War tributes in limbo

The federal Liberal government says it will consult Canadian veterans and other stakeholders before deciding what to do with two military heritage projects in downtown Ottawa that were announced by the previous Conservative government last year.

The first project is a 2.8 kilometre-long Memorial Route connecting several military history sites in the heart of the capital. The route would be the centrepiece of the National Capital Military Commemoration Plan.

The Memorial Route was designed to begin at the Canadian War Museum on Wellington Street west of Parliament Hill, stretch east along Wellington past several historic sites before turning south on Elgin Street near the National War Memorial, and finally ending at the Cartier Square Drill Hall near Ottawa City Hall.

The second project is a national memorial dedicated to the 99 Canadian recipients of the Victoria Cross, the highest honour awarded to Commonwealth soldiers. That monument would be erected at Richmond Landing, where the Royal Canadian Navy Monument is already located and an Afghanistan War memorial is expected to be built.

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

Sarah McMaster, press secretary to the Minister of Veterans Affairs, said the ministry is not scuttling the two projects. 

“We want to talk to veterans, veterans stakeholders and interested parties to make sure we get these commemorative monuments and route right,” she said.

“Part of our government’s commitment to renewing our relationship with the veterans community is to ensure that there is meaningful and in-depth consultation on issues that pertain to them and their experiences,” McMaster added.

“Any decision on a memorial will be made to ensure effective planning and spending,” said Zoltan Csepregi, who also responded on behalf of Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr.

The pace of the two projects has Conservative MP Erin O’Toole — a party leadership candidate and former veterans affairs minister — accusing the Liberals of willfully allowing commemoration projects to die a slow death.

“They’re either trying to cancel it by stealth,” O’Toole said, “or minimize it to such a point that they’re not actually giving (veterans) the recognition I think they deserve.”

The idea of the Memorial Route was proposed by Veterans Affairs and announced in 2015. The National Capital Commission, under the authority of the Department of Canadian Heritage, is the agency responsible for implementing the commemoration projects.

Canadian Heritage is tasked with choosing the themes of new commemorations and acts as a project manager for both the Afghanistan and Victoria Cross memorials. The Memorial Route was intended to link various monuments of military significance in downtown Ottawa and allow tourists with an interest in Canada’s military history to view all the related sites in one trip.

The route also was meant to provide opportunities for new memorials to be constructed. A new ‘Remembrance Precinct’ where Wellington Street meets the Portage Bridge was to accompany new memorials. The precinct was to include Richmond Landing and the property directly east of the War Museum on Booth Street.

The NCC’s board of directors voted in June 2015 to proceed with public consultation on the military commemoration plan, according to a press release from that month. A version of the plan for stakeholder consultations was created in May 2015 and published online.

The NCC said at the time it would consult veterans’ associations, key federal partners and other stakeholders, and seek comments from the public via its website.

The plan was to be submitted to the board of directors for final approval in the fall of 2015, according to the same press release.

However, there is no record of consultations ever occurring and the NCC’s board of directors never signed off on a final version of the military commemoration plan. The plan has not been discussed at any meetings since June 2015.

A 2015 NCC corporate plan outlining the commission’s mission between 2015 and 2020 set a goal of completing projects outlined in the military commemoration plan in 2015-16.

In October 2015, the federal Liberals swept to power. Among the new government’s early decisions was the cancellation of a highly controversial, Conservative-approved plan to build a large memorial to victims of Communism near the Supreme Court building on Wellington Street.

Instead, a downsized version of the memorial is to be built in a less prominent location farther west of Parliament Hill, in the Garden of the Provinces and Territories.

Asked about the status of the military commemoration plan, NCC spokesperson Jean Wolff said: “Currently, there is no progress to report on this exercise.”

The National Victoria Cross Memorial was announced in May 2015 alongside a national memorial for Afghanistan veterans to be built at Richmond Landing. The Conservative government at the time said both memorials would be unveiled in 2017, helping to mark the 150th anniversary of Confederation.

The planned memorials were widely viewed as part of the Conservative government’s controversial efforts to inject a greater dose of military pride into Canadians’ 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.

Veterans Affairs did not say when a final decision will be made on the Victoria Cross and memorial route. The memorial was not discussed at a stakeholders’ meeting attended by 40 veterans groups and a commemoration advisory group set up by Veterans Affairs in early October.

The two memorials were announced in 2015 by then-veterans affairs minister O’Toole and Ottawa-area MP and cabinet minister Pierre Poilievre, who was also responsible for the NCC.

O’Toole said the Victoria Cross memorial would be among the “modest but very important ways” to commemorate Canada’s military history in downtown Ottawa.

“In some ways I think they’re trying to undo everything we did,” O’Toole said, referring to the new Liberal government’s handling of commemoration projects announced under the Conservatives. “I think when it extends to things like the Afghan memorial or Victoria Cross monument is when it becomes the most petty form of politics.”

O’Toole said Canada’s military heritage should be commemorated regardless of which party is in power.

“It’s Canada’s history … The Liberals don’t think it’s their history but it is,” he said. “I don’t think it’s militarizing us as a people, otherwise you would say that anybody that wears a poppy is somehow buying into the Conservative militarization of Canada.”