Skip to main content

In mid-2011, then-chief of the defence staff General Walt Natynczyk established Operation Keepsake. The initiative included repatriating the Kandahar cenotaph in 2011 – pictured at the Kandahar Airfield – and displaying the memorial plaques at provincial legislatures, Parliament and the Canadian embassy in Washington.Colin Perkel/The Canadian Press

Brett Boudreau is a retired colonel, a fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, and a member of the U.K. Guild of Public Affairs Practitioners

Just when the Department of National Defence needed it least, the Kandahar cenotaph ceremony debacle snatched decisive defeat from the jaws of a potential “reconnecting with Canadians” victory.

The decision to hold a low-key military-only ceremony, excluding families of fallen soldiers, and only telling the public days after the fact, was met with public, veteran and media outrage. The reaction clearly shows the Afghanistan mission still resonates widely.

When respected military voices such as Generals Rick Hillier, Lew MacKenzie and David Fraser are all loudly calling Defence to account, you know it’s not a pretty scene.

Chief of Defence Staff General Jonathan Vance – notably alone, again – is left to publicly accept full responsibility for broader institutional and government failures. In a statement released last Friday, Gen. Vance said he was "truly sorry for our insensitivity and the pain, anger and frustration that this decision caused … I accept full responsibility for it all.”

A highly decorated combat veteran who has completed two tours in Afghanistan, Gen. Vance is no stranger to ramp ceremonies, or comforting family members and wounded veterans. As the top military officer, he has championed more robust personnel support units to help those injured from service, and established stronger relations with Veterans Affairs. The “I own this” approach is an admirable leadership quality and refreshing example without equal today, though must be growing tiresome as a defensive strategy.

Inexplicably, the Minister of National Defence, Harjit Sajjan, has not spoken up about the debacle. He attended the private cenotaph ceremony at the new Defence HQ in Ottawa and days later sat quietly behind the Prime Minister who conceded, “We are working with DND to make sure we understand what that decision they took was around the cenotaph …” Excuse me, but is no one but Gen. Vance helping mind the store at Defence?

Is it really possible that the minister, the deputy minister, and the military heads of personnel, and operations, or the vice-chief didn’t have some interest or responsibility regarding ceremony preparations, including whether families or mission-partner departments were represented? Were the Privy Council Office and Prime Minister’s Office really not told about a ceremony that finally put the cenotaph on display after spending eight years in storage?

In mid-2011, then-chief of the defence staff General Walt Natynczyk established Operation Keepsake, an initiative to thank Canadians for their support; recognize vets, the fallen, the injured and their families; acknowledge the important contribution of partner departments and agencies such as Foreign Affairs, Canadian International Development Agency and Correctional Services; and to thank the U.S. for its tremendous support at the height of fighting in south Afghanistan, where 40 U.S. soldiers died under Canadian command.

Operation Keepsake included repatriating the Kandahar cenotaph in 2011 – so heavy that only the world’s largest transport aircraft could fly it from where stood at the Kandahar Airfield – and displaying the memorial plaques at provincial legislatures, Parliament and the Canadian embassy in Washington. Hundreds of battlefield artifacts were recovered from Kandahar including several war-art-painted helicopter doors, to bolster holdings at various museums across the country.

A major effort was working with stakeholders and the National Capital Commission to develop a proposal for a national memorial to Canadian service in Afghanistan. The key feature was to acknowledge Canadian service. Over a 12-year mission, hundreds of civilian officials volunteered to serve in the midst of a contested counterinsurgency. Hundreds of media embedded (or not) with the troops and covered the mission, sharing danger and deprivation, as did aid workers and contractors. Several died and many were injured.

In May, 2014, the Conservatives announced plans for a national memorial, and except in 2016 to say that plan was still under consideration, there has been radio silence from the Liberals. Why is it so difficult to provide information about whether or not they intend to move forward?

Last Friday, Gen. Vance apologized, and announced DND’s intent to keep the Kandahar cenotaph at its current location in a secure building in the new National Defence headquarters in Ottawa. The monument will now be more accessible to the public. While commendable, whether supporting an extensive visitors program at Defence headquarters is feasible in the long-term remains to be seen. The Canadian War Museum would seem to be an alternative site for the cenotaph well worth exploring: vastly better public access, a huge boost to visitor numbers and a ready-made education program to inform the public about Afghanistan, and conflict more broadly.

As Gen. Vance wrote, the cenotaph communications effort “utterly failed.” Ironically, the 2008 Manley panel’s report on Afghanistan harshly criticized the government’s communication effort about the mission and led former prime minister Stephen Harper to direct dramatic enhancements. This included active support of media interviews and tabling in Parliament quarterly reports that set out frank accounts of the security situation and challenges of operationalizing a whole-of-government approach. That stands in stark contrast to what we know about the current Canadian military, security, diplomatic and development efforts in the Middle East. One hopes that, like the Manley panel conclusions, the cenotaph ceremony fallout will be a catalyst for defence and government to more pro-actively communicate substantive issues of public policy.

Perhaps Gen. Vance could also count on some more battle buddies bravely sticking their heads up above the parapet from time to time.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article said a military plane was used to repatriate the Kandahar cenotaph, when it was a transport aircraft contracted by the military. This version has been updated.

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct