Afghan war memorial in limbo as Liberals roll back perceived Tory militarism

OTTAWA — The Trudeau government is considering whether to shelve plans for a national war memorial, as it rolls back the previous Conservative government’s attempts to imbue ’s national identity with a healthy dose of militarism.

Then-veterans affairs minister Julian Fantino announced the National Memorial to Canada’s Mission in Afghanistan in May 2014. The project, pegged at about $5 million, was intended to honour the 40,000 Canadians who had served in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2014, including 158 who died.

Fantino’s successor, Erin O’Toole, re-announced the project — along with a separate memorial for Canadians who had won the Victoria Cross, the British Commonwealth’s highest military honour — last year. A site for the two memorials was chosen halfway between the Parliament Buildings and the Canadian War Museum.

The memorials were part of a concerted effort by the Conservatives over the previous decade to highlight Canada’s military heritage, traditions and prowess. The Tories spent millions of dollars commemorating various battles and campaigns, and touting Canada’s proud military history.

The focus on Canada’s martial spirit coincided with military missions in Afghanistan, Libya and Iraq. But some also saw it as an attempt to redefine Canada’s national identity after previous governments, particularly the Liberals, had long described Canada as a country of peacekeepers.

But now the two memorials are in limbo, while a Conservative-era program that helped communities build their own memorials or cenotaphs is being cancelled.

RelatedNational Day of Honour commemorates Canadian sacrifices during 12-year mission in AfghanistanLast Remembrance Day in Afghanistan for Canadian soldiers honours 158 killed

In November, departmental officials told new Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr that the two memorials and the Community War Memorial Program were among a number of “key issues” that needed to be addressed by the new Liberal government.

Specifically, the minister was advised to “Seek confirmation whether the following projects (the Afghan and Victoria Cross memorials) are to be continued.” Officials also noted that funding for the community program was set to expire at the end of March unless the Liberals intervened.

Officials also told Hehr the department would need more money to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the First World War battles of the Somme and Beaumont-Hamel this year, and Vimy Ridge next year.

The Ottawa Citizen obtained the briefing notes through the access to information law.

Four months later, Hehr’s office says the new government still has not decided whether to proceed with the memorials. “These are important initiatives and details are still being discussed internally,” spokesman Christian Duval said in an email. “As a result, final decisions have not yet been taken.”

But Hehr’s office did confirm the government is pulling the plug on the $5-million Community War Memorial Program, even though internal Veterans Affairs Canada evaluators gave it glowing reviews last year and said there was a “continued need” for it.

Sgt Chris Hargreaves RLC / UK MOD via Getty ImagesSgt Chris Hargreaves RLC / UK MOD via Getty ImagesA team of Canadian soldiers carry an injured man to a Blackhawk medical helicopter March 16, 2011 in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

Hehr’s office said the Liberals are committed to marking Canada’s military history. “The Government of Canada is committed to keep alive the achievements and sacrifices of those who served Canada in times of war, military conflict and peace,” spokeswoman Sarah McMaster said in an email.

But the decision to cancel the Community War Memorial Program is the latest indication the Liberals are shifting away from the heavy emphasis on Canadian military history and tradition championed by the Tories.

Immigration Minister John McCallum recently said some references to Canada’s military history added by the Tories will be removed from the new citizenship guide. The Trudeau government has also scrapped a controversial monument in Nova Scotia designed to honour Canada’s war dead in Europe.

Afghanistan Veterans Association founder Michael Blois has previously complained about the site the Conservatives chose for the Afghan memorial. “But something has to be done,” he said. “The length of the commitment and the level of sacrifice that went on, there needs to be something done on a national level.”

O’Toole, who is now the Conservative public safety critic, said veterans have also approached him to ask about the Afghan memorial. He said the monument is especially important now, as many Afghan vets continue to struggle in their post-military lives.

“That monument should be beyond politics. That was the (military’s) longest mission,” he said. “And I know veterans are looking for it, and there are still a number of young guys trying to find their purpose post-deployment. And they have to know that the country appreciated what they did.”

Richard Johnson/National PostRichard Johnson/National PostCanadian soldiers on patrol out of Combat outpost Nejat in 2011, interact with the local children.

O’Toole also decried the government’s decision not to renew the community memorial program, which he said had experienced an uptake in interest over the past couple of years.

At least one Ontario community will have to find other funding to pay for a community war memorial now that the program is cancelled.

Paul Thorne, co-chairman of the Huron County Afghanistan Community Memorial Committee, said the planned monument, consisting of a demobilized light-armoured vehicle of the type used by Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan, will cost around $50,000. That doesn’t include the long-term costs of maintenance.

“We thought it was important because we do have Afghan veterans in our community, and some of them are suffering from PTSD,” he said. “And chances are we’re only going to have one monument in our area.”

Thorne said the community had hoped to tap into the community war memorial program. It will still press ahead with the project by increasing its fundraising efforts, but having some support from the federal government “would have been nice and would have been easier.”

He added that Canadian veterans serve all Canadians, and federal assistance “is a matter of honouring a commitment to them.”

About Lee Berthiaume, Ottawa Citizen