Afghan memorial unveiled with short notice on minister's order

The unveiling last summer of a memorial to Canadians killed in Afghanistan happened on short notice following an order from then-minister of defence Peter MacKay, leaving families of the fallen less than a week to make travel plans, documents obtained by CBC News show.

Parliament Hill event held a week before Peter MacKay was shuffled out of defence portfolio

Then-Defence Minister Peter MacKay and Lt. Gen. Stuart Beare unveil the travelling Afghanistan Memorial Vigil on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on July 9. (The Canadian Press)

A decision by then-defence minister Peter MacKay to unveil on short notice a memorial to Canadians killed in Afghanistan left officials in the department scrambling to notify families of the fallen in time to attend, documents obtained by CBC News show.

What had been a carefully planned event to honour the memory of those who were killed during Canada's participation in the war was derailed last July when military officials were asked on a Wednesday to have a national memorial display ready in Ottawa for the following Monday. 

The new plan saw the families of the fallen travel from across the country to Ottawa for a private viewing on July 8, followed by a public unveiling with media present on July 9.​

As CBC News reported on July 9, the memorial was publicly unveiled amid complaints from families of the fallen who said they were not given sufficient notice to attend the event.

Documents obtained by CBC News under the Access to Information Act nearly a year after the memorial was unveiled reveal that the Chief of Defence Staff Tom Lawson issued a directive on the evening of July 3, 2013 to have the memorial unveiled in less than five days time. The directive was based on an order by MacKay, who was then minister of national defence.

An official in Lawson's office outlined the "situation" in a wide-reaching email to national defence officials sent out at 8:25 p.m. ET on July 3, 2013.

"In order to honour the sacrifices of our Fallen, while promoting recognition of the ongoing efforts of CAF members deployed to Afghanistan currently, the Minister has directed that the Afghan Memorial Vigil be established on Parliament Hill as of 8 July 2013," the email from Lawson's office said.

MacKay: 'not a lot of notice'

Reached on Parliament Hill after a House of Commons committee earlier today, MacKay acknowledged that "four days is not a lot of notice." He said the memorial was unveiled on July 8-9, 2013 so that more Canadians could see it.

"What we hoped to do was maximize the opportunity for Canadians to see the vigil around Canada Day, we thought that was the optimal time to have the most visibility.

"And there was, of course, a concern expressed by the department and I shared that concern… but on balance what we had hoped to do was give Canadians the maximum opportunity to see this important vigil," MacKay said.

The unveiling of the memorial came amid speculation that Prime Minister Stephen Harper would shuffle his cabinet and move MacKay out of the defence portfolio.

Asked if a looming cabinet shuffle had anything to do with his decision to move up the date, MacKay repeated that what he wanted to do was "maximize" the opportunity for Canadians to see the memorial.

But Jim Davis, the father of Cpl. Paul Davis who died in Afghanistan in 2006, believes that politics had something to do with the rush to unveil the memorial.

Reached by CBC News in Halifax, Davis said, "He [MacKay] probably wanted the unveiling to take place under his reign, while he was the minister [of national defence.] 

"And I think in the scramble to make sure that he got the publicity that politicians like to get, I think it was very unfortunate to have the top brass of the military to have, like I say, scramble to get the invitations out to the families."

On July 15, the Monday after the Afghanistan memorial was unveiled to the families of the fallen, Harper shuffled his cabinet, moving MacKay out of national defence and Rob Nicholson into the post.

Families: 'a slap in the face'

MacKay's decision to unveil the national memorial to Afghan's war dead with less than five days' notice triggered a flurry of emails from military officials who were put in the awkward position of telling the families of the fallen about a last-minute display and asking them to travel to Ottawa on a moment's notice.

"Sir, we were led to believe that we would have time to properly send out letters. It looks like we need to do this asap," one official in charge of planning said within minutes of the directive being issued.

"This is a little bit short notice for families that have to travel," said another official whose name was withheld.

Sir, the majority of families have taken the late notice as 'a slap in the face' to quote them.- Email from a military official to Major-General David Millar

An official in Trenton apologized for "the short notice" and immediately flagged the concerns up the chain of command asking whether they "should prepare for some unfavourable feedback?"

By Friday morning, it was clear the families of the fallen were upset both with the late timing of the event and the lack of information available. Military officials relayed the "anger and disappointment" expressed by the families, many of which were taking to Facebook groups to express their frustrations.

One official quoted a staff who had to call the families as saying they'd had "both ears filled with their thoughts on the late roll out."

On Sunday afternoon, that same official sent an email to Major-General David Millar to tell him how unhappy the families were.

"Sir, the majority of families have taken the late notice as 'a slap in the face' to quote them."

On the Saturday following the unveiling of the memorial, Millar wrote to military officials across the country to thank them for what they had managed to pull off in a very short period of time.

"Given the short notice, you were called upon to not only notify our families but to explain the rational for the late notice. I recognize the difficulty this imposed and that the task was not easy."

"My thanks for your professionalism,'" Millar said.

MacKay favoured earlier date, Lawson later

Documents obtained by CBC News under the Access to Information Act show that the idea of unveiling the memorial in June 2013, ahead of Canada Day, was briefly floated in a briefing note to MacKay dated May 17, 2013.

"It is felt that the Centre Block on Parliament Hill would be the most appropriate venue and the timeframe would be over one day on the week of 10-14 June 2013 just prior to the House rising for the summer," said the briefing note by military officials to MacKay.

But two weeks later, those same military officials set aside the June 2013 date in favour of a later one, according to a briefing note to the chief of defence staff dated May 31, 2013.

"The proposed dates for the Vigil to be unveiled would be April 7-11, 2014," the briefing note to Lawson said adding that "alternatively, the option to launch in Fall 2013 tied to events with the last Remembrance Day in Kabul is a possibility."

The probability of unveiling the memorial in the fall of 2013 went up, less than a week later, after MacKay was given "a sneak peek" of the display alongside Lawson and other military officials.

The next day, military officials noticed that a picture of the minister "looking over" the Afghan memorial was posted on Twitter. That left national defence officials wondering about the time line for the roll-out.

A debrief note said that while Lawson could consider unveiling the display around Remembrance Day in 2013, "he was supporting" the spring 2014 proposal.

But the briefing note also said that MacKay "voiced out loud a point about consideration for Fall 2013." A military official heard MacKay saying to Lawson "you and I and Gen. Beare will need to discuss this further."

One official suggested that when the "minister of national defence is musing, it comes to fruition."

And so it was that officials in the department of national defence began to plan the unveiling of the memorial in time for August 7, 2013.

That is, until an order was issued by MacKay to move the unveiling date up to July 8, 2013.

Memorial travels the country

On the morning of July 8, MacKay's office was informed that Lawson would "not be present tomorrow" when the memorial was to be unveiled before television cameras on Parliament Hill.

Lawson's office said that Lt. Gen. Stuart Beare would attend the news conference instead.
Silver Cross Mother Karen Megeney touches the plaque of her son, Kevin, who was killed March 6, 2007, at the war memorial during the last Remembrance Day ceremony at Kandahar Air Field Friday, November 11, 2011 in Kandahar, Afghanistan. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

The memorial is made up of the plaques originally displayed at the Kandahar Airfield cenotaph in Afghanistan.

It contains 190 plaques representing 201 fallen: 158 Canadian Armed Forces members, one Canadian diplomat, one Canadian civilian contractor, one Canadian journalist, and 40 U.S. Armed Forces members who were under Canadian command.

The Afghanistan Memorial Vigil continues to travel across the country until Remembrance Day, at which point it will return to Ottawa.


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