Governor-General David Johnston and Prime Minister Stephen Harper hosted a National Day of Honour on Parliament Hill Friday, commemorating Canada’s mission in Afghanistan with a tribute to those who served and the survivors of those who lost their lives. The Globe and Mail spoke with some of those in attendance.
1. The soldiers
The Day of Honour crowd was brimming with uniforms. Warrant Officer Keenan Rehaluk, 38, did two tours in Afghanistan, losing colleagues along the way.
“It’s just a day to reflect on our losses. I’m sure this is closure for a lot of people,” he said. “I think it means a lot to everybody – not just soldiers, but all Canadians.”
Retired Master Corporal Pat Chiasson, an Afghan veteran, paid tribute alongside his former colleagues. “I hope this cements into the memory of all Canadians the sacrifices [the soldiers made], and that going forward it will be remembered,” he said.
Afghan veteran Sergeant Daphne Ter Kuile called the ceremony a chance for soldiers who survived to honour the fallen. “Every Remembrance Day has a new meaning for me because of the comrades that we lost,” she said.
2. The parents
After Corporal Bryce Keller was killed, his grieving mother found herself flipping through an old book of his, one with essays he’d written in high school.
“I never knew why he joined,” said his mother, Helen. The essay revealed a reason. “He said he wanted to do something good that people would remember him by.”
She and her husband, Mel, were among the families of the fallen who attended Friday – Bryce died in 2006 at age 27, one of 158 Canadian soldiers killed.
Kevin Thomas McKay was another. His family continues to celebrate Canada’s legacy, particularly in education for young Afghans.
“What I hope Canadians take from this is they learn the accomplishments of our military in Afghanistan,” Kevin’s father, Fred, said Friday. “There’s too many people that don’t know why we were there.”
3. The onlookers
Jennifer Jones wasn’t a soldier. She just heard something unbelievable years ago: that Canada’s Afghan mission had its own Tim Hortons. She looked it up online to be sure, and ended up working there for six months as a civilian in 2007, slinging coffee.
“Going to Afghanistan was an experience that was, to me, life-changing,” recalls Ms. Jones, 42. “To see in a civilian capacity, how important it was for us to serve [in Afghanistan], it was amazing, it was humbling.”
That’s what spurred her to come from her home in Thunder Bay to Ottawa for Friday’s Day of Honour – wearing a beige camouflage Tim Hortons hat – among the thousands who attended. People lined up to see inside a Chinook helicopter and arrived early for a prime spot. “It’s really important that we acknowledge and celebrate the sacrifices Canadians made,” Ms. Jones said.
4. The General
The planning wasn’t without problems. They included an objection from the head of the Royal Canadian Legion that the Prime Minister – not the Governor-General as commander-in-chief – would receive the ceremonial flag, the last one that flew over Canada’s Afghan mission.
General Tom Lawson, Chief of the Defence Staff, wasn’t concerned.
“I love the Legion, and I think it just shows their attention to detail. But protocol issues aside, those are great things that always make an event that was going to be great even better. There was no rancour there today,” Gen. Lawson said after the ceremony, as the crowd of thousands slowly dispersed. “I think they can take away a feeling of warmth that our Canadian armed forces continue to do what they need to do to be ready.”
5. The Prime Minister
In the end, Mr. Harper was among those to handle the flag – but gave it almost immediately to Mr. Johnston. The Prime Minister and his wife, Laureen Harper, also attended a memorial in the Senate chamber for the fallen soldiers.
In addition to Friday’s ceremony, the federal government has announced plans to create an Afghan war memorial, add an inscription to the National War Memorial to commemorate the Afghan war, rename an Ottawa government tower the “Valour Building” and create a new service medal.
On Parliament Hill, Mr. Harper paid tribute to the soldiers and other Canadians who worked in Afghanistan – and their families. The work of the mission led millions to get access to schools and to be vaccinated against polio, he said.
“Canada is more secure. A network of terrorists hell-bent on destroying our peace and our way of life can no longer with impunity use Afghanistan as a safe haven,” Mr. Harper said, later adding: “The names of your loved ones are engraved on all our hearts.”