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Canadian Military Journal [Vol. 21, No. 4, Autumn 2021]

DND photo by Sergeant Yannick Bédard

Sergeant Yannick Bédard, imagery technician for Canadian Forces Combat Camera, snaps photos of the ruins in a historic district during a reconnaissance patrol carried out by the DART Civil-Military Cooperation team as part of the Government of Canada’s earthquake relief efforts in Nepal, 4 May 2015.

Sarah Lockyer, PhD, is currently a Casualty Identification Coordinator in the Directorate of History and Heritage under Military Personnel Command. She has a BSc in Anthropology, a MSc in Forensic Archaeological Science, and a PhD in Bioarchaeology.

In August 2016, I began working for the Canadian Armed Forces as its Casualty Identification Coordinator. For me, this is a dream job; an opportunity to use my education on a full-time basis. My position is located within the Directorate of History and HeritageFootnote 1—its mandate includes the preservation and communication of Canada’s military history to foster pride in its heritage—under Military Personnel Command.Footnote 2 One of the first things my manager at the time asked me to do was to increase awareness of the Casualty Identification Program, both within and outside National Defence. Since that time, I have met many members of the Defence Team at various ranks and civilian levels. At almost every opportunity, I try to talk about the Casualty Identification Program, its mandate, and my role as its forensic anthropologist. Often, I am met with blank stares, questioning looks, complete confusion, or “that’s so cool!” Honestly, I expect the looks of confusion and I am not the least bothered by it as it provides an opportunity to talk about the interesting stuff I get to do. But it does lead to the questions of what is a Casualty Identification Coordinator and why does a forensic anthropologist work for Canadian Armed Forces?

A forensic anthropologist has skills and knowledge that are focused on the human skeleton and its 206 bones (when a person has reached adulthood). The forensic anthropologist can determine if bones are human or not and, subsequently, analyze the human skeletal remains to create a biological profile of the individual which will hopefully lead to their identification. The skeleton can reveal a great deal of information about that person and their life. Analyzing a skeleton may reveal a person’s age-at-death, their height, their sex, whether they broke any bones during their lifetime, their diet, any diseases they may have had during their lifetime, amongst other biological and environmental factors.Footnote 3

This skillset has proven to be useful for medical examiners’ and coroners’ offices when human remains have been discovered and need to be identified. The anthropologist can also provide advice on any injuries appearing on the bone which can assist the medical examiner or coroner determine cause and manner of death. As examples, there are anthropologists working for the New York City Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, who continue to analyze and identify the remains of the victims of the World Trade Center disaster, amongst other responsibilities.Footnote 4 The Colibrí Center for Human Rights, within the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner in Arizona, USA, where the remains of migrants from Central and South American countries are frequently discovered near the border with Mexico and need to be identified, also seek the skills of a forensic anthropologist.Footnote 5 Forensic anthropologists are also employed with organizations such as the International Commission on Missing Persons and the International Committee of the Red Cross. The International Commission on Missing Persons was created in 1996 as a response to the large number of individuals who went missing during the 1991–1995 fighting in the former Yugoslavia. Since then, it has expanded internationally and provides identification services related to conflicts or environmental disasters in Iraq, Colombia, Libya, the United States and elsewhere.Footnote 6 Forensic anthropologists and archaeologists can be vital in the investigation of war crimes by locating and excavating mass graves, collecting evidence which could be used in a court of law, and identifying the remains of those buried within said mass graves. This has been evident in the proceedings of the International Criminal Tribunal for RwandaFootnote 7 and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.Footnote 8

Everett Collection Historical/Alamy Stock Photo

Workers at the Fresh Kills Landfill gather debris from the World Trade Center for victim identification and evidence.

The above may bring you right back to the initial question: why? Why are these skills needed within the Canadian Armed Forces? As Casualty Identification Coordinator, I manage the investigations into the identity of newly discovered skeletal remains of Canadian soldiers who were killed in action during the First and Second World Wars, as well as the Korean conflict. Alongside the coordination of all the steps that can be part of an investigation, one of my main responsibilities is related to the anthropological analysis of the skeletal human remains. This article will describe my role as a forensic anthropologist within the Defence Team and how my skills and knowledge can be further applied to some of the Canadian Armed Forces’ business. The first section will delve deeper into the Casualty Identification Program, its mandate, responsibilities, and how we are able to identify soldiers who were killed in action more than 100 years ago. The second section will explore the role a forensic anthropologist can have during Disaster Victim Identification and how it can complement the skills and expertise of the Canadian Forces Forensic Odontology Response Team. The final section will explore the benefit of having a Mass Fatality Response Plan and how a forensic anthropologist can help formulate it.

DND photo by Major Geneviève Poitras

The Canadian Forces Forensic Odontology Response Team during the Bureau of Legal Dentistry (BOLD) Disaster Victim Identification training in 2018 at the University of British Columbia.

The Casualty Identification Program

In 2003, two sets of human skeletal remains were found in France and thought to be Canadian soldiers of the First World War due to the artefacts associated with the remains. As technology, especially DNA, had become much more accessible, the Directorate of History and Heritage decided that a full investigation into the identity of these remains would be undertaken. The investigation was successful and both soldiers were buried with their name in a cemetery close to where they fell. This led to the formal creation of the Casualty Identification ProgramFootnote 9 in 2007 within the Directorate of History and Heritage.

There are more than 27,000 Canadian soldiers and airmen from the First World War, the Second World War, and the Korean conflict who have no known grave. About 20,000 of those service members are from the First World War, more than 7,000 from the Second World War, and 16 from the Korean conflict. As they have no known grave, they are commemorated on memorials such as the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in Vimy, France. We do believe that many of these soldiers and airmen are already properly buried under a Commonwealth War Graves CommissionFootnote 10 headstone as Unknown Soldiers or Unknown Canadian soldiers. However, as the nationality is not always commemorated on the headstone if it was not known at the time of burial, it is impossible to have an exact count of how many Canadian soldiers and airmen are properly buried and how many are not. Through extensive historical research, it is sometimes possible to identify the soldiers who have already been buried under an “unknown” headstone. The Casualty Identification Program is responsible for adjudicating such research and confirming the identification.

Every year, due to modern human activity such as construction and farming, skeletal human remains of soldiers and airmen of various nationalities are discovered, especially in France and Belgium. Canada has seen five to ten discoveries per year since I began working as Casualty Identification Coordinator in 2016. The program’s mandate is to respond to such discoveries when the remains are thought to be Canadian—either due to the associated artefacts that display “Canada” or a Canadian unit, and/or due to the location of the discovery with associated Commonwealth artefacts—and make every effort to identify the remains so that they are buried with their name, by their regiment, and in the presence of family.

The first step when remains are found is a historical analysis of the location of recovery. The analysis is undertaken by historians within the Directorate of History and Heritage and will determine who (i.e., regiments and individuals) was in the area during the war and who from that list was recorded as having no known grave following the war. If regimental artefacts are found to be associated to the remains, this provides a likely focus for our investigation. The presence of artefacts can at times take a list of 49 missing soldiers and immediately reduce it to seven, ensuring that a successful outcome is that much more within reach. Once it has been determined which units were in the area and how many soldiers were killed in action but have no known grave, the list of potential candidates can still be quite large.

My anthropological analysis of the remains is done using methods established in the field of anthropology which I use to create a biological profile of the individual. A typical biological profile seeks to estimate the following biological data: age, sex, ancestry, height, trauma, and pathology. In the case of the Casualty Identification Program, the two key pieces from the biological profile are age and height as they are recorded in the Attestation Paper and Medical Sheets found in the soldiers’ personnel files. The list of potential candidates created following the historical analysis can then be narrowed down once again to soldiers who correspond to the age and height ranges derived from the remains—always keeping in mind that some lied about their age to enlist. This will likely provide a list of candidates that is much smaller so that the soldiers’ family histories can be researched, hopefully leading to a living and viable DNA donor. At times, the information derived from the anthropological analysis of the remains can reduce the list of potential candidates to a handful which highly increases the chances of the remains being identified.

ronstik/Alamy Stock Photo

Scientist in lab collects a DNA sample in a test tube with a cotton swab.

You may be asking yourself “Why not just use DNA? Surely if you have the DNA from the remains, you can identify the individual.” Theoretically yes, but unless there is DNA sample from a living relative that can be compared to the DNA sample from the remains, the sample from the remains alone does not yield much information. Remember that if we are investigating the identity of remains from the First World War, the initial list of potential candidates is approximately 20,000. To optimize the DNA sample from the remains, the list of potential candidates must be narrowed down as much as possible. DNA is a fantastic tool for identification purposes, but it does have limitations that are important to consider. There are different types of DNA; some survive better in older remains than others. The condition of the remains, which can range from excellent to poorly preserved, may affect the type and usability of the DNA that is extracted. This will at times force the investigation down a path if a type of DNA is found to be “not suitable for comparison.” It is also important to remember that the family members who are donating their DNA can be quite a few generations removed from the soldier as immediate family members have died, especially for soldiers who died more than 100 years ago. Sadly, it does also happen that there are no more living donors who are related to a specific soldier. Therefore, some soldiers do not have a family reference sample that can be compared to the skeletal remains.

Following extensive genealogical research to find specific relatives who are viable DNA donors—based on the type of DNA extracted from the bone—and willing to donate a sample, DNA testing is done to determine if there is a familial link between the remains and the DNA donor. If the DNA results establish a familial link, the final step in the investigation is to present the case to the Casualty Identification Review Board. As the forensic anthropologist for the program, I write a 20–30+ page report, which is peer-reviewed by an outside anthropologist at the Canadian Museum of History to make sure the methods were properly applied and that my reasoning is sound. The report details the anthropological analysis of the remains and makes a recommendation for identification or for burial as an Unknown Soldier. Board members include both civilian and military staff from the Directorate of History and Heritage and members from the Canadian Forces Forensic Odontology Response Team. The outside anthropologist and representatives from Commonwealth War Graves Commission are also in attendance. The board must come to a unanimous decision following the presentation and review of all the data included in the investigation. Should the recommendation be accepted, the burial of the remains in the closest appropriate cemetery to where the soldier fell is the next and final step.

mcnovies/Alamy Stock Photo

Cemetery at Pheasant Wood, Fromelles honoring Australian soldiers who died in the First World War.

The Casualty Identification Program is also able to respond should a potential mass grave of Canadian soldiers be discovered; similar to the joint BritishFootnote 11 and AustralianFootnote 12 excavation project at Fromelles in France, which resulted in the discovery of 250 Australian soldiers who died in 1916 and were buried by the Germans in eight mass graves.Footnote 13 Should such a situation become reality for Canada, it is vital that the project be approached from a forensic archaeological and anthropological perspective to optimize the proper recovery of the remains.Footnote 14 Any such excavation needs to be carefully planned so that the identification process is not hindered by something easily anticipated by a forensic anthropologist or archaeologist. No amount of preparation can concretely determine exactly what will be found within a mass grave. Several archaeological surveying techniques, such as ground penetrating radar and digging test pits, amongst others, can inform the scope of the excavation but it will not show how many bodies are within or how they are laid out. Commingling (i.e., the bodies/bones are mixed) will likely be a factor that needs to be addressed. Proper forensic archaeological excavation reduces the magnitude of commingling due to its systematic excavation process where bodies are fully revealed (as much as possible) prior to removal. Furthermore, the location of artefacts, such as an identification disc found near the shoulder or the hip, can greatly inform whether it belonged to the individual with whom it was contextually associated. If an artefact is removed from the grave without proper recording of its context, it essentially becomes unusable for identification purposes because we cannot be sure where it was found.Footnote 15 Yes, archaeological excavations can be lengthy and costly in certain instances; however, to ensure the dignity of the dead as well as optimize the likelihood of identification, proper archaeological methods and procedures are essential.Footnote 16

Hemis/Alamy Stock Photo

France, Indre, Saint Marcel, archaelogical excavation (aerial view).

Since the formal inception of the Casualty Identification Program (and at the time of publishing), 32 sets of remains have been positively identified and subsequently buried with their name. Unfortunately, five sets of remains have been buried as Unknown or Unknown Canadian soldiers as the investigation into their identity had reached its, hopefully temporary, end for a variety of reasons. However, we do ensure that all biological data, including generating DNA profiles, is collected prior to burial as an Unknown Soldier so that the investigation can continue should new evidence become available. There are currently 41 sets of remains under investigation with the Casualty Identification Program.

I am frequently asked by members of the public, the media, etc. why this work is important. For me, as a forensic anthropologist, it is simple. I do this work so that these individuals have their name and face returned to them. My colleagues who are military members have expressed to me the notion that this work reinforces a sentiment within the Canadian Armed Forces that you will be taken care of. They view it as if the worst were to happen, and their remains could not be immediately recovered, they know that there will be someone working to recover and identify their remains so that they can be properly buried with their name.

To read more about the Casualty Identification Program, go to our website.Footnote 17 There you can read biographies of the Canadian soldiers and airmen who have been identified. You can also register with us if you have a relative from the First and Second World Wars, and the Korean conflict with no known grave.Footnote 18 You can also review the Defence Administrative Orders and Directive 5040-3, Unaccounted-for Military Fatalities from Past OperationsFootnote 19 for which the Directorate of History and Heritage is responsible. While the Casualty Identification Program continues to be my main responsibility as Casualty Identification Coordinator, there are other scenarios where the skills and knowledge of a forensic anthropologist could be helpful within the realm of the Canadian Armed Forces’ business.

Disaster Victim Identification

The need for Disaster Victim Identification arises in a variety of scenarios which result in mass fatalities. A few examples include the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001, the tsunami in the Indian Ocean on 26 December 2004, or the more recent Boeing 737 Max 8 Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines crashes on 29 October 2018 and 10 March 2019, respectively, as well as the 2018 wildfires near Paradise, in northern California. Each of these events resulted in many fatalities where the human body was subjected to extreme forces or environmental factors. The remains at disaster scenes are often fragmented; commingled, sometimes with animal bones; scattered; burned and/or decomposing. These factors will affect the recovery of the remains and the subsequent identification process.

REUTERS/Alamy Stock Photo

Tractors excavate the scene of the Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET 302 plane crash, near the town of Bishoftu, southeast of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 10 March 2019.

The Canadian Armed Forces has a team dedicated to Disaster Victim Identification, which is the Canadian Forces Forensic Odontology Response Team (CF FORT). CF FORT was founded in 2010 and is composed of 12 members: eight dental officers and four dental technicians. The CF FORT is responsible to the Dental Corps, which mandate requires capabilities to identify fallen soldiers on the battlefield and has been doing so since the Second World War. CF FORT is ready to deploy at all times should the need arise and has been called upon in the past by federal, provincial, and territorial governments to assist with Disaster Victim Identification missions, both in Canada, such as the Swiss Air Flight 111 crash in 1998 and the First Air Flight crash 6560 in 2011, and abroad with the earthquake in Haiti in 2010.Footnote 20 CF FORT also provides valuable assistance to the Casualty Identification Program by undertaking dental analyses of newly discovered remains when teeth are present in the skeletal assemblage and when dental records are available in the soldier’s or airman’s p ersonnel file. Their previous assistance with the program has exponentially increased the likelihood of identification for the cases where their services and expertise could be included in the investigation.

The Canadian Armed Forces can add to its capabilities in Disaster Victim Identification by also offering the services of a forensic anthropologist. In the past, forensic anthropologists were used to create biological profiles of the victims to aid in identification. Due to advances in other fields and technology such as DNA, a formal identification can be achieved quickly and may not require a biological profile of the remains to aid in that process. In cases of Disaster Victim Identification, a list of the dead and/or missing may be easily obtained, such as a flight manifest; therefore, immediately requesting samples from family members such as parents or children of the decedents can be a simpler process than tracing living family members of individuals who died more than 100 years ago. There are many other ways that the forensic anthropologist can contribute to situations of Disaster Victim Identification.Footnote 21 I have been trained and am prepared to contribute to such situations by providing knowledge and contributing to almost every phase of the recovery and identification process. For example, during the initial planning phase and recovery phase, I can provide valuable insight into the possible condition of the remains which would inform the scope and planning of the recovery effort.Footnote 22 I also have archaeological training and experience and can advise on the use of proper archaeological protocols for the recovery which assures the remains are associated with vital, documented contextual information. During the recovery, I can recognize and segregate any animal bones that may have been recovered, therefore removing them prior to the analysis process. Once the remains have been transferred to the mortuary, I can once again provide insights and knowledge to aid in the process such as assisting in further triage of the remains, sorting any commingled remains and re-associate them, as well as collecting any antemortem (before death) and postmortem (after death) information that could lead to an identification.Footnote 23 Finally, I can also be useful in the final phase of the identification process by reviewing the data and ensuring there were no mistakes possibly leading to a false identification.Footnote 24 There is an extensive amount of literature available that goes into much more detail but ultimately, having an anthropologist, such as myself, as a part of a Disaster Victim Identification team is an assetFootnote 25 and should be considered at every opportunity where such services are offered by the Canadian Armed Forces. The inclusion of anthropological expertise would complement the Canadian Armed Forces’ current in-house capabilities of rendering multidisciplinary services for such a scenario.

Mass Fatality Response Plan

The global COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 has shown us that preparation for the worst-case scenario is an asset. The mass fatalities in some jurisdictions as the result of COVID-19 quickly overwhelmed the system where perhaps unusual methods were used to handle and bury the bodies. The military was called in to assist with the bodies in Italy; military trucks transported the bodies to cremation sites as the morgues were overwhelmed.Footnote 26 Refrigerated container trucks were used to store the bodies prior to burial. Mass graves were opened in several countries to bury the bodies of those unclaimed by their loved onesFootnote 27 while some had to forgo traditional religious and cultural burial practices.Footnote 28

Mass Fatality Incidents are not planned occurrences; nonetheless, we can be prepared to respond to any such event by having a Mass Fatality Response Plan. Evidently, the various jurisdictions and medical examiners’ or coroners’ offices across the country would be leading such an operation within their own jurisdictions. The Canadian Armed Forces can certainly help the various jurisdictions within Canada and is already doing so in partnership with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police through a Memorandum of Understanding that encourages the mutual sharing of personnel, equipment, and resources when the need arises, such as for Disaster Victim Identification.Footnote 29 The Canadian Armed Forces is also a partner in the Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) Organization which is deployed upon request to offer assistance in other countries that have experienced a natural disaster or other emergency.Footnote 30 Adding a forensic anthropologist to the list adds another resource that could be offered by the Canadian Armed Forces should the recovery and identification of remains be required. Furthermore, including an anthropological perspective in the discussion of how to respond is beneficial so that the human aspect of the disaster remains an important part of the discussion especially when in cultural and religious environments with traditions and customs that can vary from those in the West.

DND photo by MCpl Paul MacGregor

Major Steve Hewitt, Company Commander with the Canadian Forces Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART), discusses possible logistical problems with fellow team members Captain Suzan Seo, and Captain Lena Cormier.

Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, dignity of the deceased has been a topic of discussion and something that must be of the highest consideration when developing the plans and processes to properly deal with the bodies. The International Committee of the Red Cross provides valuable information and guidelines related to the handling of the dead to ensure that it is done with respect and dignity.Footnote 31 Having an anthropologist as a part of this planning process would be greatly beneficial to provide insight into more anthropological and cultural considerations that should be included in a Mass Fatality Response Plan.


I hope that the information above has provided answers to the question of why a forensic anthropologist is part of the Defence Team. While my skillset and knowledge are very pointed and deal with one of the more unpleasant aspects of life (i.e., death), my anthropological background and years of study at the graduate and post-graduate levels can very much be of use outside my responsibilities as Casualty Identification Coordinator. The Casualty Identification Program and its mandate are and continue to be my main responsibility. I hope I have provided a better understanding of my work in this area as well as the knowledge and skills that a forensic anthropologist can contribute when dealing with the realities of death, especially in unforeseen events such as Mass Fatality Incidents requiring Disaster Victim Identification. Ultimately, when dealing with death, ensuring that the decedents and their families are treated with dignity and respect are of the utmost importance and is the reason why this type of work and associated knowledge is needed.

DND photo by Major Geneviève Poitras

Group photo of the Canadian Forces Forensic Odontology Response Team taken in October 2019 at the Canadian Police College in Ottawa during annual collective training.


I would like to thank Lieutenant-Colonel Luc Langevin, Major Mélanie Dumas, and Major Geneviève Poitras for providing the information and photographs about the Canadian Forces Forensic Odontology Response Team and for their comments, revisions, and support. Many thanks go to Dr. Catherine Paterson and Dr. Ken Reynolds for their comments, revisions, and support.

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