Travelling Afghanistan memorial honours the fallen

A travelling memorial to honour the men and women who died in Afghanistan was unveiled on Parliament Hill on Tuesday, amidst complaints from families of the fallen who say they were not given sufficent notice to attend the event.

Families complain they were not given sufficient notice to attend the unveiling

Defence Minister Peter MacKay unveils the travelling Afghanistan Memorial Vigil on Parliament Hill on July 9, 2013. The vigil contains the plaques originally displayed at the cenotaph in Afghanistan. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

A travelling memorial to honour the men and women who died in Afghanistan was unveiled on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, amidst complaints from families of the fallen who say they were not given sufficient notice to attend the event.

National Defence Minister Peter MacKay unveiled the memorial as the training mission in Afghanistan begins to wind down ahead of its conclusion on March 31, 2014.

"We do so to honour the bravery, the dedication, the valour and professionalism of the civilian and military personnel who have fallen in Afghanistan," MacKay said.

The memorial will be open to the public and remain on Parliament Hill throughout the summer and through Remembrance Day. It will then travel across the country and to Washington, D.C., for two years before returning to a permanent, yet to be determined, location in the National Capital Region.

While some of the families of the fallen Canadians in Afghanistan did take part in a private viewing on Parliament Hill Monday, others were not able to attend due to the short notice they received.

Jane Byers, the mother of Pte. David Byers, who was killed by a suicide bomber while conducting a security patrol in Afghanistan in 2006, contacted CBC News to express her frustration with the amount of notification she and other families received ahead of the memorial's unveiling.

"It's very upsetting. This monument is like a shrine to the families," Byers told CBC News in a telephone interview Tuesday from Edmonton where her son's daughter lives.

Byers, who lives in Ontario, said she first heard of the unveiling last Friday through the family of another fallen soldier but did not receive an email until Monday, when it was too late for her to attend. 

"I don't care if Tommy-tourist gets to see it. I think the families should be allowed to see it first. And we should have been given significant amount of time to prepare or to plan to be there," Byers said.

"This last-minute crap is not cutting it. It's an insult and a disgrace."

Byers said that the failure to communicate has caused "anger and confusion. Some families don't heal. We don't heal, we move forward… and sometimes when things like this happen, it brings the families right back down to day zero."

The family of Pte. Joel Wiebe, 22, who was killed in 2007 by a roadside bomb near the town of Sperwan Ghar, southwest of Kandahar, also says they were not given enough notice to attend the event.

Wiebe's widow, Anna Thede, told CBC News her family was "disappointed at the failure of clear communication" after receiving an email about the unveiling of the memorial on Monday.

Thede said she's not "complaining" but giving the families more notice would have gone a long way in maintaining good relationships.

When asked about it by CBC News after the unveiling of the memorial, MacKay said the families "will be given an opportunity" to attend as the memorial will be on permanent display.

"The decision was taken to begin after Canada Day and to carry on through until the end of the mission," MacKay said.

Notifications a 'priority'

CBC News sought to obtain further clarification from MacKay's office and questions were referred to the department of national defence.

Michèle Tremblay, a public affairs officer with the Canadian Forces morale and welfare services, told CBC News the notification to the families of the fallen Canadians in Afghanistan "was treated as priority by personnel at all 24 Integrated Personnel Support Centres across Canada."

Tremblay said all 158 primary next of kin family members of the fallen Canadians in Afghanistan were contacted by phone and email between July 4 and 5.

Voice messages were left when possible, Tremblay said but "some families had moved and not left new contact information."

Tremblay noted that once the memorial reaches locations across the country, the Canadian Armed Forces will strive to accommodate requests for private viewings by families and loved ones on a case by case basis.

Byers said she has sent a letter to MacKay and plans to send one to the prime minister insisting "the families have a say" in matters involving their loved ones.

According to Byers, the families ought to be consulted on the final and permanent location of the memorial.

Having the memorial displayed on Parliament Hill is the "perfect spot" for politicians to remember the names and faces of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice, Byers said.

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.

"This memorial is a very real expression of Canada's gratitude to those who fought against terrorism, to defend global peace and security, and the families who stood steadfastly behind them during their deployment," MacKay said during the unveiling.

Making progress

Troops deployed in the second rotation of Canada's contribution to the NATO training mission in Afghanistan started coming home at the end of June. 

Throughout the months of June and July, approximately 900 Canadian military personnel will be deployed in the area of Kabul, gradually replacing Canadian military members who were deployed in the second rotation.

The troops will participate in the final rotation of Operation Attention from June 2013 to March 2014, at which time the responsibility for security will be transferred over to the Afghans.

Lt.-Gen. Stuart Beare, commander of Canadian Joint Operations Command, who served in Afghanistan also attended the unveiling.

Beare credited the Canadian Armed Forces for making "real progress" in Afghanistan noting that "the progress in Afghanistan doesn't mean an absence of violence."

"Progress in Afghanistan can really be measured by the capacity of the Afghan security forces to take on the violence and the threats to the people of Afghanistan themselves," Beare said.

MacKay said that Canada hopes the capability of the Afghan security forces "will hold and carry the day" despite the "tremendous amount of pressure that will remain in Afghanistan that's consistent with their history. They have very unhelpful neighbours," MacKay said.

"It is our hope that Canada's contribution will help form that solid foundation that they need to continue all of their efforts to remain a stable, democratic and peaceful nation."

In March, MacKay estimated the total operational cost for the training mission, over four years, to reach over $500 million by the time it comes to an end in 2014.

Cabinet shuffle

With a major cabinet shuffle looming, there has been much speculation about MacKay's fate as defence minister and whether Prime Minister Stephen Harper plans to move him out of cabinet.

Asked by reporters if he would like to stay on as defence minister, MacKay said it's the best job he's had and while he's happy to stay in the job, the decision is up to the prime minister.

Asked for parting words in the eventuality that he may indeed get shuffled out of cabinet, MacKay replied "this is not my last public appearance, I can assure you that — not as defence minister."


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