The presence of the RCMP, Canada's oldest military regiment, at the funeral of Michelle Lang was tied to Prince George just as she was.
Lang began her acclaimed journalism career in Prince George, first as a summer student in her first newsroom in the mid 1990s then as a full-time news reporter. She went on to daily papers in Moose Jaw, Regina and finally the Calgary Herald with whom she won the 2008 National Newspaper Award as Canada's best beat reporter (health) and for whom she was on assignment in Afghanistan covering the war when a roadside bomb took her life and the lives of four Canadian soldiers.
When she was repatriated to Canada, there was no distinguishing her civilian coffin from those of the four soldiers who died with her on Dec. 30. The Canadian military had already decided to consider her one of their own.
That continued at her funeral Monday in Vancouver where a large military presence was front and centre. The red serge of the RCMP was a strong part of that presence, arranged for by another former Prince George resident, Regional Staff Sgt. Major Glen MacRae. He is in charge of deportment for the RCMP's B.C. and Yukon division and he personally contacted the Lang family to offer the RCMP's formal attendance. The family accepted without hesitation.
"She was killed with Canadian forces, embedded in there as a national Canadian presence," MacRae told The Citizen. "It (an RCMP formal presence) is appropriate because she was in that theatre of war doing her job for Canadians in a most Canadian way. The profession of journalism is a big part of the philosophies that we all hold dear in Canada, so we should pay our respects to her for that."
Leading the contingent of Mounties on Monday was none other than Deputy Commissioner Gary Bass, commanding officer of the region. He told The Citizen that it was an honour for the RCMP to work in Afghanistan and considered Lang's efforts "every bit as important as the military objectives" because, like the RCMP, it was aligned with the construction of a civil society for the Afghan people.
Few Mounties know more about the integrated military and reconstruction aspects of Canadians in Afghanistan more than Supt. Joe McAllister, who accompanied Bass and the others in red serge. McAllister has 16 months of service already in the war zone, and after the Olympics is scheduled to return for more duties training the Afghan police force and helping the Afghan government develop a law enforcement system that meets United Nations standards.
It is a painstaking process, but highly satisfying, he said, in spite of the tragedies like this one.
"I think I saw 44 ramp ceremonies over there," he said. "Some of them were even friends that you make over there, but this is the part you never get to see, the grieving process of family and friends when they receive their loved ones home."
McAllister said the war in Afghanistan is fought a number of ways, but it would not by won by the military. The enemy was not a traditional army doing traditional battle, he said, so the victory would only come from the Afghan people choosing for themselves how they will be governed. Winning their minds through peaceful and civil efforts was his job, and was part of what Lang and the other Canadian journalists were contributing to.
None of the Mounties at the funeral could have been prouder or sadder over Lang's death, however, than one in civilian clothes. Const. Kolinda Link is an RCMP member now, but in the mid 1990s worked in Prince George in the same newspaper office as Lang.
"Michelle actually got me my first newspaper job," she said. Link was then the editor of the College of New Caledonia paper and knew Lang through mutual story coverage. Lang took an interest in getting Link that first professional break, thus becoming her colleague and friend. Link is now based in the Lower Mainland with the RCMP's recruitment division, but was shedding tears in the company of a large group of former Prince George colleagues who congregated Monday with those in uniform, and Lang's family and friends, who all shared a bond with died in the line of all-Canadian duty.