Families, former commanders urge open access to rebuilt Afghan war memorial

National Defence will soon inaugurate a rebuilt cenotaph to Canadian and American war dead in Afghanistan. But the memorial stands behind a security cordon at the new DND headquarters in Ottawa and families and former commanders say the public must have easy access to better understand a misunderstood war.

Mother of fallen soldier says seeing the memorial helps the public better appreciate 'what was taken away'

A memorial to fallen Canadian and U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, as photographed in Kandahar in 2011, has been rebuilt and will be inaugurated this fall at DND Headquarters in Ottawa. Families want it to be regularly accessible to the public. (Murray Brewster/Canadian Press)

A reconstructed memorial to Canadians and Americans killed during the Afghan war — a moving tribute that once stood at Kandahar Airfield — should be open and accessible to the general public, say former commanders and families of those who died.

National Defence has completed construction of a building to house the cenotaph at the military's new west-end Ottawa headquarters complex and will formally open the structure this fall, according to a spokesman and a posting on the federal government's tendering website.

The department advertised last week for an audio-visual company to support the inauguration on Oct. 27, but Jean-Marc Doucet, acting director the Ottawa headquarters transformation, said the date has not been entirely confirmed.

The cenotaph, which originally stood outside of the Canadian command post at the airfield in Afghanistan, was dismantled and shipped home following the end of combat operations in 2011.

The Canadian cenotaph pictured at Kandahar Airfield in 2008. A larger version of the monument, which included the names of American soldiers killed under Canadian command, was brought back to Canada in 2011. (Murray Brewster/Canadian Press)

It was reassembled into a temporary display that travelled the country in 2013 while officials tried to find a permanent home in Ottawa.

The tribute uses black granite plates  — 192 in all — etched with the photographs of Canadian soldiers and civilians killed during the decade-long conflict, as well as Americans who died while under Canadian command in Kandahar.

Questions about public access

But the new building sits squarely behind a security cordon at the new Department of National Defence headquarters in Ottawa's west end and access will be a challenge.

Doucet said the intention is to allow the general public to visit the memorial, but exactly how that will happen is not entirely clear.

"The process, procedures and guidelines are still being worked on by the (National Defence) team," said Doucet, who was the building's project director.

The mother of a soldier who died in May 2008 said Wednesday it is imperative that National Defence not only open the door, but actively encourage Canadians to visit the building.

It would provide comfort for her and others, said Anne Snyder, whose son, Capt. Jonathan Snyder, was posthumously awarded the Star of Military Valour.

Anne Snyder poses with a photo of her son Jonathan at her home in Head of Jeddore, Nova Scotia. Capt. Jonathan Snyder, 26, was a member of Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry who was killed while on a night patrol in the Zhari district of Kandahar. (Mike Dembeck/Canadian Press)

"There will never be closure," she said in an interview from Halifax. "I think it's very important, and for the people of Canada to recognize this service and what was taken away from our country; the potential of these men and women who probably would be leaders in today's society."

Snyder said it's important opponents of the war see it and that the political divide created by the country's involvement in Afghanistan be bridged. Her ex-husband, David, spoke out passionately against the war following his son's death. 

As a recipient of the country's second-highest award for bravery on the battlefield, Jon Snyder's legacy is recognized at the government Valour Building, close to Parliament Hill.

His mother says she visits it and his grave at Ottawa's Beechwood National Cemetery on a regular basis, but for other families the Kandahar cenotaph is an important icon.

'Human dimension behind war'

Josee Belisle, mother of Cpl. Yannick Scherrer, sobs at the sight of her son's remembrance plaque on the cenotaph to fallen Canadians at Kandahar Airfield in 2011. She is comforted by Maj. Grahame Thompson, the senior Canadian task force padre. The family visit was the last memorial trip to Kandahar before the Canadian army pulled out of combat. (Murray Brewster/The Canadian Press)

Former commanders, such as retired major-general Denis Thompson, echoed her comments. Unencumbered public access is important, he said, because it helps people understand that 158 military casualties "is more than just a number and that there is a story behind each and everyone of these individuals."

Thompson commanded the mission at the time of Snyder's death.

"In think that is the important part that people see the human dimension behind war and not just the cold, hard facts," he said.

Retired Canadian Maj.-Gen Denis Thompson photographed in Kandahar in 2008. (Murray Brewster/Canadian Press)

The Afghan war has largely faded from the public consciousness in Canada, while the U.S., Britain and other NATO allies remain engaged in the country, albeit on a much smaller scale.

The memorial is important for our allies — Afghans, Americans and others — to see that Canadians have not forgotten, said a second former commander.

"It's important to remind us of who we are and what we stand for and the cost of what we take for granted," said retired major-general Dave Fraser, who published a book last spring on the biggest battle of the Canadian campaign, Operation Medusa.

An early version of the Canadian cenotaph at Kandahar Airfield, in 2006, at the outset of the combat mission. (Murray Brewster/Canadian Press)

Separately, Public Services and National Defence have also agreed on the names of the various buildings at the new headquarters complex.

Each of them are named for a specific battle, honour or operation in which Canadians took part in over the last 118 years.

Those include well-known events, such as the battle for Vimy Ridge in the First World War, and obscure references such as Ubique, Latin for "everywhere," which was the title of a Rudyard Kipling poem but also a battle honour presented to the Royal Canadian Artillery, Royal Canadian Engineers and special forces, including JTF-2, the military's elite counter-terrorism unit.

"There was a lot of debate," said Doucet, referring to the two years of meetings and consultations that went into the naming project. "There was a lot of different viewpoints."

In the end, he said officials wanted to reflect the breadth of operations carried out by the military, from warfighting to humanitarian assistance.

A plaque of Michelle Lang, a journalist from the Calgary Herald embedded with the Canadian Armed Forces who was killed in Kandahar, is part of the memorial structure that contains 192 plaques as well as interpretation and artifacts. (Chad Hipolito/Canadian Press)

About the Author

Murray Brewster

Defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.

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