Manitoba woman whose son died in Bosnia named National Silver Cross Mother

Christopher Holopina was six days away from the end of his peacekeeping deployment in Bosnia when the armoured vehicle he was in rolled in a ravine.

“He was the only one [killed],” his mom, Gloria Hooper, said this week from her home in the small French village of St. Claude, Man., about 90 kilometres west of Winnipeg and just south of Portage la Prairie.

“We could hardly wait for him to come home, and I thought after, yeah, he came home, but not the way he wanted or that we wanted.”

The crash that killed the 22-year-old happened July 4, 1996, but for Hooper, it might as well have been yesterday.

Many memories of the boy she said was a mischievous clown cause her to start laughing.

But the pain of losing him is present as ever.

“Oh yeah, I think of him every day — like, every single day,” she said. “I can’t believe it’s been that long ago.”

A man in a beret and army shirt wears glasses and smiles at the camera. He is seen from the mid-chest to the top of the head.
Sapper Christopher Holopina was killed on July 4, 1996, while on duty as part of Operation Alliance in Bosnia. (Canadian Virtual War Memorial)

On Nov. 11, Hooper will lay a wreath at the cenotaph during the national Remembrance Day ceremony in Ottawa, representing all families who have lost a child who was serving for Canada.

She has been named this year’s National Silver Cross Mother, an annual honour bestowed by the Royal Canadian Legion dating back to 1919.

When called upon to place the wreath, Hooper said her mind will be comforted by thoughts of Holopina and “what would he be doing now?”

The idea, she said, makes her smile.

That’s because she knows nothing would likely be any different. So how can there be any regrets?

Despite the hurt she has learned to tolerate, Hooper has also realized Holopina was doing what he loved. 

“He always said, ‘If I die, I want to be in a soldier’s [uniform].’ And he was,” she said. “If he could do anything again, he would have been there.”

A woman places a red carnation on a white cross. She wears a dress with a poppie pinned on it.
Gloria Hooper also represents Silver Cross Mothers at the school in St. Claude and at other events, including laying a wreath at the cenotaph in the town each year on Bastille Day, which she is seen doing here in an undated photo. Chris Holopina’s name is engraved on that monument. (Submitted by Gloria Hooper)

Holopina was a true soldier, having embodied that persona from a very young age, his family said. As a child, he made toy swords and would sit for hours playing with toy soldiers. 

His younger sister, Ashley, remembers him declaring, “I want to join the army when I’m older.”

Even when Holopina’s interests shifted to art, he never strayed from his heart’s inclination. He drew for hours, creating images of of knights and dragons, Ashley said.

He followed his chosen path as soon as he was able, joining the reserves at 16 in Portage la Prairie. After graduating from high school, Holopina enlisted as a member of a combat engineer regiment in Petawawa, Ont.

“As a teen, he’d always work out in the garage, evenings and weekends. He also started running and doing ruck marches around home, especially when he was transitioning from reserves to the regular force,” Ashley said.

A copy of The Winnipeg Free Press with a headline that says, Manitoba soldier dies in Bosnia accident.
The Winnipeg Free Press covered Christopher Holopina’s death in 1996. (Winnipeg Free Press)

Holopina served two previous tours of duty abroad — in Cyprus in 1992-93 and in Croatia in 1993-94. 

He was part of Operation Alliance in Bosnia-Herzegovina in July 1996 when his troop was rushing to help a group of British soldiers trapped in a minefield. The Canadian vehicle left the road to avoid an accident but careened down a ravine and rolled.

Holopina was the first Canadian to give his life in Bosnia as part of that mission, the Royal Canadian Legion said.

Hooper went to the site in Bosnia not long after the crash to better understand where her son died.

“I wondered what it was like,” she said, but admits she was in shock and “like a zombie.” She went back again, this time with a clear head and to see the memorial erected in her son’s honour.

During his time in Bosnia, Holopina organized a toy and clothing drive for children. His family collected, packed and shipped donations to Holopina, who handed them out.

“He worked with the kids over there … to get them playing and stuff,” Hooper said.

His heart was big, to match his stature. At six-foot-four — which required his uniforms to be custom-made — Holopina had long arms that enclosed his mom and sister in hugs.

“Oh, what a kid,” Hooper said, almost drifting into a daydream.

A man stands in a black suit and bowtie, posing from the side. He is outside on a green lawn.
Christopher Holopina, who died at age 22, was born to be a soldier, his family says. (Submitted by Gloria Hooper)

The Portage la Prairie Armoury lounge was renamed the Holopina Lounge and a wall was dedicated to him, while the province named a lake after him in 2005.

Holopina now rests at the St. John cemetery in Shell Valley, north of Russell, Man., where he was born.

Hooper goes as often as possible  to sit and update her son on the latest news from home.

“He’s learning things about us and stuff like that. I do it all the time,” she said.

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