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Afghan commemoration cloaked in secrecy

Afghan commemoration cloaked in secrecyThe father Nate Hornburg shows his "Support Our Troops" ribbon in Calgary, March 4, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

OTTAWA - A Royal Proclamation, a moment of silence in schools, and the heavy beating of helicopter rotors over Parliament Hill are slated for May 9, but the Harper's government attempt to turn commemoration of the Afghan mission into a national event is facing delays, confusion and the sting of politics.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently designated May 9 as the day to honour the sacrifices in the 12-year war against the Taliban.

Aside from cursory references on two government websites, there's little information about the event.

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.

The Royal Canadian Legion's national office only last week received a letter from Veterans Affairs asking the group to raise awareness and host events at its 1,450 branches across the country.

"Our goal is to honour the end of a generational mission that affected almost every community in Canada," said the April 16 letter from Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino.

The notice has yet to be distributed across the country because the veterans department initially tried to bypass the group's national headquarters, which has been sharply critical of a number of aspects of government's policies toward ex-soldiers.

With just over two weeks to go, the Legion and other community groups have been given little time to organize or promote events, said group's market director, Scott Ferris.

The questions being posed by the Legion include: What is this day supposed to be? What are we supposed to do on this day? And how are we supposed to support? How are we supposed to recognize these sacrifices?

"On Remembrance Day we honour by going to our cenotaphs, and the National War Memorial here in Ottawa," said Ferris. "We recognize (the day) by celebrating at a Legion branch after the fact. There are concrete actions involved."

The May 9 event is looking "very politically motivated and lacking in any description as to what Canadians are expected to do," Ferris added.

Neither opposition party has been formally consulted about the event, although all MPs received a letter from the prime minister asking them to promote the date.

Yet, websites at National Defence and Veterans Affairs cryptically ask the public to stay tuned for more "detailed information" in the coming days.

It's unclear whether the Conservatives, known for bombarding the airwaves with tens of millions of dollars of Economic Action Plan commercials, will put any advertising heft behind the Afghan commemoration.

It is has also been looking ways to off-load the cost of the event.

An outside fundraising organization, the True Patriot Love Foundation, was asked to cover the expense of bringing the families of Canada’s Afghan war dead to Ottawa the ceremony.

The group acknowledged Tuesday it has agreed to put together a tribute breakfast for the families at the Ottawa convention centre on the day of the event, but it is looking for sponsors to help.

The idea of honouring those who fought the brutal guerrilla war and helped train Afghan forces was highlighted in the Conservative throne speech last fall and there has been at least three years of planning at National Defence for the event.

Despite that, Defence Minister Rob Nicholson told a House of Commons committee two weeks ago that details for the overall tribute were still being worked out.

New Democrat veterans critic Peter Stoffer said it looks like the government is trying to pass the hat for its own celebration.

"It looks half-hearted and quite frankly disrespectful," Stoffer said.

"This is supposed to be a day of significance, especially for the families of those sacrificed when a grateful nation gets to show its appreciation. All I can say is, this better not be about money and keeping the balanced budget."

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