Toronto Police constable Scott Mills first came up with the idea of a wall mural honouring fallen Canadian soldiers after he was driving downtown with a local graffiti artist several years ago, and the car was stopped for the funeral procession of a fallen soldier.
"He looked at me and said 'if the kids out on the street knew what you guys go through, they would respect you a lot more,'" Constable Mills said.
But on Friday, he discovered the mural that resulted – located in the alley behind the coroner's office, and the last thing hundreds of families of soldiers killed overseas see before entering the building – was vandalized, spray-painted over in giant black lettering.
"I had a lump in my throat. I just couldn't believe it," Constable Mills said. "I just couldn't fathom that someone would do that to a mural that said 'highway of heroes' on it – it had poppies on it, an image of the Canadian flag, a dove for peace."
The mural was completed in 2010 by teenagers in the Flemingdon Neighbourhood Services, as part of Toronto's Graffiti Transformation Project. The alleyway behind the coroner's office was selected because it marks the final destination for soldiers killed overseas. The remains of every one of Canada's war dead makes the 174-kilometre trip along the "Highway of Heroes," the route from Canadian Forces Base Trenton along Highway 401, and ending at the coroner's office.
Constable Mills said that he passes the area regularly, and believes the mural was vandalized within the last month.
The artist who oversaw the Highway of Heroes mural, Jessey Pacho, 25, said that he's already planning on repainting the wall later this month.
Mr. Pacho, who helped the group of Flemingdon teenagers conceive of and execute the mural, said that he was initially surprised to hear that the mural had been vandalized. "And then a bit of anger when I actually saw the damage and the extent of it."
The entire brick wall, which the group of teenagers had spent a week painstakingly scraping, priming, then painting, is now covered in black lettering.
"There's people who do beautiful artwork, then there's people who just want to destroy," Mr. Pacho said of some graffiti artists. "There's an understanding that you don't do stuff over murals and artwork."
As a result of his work on the mural, Mr. Pacho said he's had the chance to meet with families of soldiers who have passed on, and currently members of the military. "It's been humbling," he said. "Meeting these people – knowing that this mural directly impacted their life in a positive way – it's something I can never compare it to."
An organizer for Canadian Heroes – a group that supports troops and their families – wrote on the group's Facebook page that "at the end of the day once the guilty party is found and they will be, I can only hope through proper education that they will come and be part of creating something good rather than destroying works of art."
Mr. Pacho said that after the new mural is completed, a security camera, extra lighting or a plaque may be installed in hopes of deterring vandals from striking again.