Canada’s Defence Minister says the military should never have told families of soldiers killed in Afghanistan that they would have to pay their own way to a commemoration of Canada’s sacrifices in that conflict.
In a letter dated last month, Colonel Gerry Blais, the director of casualty support management for Canada’s armed forces, asked the families to come to Parliament Hill on May 9 for “A Day of Honour.”
“The information is being sent in advance of the general public being informed in an effort to allow you sufficient time to plan your attendance should you be able to join us for this momentous occasion,” Col. Blais wrote in the letter, which was obtained by CTV. “Should your schedule allow it, your attendance would be at your own expense.”
When some of the families suggested it was inappropriate for the government to make them pay the costs of flying to Ottawa for a ceremony to pay tribute to their dead loved ones, Defence Minister Rob Nicholson said Col. Blais’ letter was sent in error.
“This letter was premature, incorrect, and contained false information as event plans have not been finalized,” Mr. Nicholson told MPs at a committee meeting on Thursday. “It is the government’s position that these expenses will be covered.”
The clarification came less than a month after the Defence Minister was forced to apologize for what he said was “an insensitive bureaucratic screw-up” in which a dead soldier’s family received a cheque for one cent in release pay.
Tim Goddard, the father of Captain Nichola Goddard, who was killed in Afghanistan’s Panjwai district in 2006, said the letter asking families to pay to attend next month’s ceremony was badly handled.
“Our first response, after we had finished laughing about ‘you have to pay your own way’ was, did we really want to be in a roped-off area with a big black sign that says Families Of The Fallen,” Mr. Goddard said.
He and his wife dismissed the invitation because it would have been too expensive to take a flight from Prince Edward Island. But, he said, “if we got a revised letter, I guess we’d have to reconsider that.”
Lincoln Dinning, whose son Matthew was killed by a roadside bomb in 2006, said that, if he attends the ceremony, he would likely make the eight-hour drive from Wingham, Ont. So he would not need to be reimbursed for plane fare.
But families of many of the 158 members of the Canadian military who were killed in the 12-year effort live far from Ottawa, and the costs would have been prohibitive, he said.
“To me, it’s a no-brainer,” Mr. Dinning said in a telephone interview with The Globe and Mail. “If your son or daughter sacrifices their life and you are going to have a day to honour them in the nation’s capital, you should fly the parents or next-of-kin there who want to go. That makes common sense.”
Bronwen Evans, the managing director of the True Patriot Love Foundation, said she has been discussing the ceremony with the government for the past two weeks, and Mr. Nicholson never intended to make the families pay for the trip.
But Joyce Murray, the Liberal defence critic, said even if the letter was sent in error, Mr. Nicholson is responsible because it was written by someone in his command.
And Jack Harris, the NDP critic, said the government was forced to backtrack when the matter became public. “It’s clearly shocking to most Canadians, and particularly the families themselves,” Mr. Harris said. “So, of course, they had to reverse their decision.”