Afghan mission Day of Honour planning catches legion off guard

A May 9 National Day of Honour commemorating the Afghanistan conflict will include a parade in Ottawa and a breakfast for families of soldiers and others who died during the mission, the government has announced.

Legions across the country have had only days to prepare for May 9 commemoration event

A May 9 National Day of Honour to remember the sacrifices of personnel in the 12-year Afghanistan conflict will include a parade in Ottawa and a breakfast for families of fallen soldiers, the Canadian government announced Monday. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

A May 9 National Day of Honour commemorating the Afghanistan conflict will include a parade in Ottawa and a breakfast for families of soldiers and others who died during the mission, the government announced today.

But the commemoration is also supposed to be celebrated across the country at legion halls and military bases, and the Royal Canadian Legion says it has had little time to prepare.

Scott Ferris, director of marketing and membership at the legion's national branch, said in an interview, "It's just that with 10 days to plan it doesn't give anyone time to do the great justice to this day that it really needs."

A total of 40,000 veterans will be honoured, as well as the 158 soldiers, one diplomat, one journalist and several civil servants who were killed in the conflict.

Rick Hansen, the B.C. Paralympian whose Man in Motion world tour in the mid-1980s raised money for spinal cord research, and whose foundation still raises money for the cause, will emcee the event.

The government says former prime ministers and former Governors General are to attend the ceremonies.

The day will also feature a relay called Soldier On — runners will carry the last flag from Afghanistan from Trenton, Ont., to Ottawa. The flag, inside a specially built baton, will be passed on through Napanee, Kingston, Perth, Kanata and Gatineau.

The concept of a special day on May 9 to mark the Afghanistan conflict was announced by Prime Minister Stephen Harper on March 18 when the last Canadian military contingent pulled out of Afghanistan.

That's when the legion started asking questions, but Ferris said it was impossible until last week to even find out when the two minutes of silence would occur in order to co-ordinate the timing in legions across the country. (It will be at 1:30 p.m. E.T.)

"This could have been a fantastic national event with thousands of legion branches getting involved across the country, hundreds of thousands of volunteers. The best we are left with now is scrambling to make something happen," he said.

The tribute breakfast for the families of the fallen will be sponsored by the organization True Patriot Love, which raises money to support soldiers, veterans and their families, and is receiving offers of financial support from the private sector.

Although the breakfast is described as private, corporate sponsors will be able to buy tickets at $1,000 per person, or $3,500 for a group of four.

Controversy over costs

There had been some controversy over the Day of Honour when some families received notices they would be expected to pay their own costs for travel to Ottawa.

However, the government announced it will pick up costs for the families' travel, meals and accommodations while in Ottawa, if True Patriot Love can't raise enough to cover the expenses.

Ferris doesn't have any problem with corporate sponsors paying for families' expenses and says he's glad the private sector is "stepping up." He worries that if government picks up the entire cost, a precedent would be set for several other commemoration events coming up, such as the 70th anniversary of D-Day in early June.

At a news conference Monday a spokesperson for the Prime Minister's Office couldn't give even a ballpark figure for the Day of Honour's budget.

"Remembrance is fundamentally a key issue of the legion's mission statement," Ferris pointed out. "But back in 2012 we knew it was going to cost approximately $30 million to commemorate the war of 1812. We have seen nothing from the government in regards to cost."

He pointed out Remembrance Day is considered a day of honour for all veterans, and no one special ceremony was held for veterans of Bosnia or Rwanda.

Ferris continued that the government has been closing veterans affairs offices, and cutting back on some veterans services.

He said the legion's mission is split between honouring veterans and serving them. "We have to do both. But there has to be a balance."

NDP thinks government should pay families' costs

Jack Harris, the NDP's defence critic, said it is "totally inappropriate" to leave families at the mercy of voluntary donations and charities. "Are we trying to save money?" he asked. "You're left with the impression that the government is doing this without spending any money or doing it on the cheap."

Laurie Greenslade, whose son David was one of six soldiers killed on Easter Sunday in Afghanistan in 2007, told CBC News she and her husband planned to pay their own way to Ottawa. Then her husband's employer offered to pay "for everything."

"They wholeheartedly offered to do it, and they wanted to, and we were glad they wanted to, so we said 'yes,'" she said.

Other events for the Day of Honour will include:

  • Displays of a Leopard II tank, a rigid hull inflatable boat, a military medical display and other displays from military engineers, Canadian Special Forces and the Foreign Affairs Department.
  • Events across the country, in municipalities, local military bases and legion halls, some organized by MPs.
  • A two-part fly-by salute. One will include a maritime patrol aircraft, a Globemaster, a Hercules, an airbus, and Griffon and Chinook helicopter, all used in Afghanistan.
  • A ceremony for the families of the fallen in the Senate chamber with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the Governor General, Defence Minister Rob Nicholson and Chief of Defence Staff General Thomas Lawson.
  •  A  21-gun salute, and a single gunshot followed by two minutes of silence.

The Afghanistan memorial consisting of 190 plaques within eight panels will be on display in the Hall of Honour on Parliament Hill.

Then-Defence minister Peter MacKay and Lt. Gen. Stuart Beare unveil the Afghanistan Memorial Vigil on Parliament Hill on July 9, 2013. The memorial will be back on the Hill on May 9, the national Day of Honour for the Afghanistan conflict. (The Canadian Press)

The memorial, known as the Afghanistan Memorial Vigil, was started in Kandahar where laser-carved photographs of fallen forces members were continually added to a wooden structure, which served as a backdrop whenever a death was announced. There are 40 plaques honouring United States Armed  Forces members who were killed while under Canadian command.

The memorial, which does not yet have a permanent home, will go on tour across Canada after the ceremonies.

The parade will include 300 Canadian Armed Forces personnel, 32 RCMP members, local police and 50 civilians who were part of the Afghanistan mission. Along the way, veterans of the Afghanistan war will join in .