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Petty Officer First Class Charlotte McShane, left, and Sergeant Missy Deschenes unveil the winning design for the national monument to Canada's mission in Afghanistan in Ottawa on June 19.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

An architectural group that was chosen by a jury to build a monument to Canada’s mission in Afghanistan says the government’s decision to award the contract to a different group is outrageous and anti-democratic.

Veterans Affairs Canada announced the approximately $3-million commission in June, awarding it to a team led by Indigenous artist Adrian Stimson.

“This is so anti-democratic,” said Renee Daoust, a spokesperson for Team Daoust, which placed first in the competition.

“They’re not respecting their own procurement rules that they have set up, and to us that’s really unacceptable,” she said.

The team included the firm Daoust Lestage Lizotte Stecker, artist Luca Fortin and former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour, who acted as an adviser on the mission in Afghanistan.

Daoust said they learned they won the competition just a couple of hours before Veterans Affairs Canada held a press conference on June 19 – and then they were told the government was going to overrule the jury’s choice.

“We said, ‘Well, this is so unfair. Why are you doing this?”’ she said.

The explanation given to the team, and to reporters at the press conference, was that veterans who participated in an anonymous online survey preferred the bid by Team Stimson.

Just under 10,900 English surveys were completed in January and February 2020, according to the federal government. About 2,800 of respondents said they were veterans, while around 2,500 were current Armed Forces members and 3,000 others took part in the mission in Afghanistan in some way.

In one question, respondents were asked to list three adjectives that “describe your impressions of each design.”

People were also asked to select pre-written responses to a question about the visitor experience of each design, and to select which design best expressed the three stated themes of the project.

Those were the only questions related to the designs themselves.

The jury considered the proposals of five finalist teams and chose the winner in November 2021. Jurors included the CEO of the Winnipeg Art Gallery, architects, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, a Silver Cross Mother, Canada’s former ambassador to the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the deputy director of the Centre for the Study of War and Society at the University of New Brunswick.

After being informed of the government’s decision, Daoust was told she had 10 days to file a formal complaint with the Canadian International Trade Tribunal. The team wrote to the government to ask them to reconsider the decision.

“If, as of now, the major public artwork or architectural components of Canada will be selected based on a survey, this is very, very worrisome. We said, ‘You’re creating a very dangerous precedent,”’ Daoust said.

Team Daoust pointed to support from more than 180 people, including artists, architects, academics and lawyers. In total, an online petition asking the Heritage Department to reconsider the decision according to its own criteria has more than 1,500 signatures.

Supporters include Jean-Pierre Chupin, the Canada Research Chair in architecture, competitions and mediations of excellence.

In a post written last month in French, Chupin and Jacques White, an architect and retired Universite Laval professor, say that “no architect, designer or artist would agree to their proposals being fed to an online survey” if this is the way public commissions are awarded.

Team Stimson’s design proposal included a centrepiece of bronze flak jackets and helmets hanging from crosses, while Team Daoust presented a simplified remembrance wall that was meant to invoke the view of the world through a burqa, among other themes.

Chupin and White took issue with the idea that a commemorative monument is better served by “literal images loaded with armour, helmets and shields, than by pared-down images evoking human sacrifice.”

Daoust obtained a memo through an access-to-information request that shows the Department of Veterans Affairs asked the Heritage Department to overturn the jury’s choice.

The Feb. 5 memo, which she shared with The Canadian Press, was sent to then-minister Pablo Rodriguez.

It states that Team Stimson’s design got the most favourable feedback from the public, followed by Team Daoust’s, and that “determining a ‘Public’s Choice’ or providing a ranking between the proposed designs were not objectives of the survey.”

It notes that the heritage minister “is accountable for the implementation of the policy on national commemorative monuments for federal lands in Canada’s capital region,” and that Veterans Affairs would take the lead on communications with the public once the decision was approved.

“Delays in awarding a design development contract will likely result in cost increases for the overall project,” the memo reads.

Rodriguez granted approval on May 11. Large portions of the memo are redacted.

The monument is set to be built in Ottawa’s Lebreton Flats area across the street from the Canadian War Museum, near the National Holocaust Memorial. It was first promised by former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper in 2014.

The request for design proposals opened in 2019.

It could take another two or three years to finalize the design and construction, adding to what has already been a years-long process.

The House veterans affairs committee has called for Heritage Minister Pascale St-Onge and Veterans Affairs Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor to appear as witnesses to explain the decision.

Spokespeople for Petitpas Taylor and St-Onge both declined requests for interviews on Thursday.

In an emailed statement, Petitpas Taylor’s office said the department determined the monument should reflect the preferences of the survey respondents.

“When it comes to honouring the sacrifices of our veterans, we must listen to them,” said spokesperson Mikaela Harrison.

Stimson was a former member of the Armed Forces and joined the Canadian Forces Artists Program as a civilian in 2010. He spent time in Afghanistan and said in June that he incorporated that experience into the design.

His design will include the names of the 158 Canadian military members who were killed in the conflict.

The 13-year mission in Afghanistan involved more than 40,000 Canadian Armed Forces members.

An estimated 47,245 Afghan civilians were killed in the conflict between 2001 and 2021, along with 66,000 national police and military members and more than 51,000 Taliban and opposition fighters.

Editor’s note: This is a corrected story. A previous version stated that Team Daoust filed a formal complaint with the Canadian International Trade Tribunal.

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