© Canadian Press photo
The army takes down the Canadian flag for the last time in Afghanistan on Wednesday, March 12, 2014, bringing an end to 12 years of military involvement in a campaign that cost the lives of 158 soldiers.
OTTAWA — Veterans of Canada’s war in Afghanistan will be feted May 9 in an elaborate display of thundering guns and helicopters that will be tightly focused on Parliament Hill, but muted elsewhere in the country.
The Harper government, which promised in its throne speech to commemorate the soldiers who fought in the bitter 12-year guerilla war, plans a parade involving all of the relevant regiments, a 21-gun salute, military bands and a fly-past by planes and helicopters that took part in the mission.
Families of the 158 soldiers who died will also be recognized in private receptions and ceremonies, including one in the Senate involving Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Gov. Gen. David Johnston, although it remains unclear how many will attend.
Wheelchair athlete Rick Hansen will also serve as master of ceremonies for the events on Parliament Hill, Jason MacDonald, Harper’s director of communications, told a media briefing Monday.
“The men and women of our armed forces in Canada, along with Canadian diplomats and civilian public servants, courageously demonstrated time and again the strength, spirit, ingenuity and determination that have defined our nation from the very beginning,” MacDonald said.
“Their collective sacrifices are a worthy chapter in our country’s long and proud history of fighting for a safer, better world for everybody, and we’re forever proud and grateful.”
It will be a one-off event, similar to the celebration that followed the end of the Libya bombing mission, and is in one way intended to stand in for Remembrance Day as the country’s focal point for war commemoration, MacDonald said.
But community groups and veterans say the event feels like it was put together on the back of a napkin.
Billed as a “national day” of honour, other events are expected to take place at military bases and legion halls across the country, where the public will be invited to participate, MacDonald said.
Members of Parliament and provincial premiers are also being encouraged to organize events, and schools across the country will be asked to observe two minutes of silence at 1:30 p.m. ET.
Precisely how community events are expected to unfold remains unclear, allowing for what the government seems to hope will be a grassroots display of appreciation for the approximately 40,000 troops who rotated through Kandahar and Kabul.
Even public participation in the 90-minute pageant on the Hill will be somewhat restrained because schools will still be in session and civil servants in the downtown are not being given time off to attend the parade.
The government, however, is prepared to cut them some slack.
“We are not going to hold it against somebody who is going to come and participate in this,” MacDonald said.
In terms of getting the word out, the government only plans to promote the event in print advertisements and on radio in eastern Ontario markets.
There will be no national ad campaign, MacDonald said.
Plans also include a relay from CFB Trenton, east of Toronto, to Ottawa where the last flag that flew over the Canadian mission will be presented to Harper and Gen. Tom Lawson, Canada’s chief of defence staff.
The lack of detail and advance notice has been a subject of increasing frustration not only for community organizers, but also for ordinary Canadians who are keen to show their appreciation.
MacDonald said the government has done “extensive outreach” with community groups and provinces.
The Royal Canadian Legion only received notice on April 16 asking it to participate, and there’s no mistaking the last-minute vibe surrounding the plans, said Scott Ferris, the group’s director of marketing.
“The public now knows that — on that day in Ottawa — there will be a parade; there will be 300 currently serving personnel, Canadian Forces, RCMP; there will be some veterans of the Afghan mission; there will be a fly-past; there will a tank display; some basic things for an event that’s happening in Ottawa. But that’s it,” Ferris said.
“There’s lots of questions still.”
The legion has been left to figure out what it should be doing for the general public, he said.
Linda Granfield, a Toronto-area resident, has been pressing her local Conservative MP for details since early April. At one point she and her husband considered driving to Ottawa to take part in the national event, but learned only scant information from her member’s constituency assistant.
Officials with both National Defence and Veterans Affairs have been scrambling to put together all the moving pieces, including 11th-hour calls last week to families of the wounded to encourage them to participate.
MacDonald said the cost of bringing families of fallen soldiers to Ottawa is being offset by the independent foundation True Patriot Love, which is also organizing a private breakfast for around 1,000 people.
Both Harper and Defence Minister Rob Nicholson are slated to speak at a VIP reception.
True Patriot Love was created to help support military families by helping to cover costs not paid by the federal government.
The group is selling corporate sponsorships for the event for between $5,000 and $30,000. It is also selling individual tickets at $500 apiece.