National Day of Honour: Whose celebration?

Less than two months after the final Canadian troops pulled out of Afghanistan, Prime Minister Stephen Harper hosted our country’s first National Day of Honour “to recognize those who fought and to remember the fallen” throughout the 12-year mission (Meghan Hurley, “Canada’s first national day of honour is set for friday – here’s what you need to know,” Ottawa Citizen, 8 May 2014).

The ceremony was a promise made by the government in Harper’s last throne speech and announced in March at a welcoming ceremony for returning soldiers, where he affirmed that the commemorative ceremonies will become an annual event.

As journalist Murray Brewster of the Canadian Press noted, there was almost no information available on the event until just a few days ago: “The silence has left some wondering how the public is expected to participate and whether the day will be an Ottawa-focused political spectacle rather than a grassroots outpouring of appreciation for the approximately 40,000 troops who rotated through the war-ravaged nation” (David Pugliese, “Should May 9th be declared a national day of confusion for honouring the Afghan mission?Ottawa Citizen, 26 April 2014).

School boards and Legion members across the country expressed their bewilderment as they attempted to organize related activities. In Toronto, Halifax, and Winnipeg, school boards made their frustration known over the lack of information available to principals and boards and the failure to provide any notice or direction regarding the day’s activities.

Given only a week to prepare, “Many educators are trying to piece together an event, as is the Royal Canadian Legion which is scrambling to organize activities out of its 1,450 branches,” wrote David Pugliese (“Schools in the dark on next week’s Afghan war national commemoration,” Ottawa Citizen, 1 May 2014).

Only in the final few days did Canadians learn the details of the day’s events.

A second controversy surrounds the National Day of Honour, and this one has the potential to leave a bigger mark on the Conservative brand.

There have been allegations over the last little while the Conservative government has politicized what was supposed to be a National Day of Honour to recognize the Afghan mission and those who participated.

Some veterans were angry that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s office shunted aside the Governor General in many of the activities. The Prime Minister’s Office had announced soldiers would present to Harper the last flag that flew over Kandahar Air Field. Some [have] noted that it should go to Governor-General David Johnston, who is the Canadian Forces’ commander-in-chief. Harper “will accept the flag on behalf of Canadians,” the Prime Minister’s Office has said.

(David Pugliese, “Has this become a national day of honour for Steven Harper instead of the troops?Ottawa Citizen, 9 May 2014).

Other Canadians who played prominent roles in the mission were left out of the plans for the event.

The officers who led the mission have not been invited: neither General Rick Hillier, who commanded the NATO forces in Afghanistan before taking change of Canada’s military; nor Lieutenant-General Andrew Leslie, who also commanded the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan; nor General Walt Natynczyk, Chief of Defence Staff for 4 years of the War; nor Colonel Pat Stogran, who led the first battle group and later became Canada’s First Veterans Ombudsman.

(Jeff Rose-Martland, “Harper, please don’t make the national day of honour all about you,” Huffington Post, 3 May 2014).

Even the families of soldiers who died in Afghanistan were shown scant respect in the initial plan, having originally been invited to attend the ceremonies at their own expense.

It is important to recognize the sacrifices made by the Canadians who served in Afghanistan.

But it is also important not to lose sight of the bigger picture. An even greater sign of respect for the sacrifices made by Canadian military personnel and others—including the Afghan people—would be for Ottawa to learn some lessons about when it is and isn’t appropriate to send the Canadian Forces to war.

Tags: Afghanistan, Canada, Canadian Forces, Canadian military mission in Afghanistan, Defence policy, Public opinion, Stephen Harper