Paul (Trapper) Cane

photos: John Hryniuk

Canadian Army veteran, commemorator of sacrifice, humanitarian, zooming at 54

The motorcycles lined up in tribute along the highway outside Canadian Forces Base Trenton, their riders decked out in the red shirts and black leather vests of the Canadian Army Veterans motorcycle units (CAV) would have delighted Trooper Darryl Caswell. He had loved his bike. One more speeding ticket could have cancelled the 25-year-old’s tour of duty to Afghanistan but, instead, he died there on June 11, 2007, when his reconnaissance vehicle was hit by a hidden improvised explosive device (IED) north of Kandahar City.

Days later, Caswell’s mother, Darlene Cushman, marvelled at people standing on bridges and beside the highway in tribute to her son as the hearse made its way to Toronto. By the coroner’s office, bystanders and more CAV riders awaited in a similar show of respect.

CAV’s national president, Paul (Trapper) Cane, has attended 150 of the 158 repatriations at either Trenton or Toronto. “We’re there to support the families. They are not alone,” he notes. Former paratrooper Cane and Yannick (Doc) Lebrun, a veteran of the Bosnian War, met when they rode in the prostate cancer charity, Ride for Dad, in Kingston, Ont. They founded CAV in 2003, after realizing motorcycles offered veterans a kind of therapy and a network – a chance to retain the extraordinary camaraderie of the military.

trapper_2Concerned they might be confused with the outlaw side of the motorcycle world, Cane drew up a constitution and designed a crest based on a dramatic Second World War recruiting poster that featured a dispatch rider, his motorcycle leaping into the air. At six-foot-three, with hair halfway down his back, a bushy salt-and-pepper beard, Cane looks intimidating, yet he’s revered throughout CAV for his dedication to veterans and others who deserve honour or need support. He listens intently, misses nothing and always has time for people, even when he’s in the grip of pain and fatigue.

That Cane can even ride his Green Phoenix, a 2007 Harley Davidson with sidecar, is miraculous. A career soldier serving with Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI) and the Airborne Regiment, Sgt. Cane commanded the sniper section of the Airborne’s Pathfinder Platoon in 1985 until a fellow paratrooper blacked out, collided with him and entangled their parachutes. Cane cut himself free, saving the other man, but didn’t get his reserve chute fully open before he hit the November-hard ground. Spinal injuries, shattered teeth, broken pelvis, legs and feet kept him in hospital for 18 surgeries over a two-year per-  iod. “I thought I was bulletproof,” he says. “Well, you can bend a lot of rules, but you can’t bend the law of gravity.”

Doctors said he would never walk again (Cane proved them wrong, although he uses a cane). “I couldn’t climb mountains, but I could still twist a throttle. [Motorcycle riding] was my one release from all the surgery – and everything else,” he recalls. It also became his way of serving others.

“Trapper is extraordinarily driven to help others,” Darlene Cushman says, “especially those who belong in one way or another to his military family.” And that family keeps growing. CAV welcomes veterans of the military, police, fire and ambulance services as well as non-veteran supporters. Cane’s forearm tattoos express the organization’s motto, Strength and Honour, and CAV members are expected to “Ride, have fun, help others.” So far there are 80 CAV units in cities across Canada, each one named for a Canadian battle honour. Collectively, they’ve raised millions for charities as diverse as the International Community for the Relief of Suffering and Starvation (iCross), which helps Third World poor, and the Tony Stacey Centre for Veterans Care in Toronto. They’ve successfully lobbied for Highway of Heroes designations in several provinces and laid wreaths on the graves of military personnel buried in Canada. (www.thecav.ca)

Since 2003, Cane has spent most of his time on Trapper Patrol, logging 1.2 million kilometres on motorcycles as he crosses the country to attend remembrance events or charity rides. Every day, he texts Cushman, who is now CAV’s national Silver Cross Family co-ordinator. “Trapper is my Kindle,” she says. “He tells me what he sees, who he visits – he makes me laugh and smile. And Trapper makes me stronger on the days I need to talk.”
One day last year, CAV motorcycles thundered up to a Royal Canadian Legion in Moncton. Cane lowered himself to one knee to thank a Second World War veteran for his service. The frail man told Cane he had been a dispatch rider and probably the first Canadian up Juno Beach on D-Day. He’d designed a snorkel for his motorcycle from ration tins so it wouldn’t stall during landing and make him an easy target. It was one more story for Cane’s memory bank, valued even more when the man’s caregiver revealed the D-Day vet had survived a series of strokes and hadn’t spoken in several years. His weeping daughter was hearing his wartime experiences for the first time.

Cane jokes about his hard-biker look and the scowl he wears as he focuses on keeping the bike away from potholes and out of the way of sleepy truckers and texting drivers. He’s often thinking about upcoming or recent rides. This summer, he rode to British Columbia to support a fundraiser for a young veteran of Afghanistan; the man had lost one leg and badly injured the other as well as his arm; Cane’s trip also paid tribute to Honour House, where military personnel and first responders injured on duty (and family) can stay during treatment or rehab. “He told me of his terrible day,” Cane marvels, “not the one he was crippled in – but the one near Christmas, when his platoon commander was killed.”

His unrelenting concern for fellow veterans and their families earned Cane a prestigious Commendation from the Minister of Veterans Affairs in 2011. The Hon. Steven Blaney seemed delighted to present the pin and framed certificate to the solemn man whose CAV uniform of red shirt and black vest was conspicuous among the recipients of the honour.

The certificate joined photos of many CAV occasions hanging on his office walls, but you won’t hear him brag – ever, Darlene Cushman states firmly. “Trapper is the real deal. He has an amazing way of finding the best qualities in everyone, and with that encouragement, people do become stronger. I’m blessed to have Trapper in my life,” the Silver Cross mother says.

Zoomer magazine, November 2012