By Scott Taylor
On Monday, May 13, a low-key, invitation only, VIP ceremony took place at the Department of National Defence’s new Carling Campus. This was held to re-dedicate the monument, which had originally stood on the Kandahar airfield during Canada’s decade long commitment to the conflict in Afghanistan.
The cenotaph began as an impromptu tribute to fallen comrades, and it continued to grow as Canadian casualties mounted. In the end, the Kandahar monument displayed the individual grave markers of all 158 soldiers killed in theatre.
While it was never meant to be permanent, once Canada concluded the mission in Afghanistan, the military felt it was only fitting to repatriate this symbol of sacrifice, which had been created by the comrades of the fallen.
Once back in Canada the problem arose as to where to relocate the Kandahar memorial.
Most potential sites required approvals from multiple government departments, which inevitably got bogged down in the bloated Ottawa bureaucracy. The decision was thus made, and announced, while the Harper conservative government was still in power, that the Kandahar memorial’s new home would be at DND’s new headquarter facility in the sprawling campus that was once Nortel.
For those who were even aware of this project at the time, this decision met no objection and set off no alarm bells. It was simply seen as this touching tribute, made by soldiers, for their fellow soldiers getting a permanent relocation. No biggie.
Three days after the low key, May 13 2019 ceremony was held, DND posted up details of the event on Facebook, and quickly this whole memorial issue became an explosive affair throughout the entire Canadian defence community.
Suddenly people became aware that if this monument is inside a secure military headquarter facility, it will not be accessible to the general public. Families of the fallen were outraged – and rightly so – that they were not invited to attend the dedication, and the vast majority would remain unable to even visit the site. Questions were asked and no answers given as to why DND would quietly put this notice on Facebook rather than the more conventional process of issuing a press release. Columnists and commentators took up the cudgel to bash the brass for their insensitivity over the handling of such a sensitive and emotional issue.
By Wednesday, May 22, the backlash and anger forced the Chief of Defence Staff, General Jonathan Vance to make a vow to set this right. “We’ll turn this around,” Vance told reporters. “Where we want to get to is that anybody who wants to visit that memorial can visit.”
For his part, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that he wanted answers as to why the decision was made to hold the May 13 ceremony in secret and to not include the families of the fallen. Ironically, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, the man who should be able to answer for those decisions, was standing directly behind Trudeau as he made that pledge.
General Vance has said that the Kandahar Memorial will not be moved, but rather his team will be tasked with finding ways to allow more public access. While a noble gesture, this will ultimately prove an impossible task. A functioning military headquarters facility needs to be secure from the public by its very nature. Vance has since offered a lengthy apology and insists that they are working to provide continuous scheduled visit opportunities for those who wish access the memorial.
A face saving solution could be to move the monument to the Beechwood National Memorial Center. This is Canada’s equivalent to the U.S. National Military Cemetery in Arlington Virginia. It is an incredible facility that takes great pride in preserving Canada’s military heritage. It is also the final resting place of 27 Afghanistan veterans, the highest concentration of fallen warriors from that conflict in any Canadian cemetery.
Thus it would only be fitting if tributes to all 158 fatalities, in the form of the Kandahar memorial, could have a place of honour in Canada’s national military cemetery. Given that Beechwood is publically accessible, a place where our warriors are buried and soldiers are mourned, I think it would be a perfect fit. It is also a private sector enterprise, which means, if desired, the Kandahar memorial could be relocated there without having to cut through a Gordian’s knot of bureaucratic red tape.