OTTAWA – Military planners have treaded delicately on how best to remind the country of the sacrifices of Canadian Forces members in Afghanistan, raising concerns about potential political and public sensitivities, newly released documents show.
That led military brass to ultimately recommend abandoning plans for a noontime ceremony on Parliament Hill this coming Canada Day that would have commemorated the mission.
Inside the Defence Department, preparations are under way for a series of war commemorations aimed at making sure Canadians never forget the 12 years that their military personnel spent in the war-ravaged country, where 158 of them died.
Documents obtained by the Liberal party under the Access to Information Act show that “Operation Distinction” — a campaign mandated by Prime Minister Stephen Harper — is proposing a series of high-profile events in the coming years to help celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday in 2017.
Along with the 100th anniversary of the First World War and the 75th anniversary of the Second World War, the Afghanistan campaign is high on the priority list of military planners.
However, the documents show military officials expressing concern about offending the sensibilities of the Harper government as well as the general public.
“While it is clear that this decision was made deliberately, the fact that it is so heavily weighted towards Afghanistan may be problematic given GoC expectation,” says an Aug. 12, 2013, army briefing note that uses the acronym for Government of Canada.
A poll released last week showed a fading Canadian desire to be reminded of the war in Afghanistan. Two-thirds of respondents to The Canadian Press Harris-Decima survey said they would withhold judgment on whether the military mission was a success or failure.
Another 42 per cent were not aware that the Canadian military was still active in Afghanistan when the poll was taken last month.
The last of about 100 Forces military trainers departed Kabul last week, ending a three-year training mission for Afghan security forces. That followed Canada’s five-year combat mission to Kandahar that ended in the summer of 2011, almost a decade after the first of the country’s troops — special forces — clandestinely set foot on Afghan soil.
Last week’s final symbolic flag lowering at the highly fortified Canadian embassy compound in Kabul was low key, with Harper’s office issuing only a written statement from Ottawa paying tribute to the Forces.
Harper has said he will be on hand to personally welcome back the last of the military personnel when they are expected to arrive in Canada on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, the internal Defence documents describe a proposed timetable of “Afghanistan Commemoration” that would stretch to 2019. The plan is included among 300 pages of documents released to the Liberal party.
Among the major events proposed for this year were a Highway of Heroes relay run for this coming May, as well as a high-profile presence on Parliament Hill this coming Canada Day.
However, the July 1 option was rejected because “mixed messaging with militarization of Canada Day” and “potential higher security threat” were cited as disadvantages.
The event would have paid tribute to the Afghan vets with an honour guard composed of representatives of all the units that served. It would have included the RCMP and been presided over by Harper and Gov. Gen. David Johnston under a flypast of Griffon helicopters.
The recommended option was a “traditional Military Parade with Flypast and speeches” for the Victoria Day weekend that would be co-ordinated with the scheduled May 11-14 Highway of Heroes Run.
The Highway of Heroes is the stretch of Ontario’s Hwy. 401 between Canadian Forces Base Trenton and Toronto that the vehicles bearing the coffins of those killed in Afghanistan would travel after being returned to Canada.
Spontaneous outpourings of public support broke out on the highway’s overpasses as Canada’s death toll continued to rise in recent years.
Defence Minister Rob Nicholson’s office declined to say which of the options — if any — might be considered.
“We will not comment on draft plans. Specifics will be confirmed at a future date,” spokeswoman Johanna Quinney said in an email.
“Working alongside Heritage Canada, the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces we are committed to marking the end of Canada’s mission in Afghanistan by honouring our men and women in uniform, including those who have made the ultimate sacrifice.”
The documents show that the Afghanistan commemoration is part of a broader six-year government plan to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday, the cost of which is to come out of existing Canadian Forces operational budgets.
Defence has undergone four years of budget-cutting that have taken away as much as $30 billion from the government’s original defence strategy.
The Liberal defence critic, Joyce Murray, said commemoration of Canada’s role in Afghanistan is important, but it can’t come at the expense of troop and veteran support.
“These costs must be funded from a separate budget, instead of prioritizing parades over people,” Murray said.
“Years of National Defence budget clawbacks and cuts have left serious gaps in the equipment, training and care needed by the military and veterans. This commemoration plan threatens to make matters worse.”
Quinney shot back at the Liberals, saying: “From infrastructure to procurement to caring for our ill and injured, this government, unlike the previous Liberal government, has shown that supporting and providing for our men and women in uniform is a priority, and so too is recognizing their service.”
In 2005, the then-Liberal government of Paul Martin kickstarted a new period of increased military spending when it announced a five-year, $13-billion infusion into the Canadian defence budget.
The Conservatives continued to boost defence spending after winning power the following year. In 2008, the Tories announced their 20-year, $490-billion defence policy. But since then, many projects have since been either sidelined or postponed.
In a June 2012 letter to then-defence minister Peter MacKay that was obtained by The Canadian Press, Harper warned that fiscal restraint would mean years of belt-tightening ahead for the defence budget.