to a spokesman, Veterans Affairs Canada cannot comment “on the records of individual veterans, even after they have passed away.” Secretary Lawrence MacAuley was not available for an interview.
A spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada said the organization is providing consular services to the family and is “taking the necessary steps to ensure that the family is supported and treated with dignity.”
Napier traveled from Kyiv to Lviv, about 550 kilometers west, to collect the urn. Then he hitchhiked out of Ukraine with another foreign soldier.
Direct international flights to Saskatchewan were rare, so the team decided Napier would fly from Frankfurt to Calgary, Alta.
On December 10—nearly six months since Hildebrand had departed for war—Carissa, Jovi, and Martens came to pick him up, meeting Napier at a funeral home in Medicine Hat, Alta.
The journey is over
Napier walked steadily toward Carissa and Jovi when Last post finish.
“Hi, Josiah,” Carissa whispered. Jovi put an arm around Napier, who handed Carissa the vase in a black velvet bag. She holds it with both hands. Martens put his arm around Carissa.
The only sound was a gasp between silent sobs.
“Thank you very much,” Carissa told Napier. They hugged for a few more minutes, then signed papers proving the vase’s journey was over.
Before leaving, they all agreed on one thing: if another Canadian soldier died in Ukraine, they wanted to help their family.
“At least I can help them with this a little bit,” Napier said.
Carissa agrees: “That’s the whole point.”