OTTAWA — Debbie Sullivan vividly remembers the last time she saw her son Chris Saunders alive more than 16 years ago.
The 32-year-old naval lieutenant had driven his young family from Halifax to his mother’s home near Saint John, N.B., to introduce Sullivan and her husband Stuart to their seven-week-old grandson, Luke.
"We had a lovely day together," Sullivan recalls. "His oldest boy Ben, who was two at the time, got stung by a hornet. So there was lots of screaming and yelling and ice cubes and Daddy calming him down.
"My last memory of Chris was driving down the driveway with his hand stuck out the window, waving at me." Sullivan pauses and takes a breath. "That was my last – that's the last time I saw him."
Saunders left for Scotland two weeks later to help bring one of the Canadian navy’s four newly purchased submarines across the Atlantic to its new home. It was during that crossing in October 2004 that a fire broke out on HMCS Chicoutimi, killing Saunders.
Sixteen years later, Sullivan has been named this year’s Silver Cross Mother by the Royal Canadian Legion. She will lay a wreath at the National War Memorial on Remembrance Day on behalf of all mothers who have lost children in service to Canada.
Saunders started his military career in the Army reserves while in high school in Saint John before studying at the Royal Military College Saint-Jean in Quebec. Sullivan says her son liked that the military gave him structure and got him outside a lot.
While he tended to gravitate toward the quieter kids in school, Saunders was also extremely active and a bit of a daredevil. Sullivan recalls how he once used some money that she sent him in college to go skydiving.
Sullivan doesn’t know why her son decided to serve on submarines, but the night he got the dolphin badge given to all submariners, "I told him I might have to take a trip out to Halifax to peel him off the ceiling. He was so excited."
Saunders even inspired his mother to join the Army reserves herself in 1990 when she was in her 40s. Sullivan almost went to Bosnia as a peacekeeper, too, until problems with her teeth kept her home. Looking back, she doesn’t regret missing out.
"When I saw the young fellows that came back and how it changed them, I was glad that I didn't go," she says.
The four years Sullivan spent in the Army reserves, where she worked mostly on logistics and recruiting, were only one chapter in a varied life that has also seen her drive trucks, volunteer as a rape crisis counsellor and serve as a school custodian.
It was while working at Harry Miller Middle School in Rothesay, N.B., on Oct. 6, 2004 that she received the news no mother or parent ever wants to hear. It was 20 minutes before the local TV station was to air a story on Saunders serving in the Navy.
"I was preparing myself to go down from work down to the staff room and watch the news to see the special-interest story," she says. "And I received a phone call from my husband telling me what happened."
Stuart hadn’t wanted to tell her by phone, but their home was 40 minutes away from the school and he knew she was about to watch the news.
"I relive that phone call for a week every year," Sullivan says. "A week before Chris’s anniversary, I relive that phone call. And it's a hard go. Even 16 years later."
Seawater had managed to get into HMCS Chicoutimi through an open hatch while the submarine was crossing the Atlantic the previous day. It shorted out an electrical panel, causing a major fire and leaving the submarine in the ocean without power.
Saunders was one of several submariners who suffered smoke and gas inhalation. He was eventually airlifted from the vessel, but died soon after. His death was announced by prime minister Paul Martin in the House of Commons.
Sullivan credits her husband with helping her through the dark days and weeks that followed. She also more recently started getting together with a group of other mothers in the area who have lost children.
"We are an amazing support system for each other," she says. "We have a good time together, and we all share the same thing. So we can honestly talk about our kids and nobody has to worry about saying the wrong thing. Because there is no wrong thing."
In the months and years after the electrical fire that killed Saunders on Oct. 6, 2004, a great number of questions were raised about the reasons for the tragedy and whether it could have been avoided.
Some focused on the actions of the captain and crew, including the decision to leave a hatch open and the delay in evacuating Saunders and other injured sailors.
A military board of inquiry later cleared them of any blame.
Others focused on the Jean Chrétien government’s decision to buy second-hand submarines from Britain rather than building new ones, while some blamed the British for not properly caring for the vessels.
The incident has continued to hover over the Royal Canadian Navy’s submarine fleet, which has spent more time in repair dock than at sea over the ensuing 16 years.
Sullivan says she has opinions about Canada’s submarines but she keeps them to herself. What she will say is that she doesn’t blame anyone for her son’s death, which she describes as a "very, very, very tragic accident."
"Everybody did their job to the best of their ability," she says. "And they did a great job. Unfortunately, my son didn't make it."
When Sullivan was in Halifax to receive her silver cross from the Legion, she met several of the Navy’s current crop of submariners. To her surprise, they held a private ceremony to make her an honorary submariner, with one giving her his dolphin badge.
With COVID-19, Remembrance Day in Canada this year will be very different. Sullivan is nonetheless hoping Canadians will take the time on Nov. 11 to remember those like her son who made the ultimate sacrifice.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 1, 2020.
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press