The head of Canada's largest veterans' organization is upset that the Prime Minister, not the Governor-General, will be presented with a Canadian flag that has become a key Afghanistan war memento during ceremonies to commemorate the 12-year military engagement.
Royal Canadian Legion Dominion president Gordon Moore is unhappy Stephen Harper is the one designated to receive the last Canadian flag flown at International Security Assistance Force headquarters in Afghanistan when a veterans' relay team brings it to Parliament Hill on Friday during Day of Honour events. He "will accept the flag on behalf of Canadians," the Prime Minister's Office said in a news release on Thursday.
Mr. Moore said the flag should be accepted by Governor-General David Johnston as Canada's commander-in-chief. The flag few at NATO headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan's capital. A three-year Canadian training mission in the war-torn country ended in March, capping more than a decade of military involvement in Afghanistan that included deadly combat operations, which ceased in 2011.
"Mr. Johnston, His Excellency, is the commander-in-chief of the Canadian Armed Forces," Mr. Moore said. "That's who we as former members and serving members hold in respect because he is our commander. I firmly believe that's who should be receiving the flag." he said.
The Legion president said he does not want politics to intrude on Day of Honour ceremonies. "I'm hoping it's not political. That's the last thing our veterans need. I'm praying that the politics will definitely be left out of it. But we will have to wait and see," Mr. Moore said.
Mr. Harper designated May 9 as a one-time event to salute the tens of thousands of Canadian men and women who served in Afghanistan. In the future, the Afghanistan mission will be remembered in the Nov. 11 ceremonies.
Jason MacDonald, director of communications for the Prime Minister's Office, said Canadians should reserve judgment until they see the Day of Honour ceremony.
"I think that when people see what has been planned, they will see that every effort has been made to appropriately honour those who served, with the respect they deserve," Mr. MacDonald said. "The ceremony will be respectful and singularly focused on the efforts and sacrifices of the more than 40,000 Canadians who served in Afghanistan over the course of Canada's 12-year mission."
The May 9 event will include a parade from the Canadian War Museum to Parliament Hill. It will be followed by two minutes of silence, a fly-by salute and public viewing of the Afghanistan Memorial Vigil in Centre Block's Hall of Honour. The memorial is a series of plaques representing Canadians who died there as well as fallen U.S. soldiers under Canadian command.
The Conservative government is also staging a display of military might on Parliament Hill, including a Leopard tank, 16 armoured vehicles, and the type of artillery gun that soldiers used to shell Taliban targets in Afghanistan. Military transports, patrol aircraft and helicopters will fly over the Hill.
The mission cost the lives of 158 Canadian soldiers, one diplomat, one journalist and two civilian contractors. The Canadian government is estimated to have spent more than $11-billion on the conflict.
The Royal Canadian Legion, which has more than 320,000 members, is also frustrated by what it feels was insufficient notice of the Day of Honour. Mr. Moore said his office was officially informed of the May 9 commemoration in early April, but, he adds, many branches received mailings from the federal government only this week. This has left Legion branches scrambling to prepare local ceremonies across Canada.
The PMO first told Canadians of the celebration in mid-March.
Mr. Moore said the Legion has done its best to set up commemorations at cenotaphs and branches, and he emphasizes that the organization considers May 9 an important milestone.
"We definitely want to show our respect to each and every one of them and ensure everyone remembers the 158 who made the supreme sacrifice."
Some veterans consider Friday to represent an ending of Canada's participation in the war in Afghanistan, he said.
"I know there are Afghan veterans who are looking at Friday as closure for losing their buddies over there."
The Legion president noted some Afghanistan veterans and their families won't acknowledge the Day of Honour because they feel Ottawa has not sufficiently supported those who served with benefits and health care.
"They say the government has let them down and they haven't been there when they needed them, especially for benefits they require," Mr. Moore said.