Afghan veterans’ tribute debated

The federal Liberal government is moving ahead with plans to construct a national Afghanistan War memorial.

But it’s now considering three other possible locations in downtown Ottawa instead of following the previous Conservative government’s plan to erect the monument at a shoreline site near the Canadian War Museum. 

The government hasn’t decided on a location yet, said Veterans Affairs Canada spokesperson Zoltan Csepregi, responding on behalf of VAC Minister Kent Hehr.

The previous Conservative government had identified Richmond Landing — a historic strip of the Ottawa River shore just east of the war museum — as the planned site of the Afghanistan War memorial.

The monument is intended to pay tribute to the 40,000 Canadians who served in the conflict between 2001 and 2014, including the 158 who died.

But in addition to Richmond Landing, Veterans Affairs is also expressing interest in sites at the Cartier Square Drill Hall near Ottawa City Hall, a small patch of grass near the corner of Lyon and Wellington streets, and a field immediately west of the Canadian War Museum.

The four locations were presented in July to a commemoration advisory group set up by Veterans Affairs. 

Plans for the monument — officially styled the “National Memorial to Canada’s Mission in Afghanistan” — were announced in May 2014 by then-veterans affairs minister Julian Fantino, who identified the chosen location as Richmond Landing.

The project was re-announced by the former Conservative government in May 2015. 

At that time, it was also announced that a second memorial would be built at Richmond Landing. 

This memorial would be dedicated to Canadian recipients of the Victoria Cross – the highest military honour awarded to a Commonwealth soldiers. 

The Conservative government said at the time that both memorials would be unveiled in 2017, helping to mark the 150th anniversary of Confederation. 

The planned memorials were part of the Conservative government’s controversial efforts to inject a greater dose of military pride into national identity. 

The new Liberal government had considered shelving plans for the Afghanistan memorial earlier this year, before Hehr said in a March question period session that it would be carried out.

However, Veterans Affairs now says completion of the Afghanistan war memorial will not meet the original 2017 target date. 

The department said its focus for the year will be commemorating the centennials of the Battle of Vimy Ridge (April 1917) and the Battle of Passchendaele (July-November 1917), as well as the 75th anniversary of the Dieppe Raid (August 1942).

“The timing of the completion and unveiling of a National Memorial to Canada’s Mission in Afghanistan will be determined at a later date,” Csepregi stated.

Richmond Landing is a small peninsula of land bounded by Victoria Island, a cliff where the Library and Archives Canada headquarters is situated, and the Portage Bridge connecting Ottawa and Gatineau.

The landing is located between Parliament Hill and the Canadian War Museum and offers panoramic views of the Ottawa River. 

The memorial site announced by Fantino two years ago is an open space with a slight rise adjacent to the Portage Bridge.

The Department of Canadian Heritage is managing the project on behalf of Veterans Affairs, while the National Capital Commission is tasked with administering land in Ottawa for commemorative purposes. 

The NCC approved the Richmond Landing site before the Liberals came to power in 2015.

Veteran Affairs had also considered a triangle of land near the corner of Elgin and Albert streets, within sight of the National War Memorial, but that location was not included in the four finalist sites identified earlier this year.

In July, presentations were made on the four candidate locations by Canadian Heritage and the NCC to the 10-member Commemoration Advisory Group, which is tasked with recommending a location for the memorial to Hehr. 

A recorded vote shows that the advisory group backed the Richmond Landing location by a 6-2 margin – endorsing the site initially chosen by the former Conservative government. Two members of the panel were absent.

The advisory group includes representatives from the Canadian military, veterans’ associations, and experts in commemoration and military history. None of the members on the committee are veterans of the war in Afghanistan.  

Veterans Affairs established six advisory groups focusing on a variety of issues in April 2016 in what it called an attempt to improve transparency and seek consultation among the veteran community. 

Like the Afghanistan war monument, the controversial Memorial to the Victims of Communism had been transferred over from the previous Conservative government to the Liberal one currently in power. The new Liberal government decided to scale down, relocate, and reduce the cost of the memorial in December 2015 following a public uproar over its size, cost, location, and purpose. 

Presentations on the four sites for the Afghanistan memorial were also made at a stakeholders’ meeting in early October that was attended by more than 100 people, including veterans of the war and representatives from 40 military and veteran associations. The commemoration advisory group was also present.

The stakeholders’ meeting was intended to solicit feedback from veterans on the planned memorial, among other issues concerning military veterans. The Conservatives had not consulted veterans before its announcement about the memorial in 2014 and 2015.

Stakeholders were polled on the four sites. More than 70 per cent of the participants supported installing the Afghanistan memorial beside the war museum, according to Bruce Moncur, a founding member of the Afghanistan Veterans Association of Canada, who attended the meeting.

“It’s really out of the way and can’t be seen,” said Moncur, referring to the Richmond Landing location. “A lot of Afghan veterans feel that spot is disrespectful, almost as if the government is trying to forget that Afghanistan ever happened.”

Presenters also told stakeholders that the government was sticking to the $5 million budget for the Afghanistan memorial, according to Moncur.

Hehr has to now make a decision on the memorial’s location based on the advisory group’s recommendation, feedback from the stakeholders’ meeting, and technical information.

Conservative veterans affairs critic John Brassard said via email that his party still supports the Richmond Landing location for the memorial but criticized the slow pace of the memorial project under the Liberals.  

The NCC is currently refurbishing walkways and building a pier at Richmond Landing, which is part of an effort to reanimate Ottawa’s long-overlooked shoreline. That project does not affect the portion of land that has been identified for the war memorial.

Produced in collaboration with iPolitics.