He’d barely ventured beyond the coverage of a parked truck, toward a cabin where a teenage girl was being held against her will, when a bullet fired from behind a plastic storm window, punctured Const. Neil Bruce’s lung and he fell to the ground.
Members rushed to the 26-year-old’s side when the gunman—a repeat rapist— fled, leading to one of the most “dramatic multi day manhunts in RCMP history” and the only death of a Kelowna Mountie, while in the line of duty.
Bruce’s sacrifice is the stuff of legend in the Okanagan, as made evident by the large crowd who attended a ceremony at the mouth of Glen Canyon, honouring him 50 years to the day of the death.
And that, perhaps, is what may make the loss bearable for the friends, family and comrades he left behind.
“This little spot in the map right here, in what was then Westbank, is our Kamloops where three members were killed on June 18, 1962, and our Mayerthorp, where four members were murdered on March 3, 2005 and like those areas his fellow members and the community have not forgotten Neil,” said retired Staff Sgt. Jack Hest, pointing out that the school in his name keeps his memory alive, and for good reason.
“Nothing we have done or could do will compare to the sacrifice that Neil made for his community.”
Tuesday’s ceremony will likely be “last hurrah for Neil” his comrades from 1965 will attend, said Hest, leaving future generations the responsibility to keep the slain Mountie’s memory— something Hest has been at the forefront of for decades.
Months ago he planted the idea for the 50 year memorial, that was held Tuesday, and he’s also the reason why there’s a middle school in the fallen Mountie’s name—the only school named for an RCMP member in all of Canada.
It’s not that Hest hadn’t seen violence in his 29 year career. It’s just that Bruce’s death hit home.
“This one here was especially bad, he had asked me to work for him that day only he didn’t follow through with planning it, and he was called out … it would have been me lying down there,” Hest said. “And he was a close personal friend, not only a comrade on the job, but off as well.”
“Liked and loved by all who knew him” is the way Bruce has been characterized in the years since his death. He also had a keen sense of duty, which he inherited from his father who served in two World Wars and, although he never got to see it, passed down to his son.
“It’s a calling,” said RCMP Supt. Don Bruce-Fuoco, Bruce’s son, after the ceremony.
Newspapers at the time pointed out that he and his sister were under the age of two when Russell Spears took their father’s life. They came to know him through stories, as had their children.
When Bruce’s grandchildren were younger, they may not have comprehended what his sacrifice meant, but Bruce-Fuoco said that this memorial was a different thing altogether.
“Today’s service meant a lot,” he said. “Over the years, they’ve been so young, it’s been hard for them to comprehend. Today, as they’re older, it was very emotional for them. He’s a historical figure… I think for them it was very impactful. I turned around and my son was in deep tears.”
During the ceremony he said, “there is no greater sacrifice, nor honour nor burden than to bear the loss of a spouse, parent, colleague or friend in service to their country, community and force.”
Among the others to speak at the ceremony was E-Division Deputy Commissioner Craig Callens, who noted that keeping the memory of Bruce alive reflects well on the work men and women of the RCMP do every day in their community.
Students from Const. Neil Bruce middle school also spoke, noting that they’d spent a great deal of time learning more about Bruce in recent weeks, and they proudly reported that his legacy of kindness lives on in the every day activities at the school.