Rob Nicholson

Defence Minister Rob Nicholson says the families of soldiers killed in Afghanistan will not have to pay their own way to a commemorative ceremony in Ottawa next month, despite a letter that suggested otherwise. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Defence Minister Rob Nicholson is contradicting an invitation sent to the families of soldiers killed in Afghanistan that told them they would have to pay their own way to a commemorative ceremony in Ottawa next month.

Nicholson told MPs on the House defence committee that a letter cited in a media report Wednesday was premature and incorrect.

But he wouldn't provide details of the expenses that the government plans to cover.

CTV News reported Wednesday that National Defence officials wrote to the families of soldiers killed in Afghanistan to invite them to the May 9 ceremony, but told them that they would have to bear the financial cost.

"The letter was premature and incorrect and contained false information as event plans have not been finalized," Nicholson said, adding that the government is proud to commemorate the military mission in Afghanistan.

"That is why it is the government's position that these expenses will be covered," he said.

Apology demanded

Liberal defence critic Joyce Murray questioned Nicholson about how many family members and which costs would be covered for the trip to Ottawa for the May 9 commemoration.

"Could you share the plan?" she said.

Nicholson said the department is working on those details.

"At this point in time, we're in the planning process and the first step in the process was to make the announcement that in fact we would honour Canada's role in Afghanistan and those who played this important role, and again it's an evolutionary exercise," he said.

Murray also asked Nicholson whether he or the department had apologized to the families.

"It just came to our attention last night," Nicholson said.

'Save the date'

In question period, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair asked whether the government will take care of travel expenses for the family members of the Canadian Forces members killed in Afghanistan.

"The minister is trying to shift the blame, claiming that, well, he's not responsible for the note sent out by his own office. Enough with the excuses. These families have already paid a greater price than most of us can even imagine. Will the minister of national defence take responsibility for this latest insult and guarantee that the expenses of the families of fallen soldiers will be taken care of completely by the government?" Mulcair said.

Nicholson's parliamentary secretary responded to the question, referring to the defence minister's testimony earlier Thursday.

"The minister was very clear that the letter was supposed to go out to inform family members of fallen soldiers that there was going to be a commemoration day, to save the date, May 9, to attend," James Bezan said.

Last year, then defence minister Peter MacKay faced a similar controversy when he unveiled a travelling memorial to Canadians killed in Afghanistan during the mission.

Some of the families said they only had five days' notice to plan to be at the unveiling, or that they hadn't heard of it at all.

A spokesman for National Defence said at the time that the department had tried to reach the families but some had moved and hadn't updated their contact information with the department's Integrated Personnel Support Centres.