"What really ticks me off… is that the government of the day promised that [the crash site] would be set aside in perpetuity as a graveyard."-Jim MacMillan-Murphy
In sifting through my files for Remembrance Day, I found this story with its semi-parallel to last year’s discovery of the wreckage and remains of the four-man crew of a Second
World War Anson that vanished beyond Cowichan Lake in 1942.
This story dates back to 1994, 38 years after 62 people died in what was then Canada’s worst aviation accident when their Trans-Canada Airlines North Star crashed into Mount Slesse, southeast of Chilliwack. Alerted by hikers, the victims’ families had expressed concern that logging companies were working close to the crash site.
"We need to know exactly what’s going on there because it’s hallowed ground," said Jim MacMillan-Murphy of the Victoria-based Canadian Peacekeeping Association. His group became involved because Peacekeeper Philip Edwin Gower was one of the victims; he was returning home to Calgary from a tour of duty with the UN Command Military Armistice Commission. Because the bodies remain at the crash site it’s hallowed ground and shouldn’t be disturbed, MacMillan-Murphy wrote Forestry Minister Andrew Petter: "Their last resting place became a cemetery, not unlike those who died and [lie] within the USS Arizona in Hawaii or the Titanic off Newfoundland. They are
to be left undisturbed, unless to be exhumed and buried somewhere else."
He wanted the minister to provide documentation showing the proximity and extent of the proposed logging to the crash site. If Petter couldn’t provide assurance that his ministry would protect the site, "then close down the logging operation in the area". MacMillan-
Murphy copied his letter to Petter to the secretary of state for veterans in Ottawa with the request that he have his department "pool all your resources to ensure that this fallen comrade [Gower], who was a hero of D-Day and died returning home from peacekeeping duty, be protected."
Gower wasn’t the only casualty of this Dec. 9, 1956, tragedy, of course. Among those on board were five Canadian Football League stars, returning home from an East-West all-star game. Ironically, Winnipeg Blue Bomber Calvin Jones had missed an earlier flight by sleeping in. Although Flight 810, flying east from Vancouver, slammed into 2,500-metre Mount Slesse just 100 kilometres from take-off, likely because of severe icing and turbulence, the crash site was outside the North Star’s flight path and wasn’t discovered until five months later. The bodies remain at the site, some in a common grave.
As of May 1944, logging operations were said to be "right up to the base of the peak, the area supposed to be a permanent cemetery. It’s desecration. I wonder how the families of these victims would feel?" asked Brian Cooles who, with fellow
hiker Rob Dulmage, raised the alarm.
A check with the forest ministry and the provincial archives failed to turn up any formal declaration of a permanent cemetery on Mount Slesse although then Att.-Gen. Robert Bonner had "started the cabinet procedure to put a reserve on most of the mountain under the Land Act".
Doug Wright of Victoria, whose father H.E. Wright was a victim, expressed anger at the news of logging to within a kilometre of the wreck site. He was particularly concerned that a cairn at the base of the mountain not be disturbed: "What really ticks me off and other members of the family I’ve talked to, is that the government of the day promised that [the crash site] would be set aside in perpetuity as a graveyard."
He said it made him appreciate the concerns often expressed by First Nations people for their own burial grounds.
A month later, Forest Minister Petter wrote MacMillan-Murphy that logging would be kept at a "respectful distance" of 2.5 kilometres and the site preserved: "I want to assure you that there will be no encroachment by [logging] and that steps are being taken to further protect the site." An archaeologist had been assigned to map the crash area, identify appropriate boundaries and recommend a suitable buffer from harvesting operations.
At last report, MacMillan-Murphy was pushing for an Order-in-Council to protect the site. It was loggers, by the way, who found the Anson and set in motion recovery of the remains of its crew.