It’s a Remembrance Day with a difference.
For the first time in many years, as the Last Post sounds at cenotaphs around the country on Friday, Canada will not actively be at war.
Yes, there are still troops on the ground in Afghanistan. And yes, they are still risking their lives.
It was just two weeks ago that Master Corporal Byron Greff of the 3rd Battalion Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry was killed along with five U.S. soldiers, eight civilian security contractors and four Afghans during a routine convoy through the streets of Kabul.
But the combat mission has ended. The troops are packing up in Kandahar. And soon there will be no more need for Canadian men and women to be driving the dangerous roads of southern Afghanistan where every turn can be a death trap.
At the National War Memorial in Ottawa, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Governor-General David Johnston will join Silver Cross Mother Patricia Braun in laying wreaths to honour Canada’s war dead. Ms. Braun’s son, Corporal David Braun, was killed by a suicide bomber while he was on patrol in Kandahar in August of 2006.
Among the many tributes offered will be a special “Farewell to Kandahar.”
And there will be a flyby of seven Griffon helicopters and two Hornet fighters over the memorial and also over the Beechwood National Cemetery, where many of the 158 soldiers killed in Afghanistan are buried. The Hornets pay tribute to Canada’s participation this year in the effort to help Libyan citizens oust Moammar Gadhafi while the Griffons represent the Afghan mission.
Defence Minister Peter MacKay, who flew to Kandahar to mark Remembrance Day with the troops, told reporters there he believes the losses sustained in that conflict have awakened Canadians to the meaning of the Nov. 11 tribute.
“I suspect that five or 10 years ago, very few Canadians could have located Afghanistan on a map. And now, it is a country that Canadians have come to know, come to feel a sense of pride for what has been accomplished here, and to understand the sting of loss and sacrifice that accompanies a mission such as this,” Mr. MacKay said. “It's been awhile. Korea, peacekeeping missions, Canadians of this generation have known, but Afghanistan really was this generation's conflict.”
Early Friday, the Portraits of Honour tour arrives on Parliament Hill. This hand-painted mural, 12 metres long, featuring portraits of Canadian Forces members who lost their lives in Afghanistan is travelling the country.
Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney will visit the mural before joining the other dignitaries at the War Memorial. “Our Government will continue to stand-up for our Veterans to ensure our nation’s truest heroes have the support and care they deserve,” Mr. Blaney said in a statement to mark Remembrance Day.
On this day, “We pay tribute to those veterans who served our country during the First and Second World War, the Korean War, recently in Afghanistan and Libya and other missions to defend freedom around the world,” he said. “They acted without hesitation or reservation.”
Veterans watchdog ‘can’t help but be pessimistic’
At the same time, some veterans are worried about pending cuts in Mr. Blaney’s department.
The government has offered assurances that no services or benefits to veterans will be affected as Veterans Affairs trims hundreds of millions of dollars from its budget. But not everyone is convinced.
The Halifax Chronicle Herald has an interview Friday with retired colonel Pat Stogran, the former veterans ombudsman whose outspoken defence of ex-soldiers left him at odds with the Conservative government.
The Herald asked Col. Stogran how he thinks the $226-million cuts to Veterans Affairs will affect the transition for those coming back from Afghanistan and Libya.
“I can’t help but be pessimistic,” he replied.
While there is fat that can be cut from the department, Col. Stogran said, “the biggest problem is the culture, the systemic cheating of the veterans who probably need the most help. It’s the problem cases that the department just does not have the empathy for. So it’s difficult to say the impact that these couple hundred million dollars in cuts will have on a system that is already grossly ineffective and not serving the purpose it was intended for – and that’s serving the veterans most in need.”
The Veteran Affairs department has said the cuts are due to changing demographics. The number of traditional veterans from conflicts like the Second World War and Korea are dying off so there is less need for assistance.
But Col. Stogran said that makes no sense.
“Changing demographics? Well, the world has changed. We have not had another World War Two-style industrial war. Now, we’re in an information age and all these so-called peacekeeping operations were the indicators of what 21st-century conflict is all about,” he said.
“The mandarins wanted to desensitize Canadians to the level of risk and used so-called peacekeeping as a justification for dismantling the Canadian Forces and taking away benefits from veterans. ... All of the psychological and physical traumas are still there and all of the torture that families go through is still there. It’s just that mandarins have been trying to sidetrack us, have been trying to downplay those kinds of roles in the world today.”