OTTAWA – There were tears, cream-coloured roses and photos of lost loved ones on display Friday as the families of soldiers killed during 12 years of war in Afghanistan gathered for a closed-door breakfast with Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
The morning event served as a solemn kickoff for a day-long commemoration of the sacrifices Canada made during the brutal guerilla war, which claimed the lives of 158 soldiers, one diplomat, one journalist and two civilian contractors.
Stephen Harper did not deliver a speech to the families, but instead chatted with them privately and posed for pictures.
Many families brought photos of their soldiers and were eager to share them with the politicians and business leaders on hand, their exchanges occasionally ending in tears, according to several who attended.
Each of the families were given cream-coloured roses to pin on their lapels.
“It was all very tasteful,” said Anne Snyder, whose son Capt. Jon Synder died in Kandahar in 2008.
The breakfast also turned into an opportunity for some to rekindle family ties after losing touch with other relatives since their losses. Some of the families are part of a support group that quietly offers a shoulder to lean on whenever there is a casualty, including relatives of soldiers who’ve recently committed suicide.
It’s a tight circle and families who have sometimes only communicated by phone and email had the chance to hug and see each other.
“I got to see a lot of people,” said Synder. “It was a good feeling.”
After the breakfast but before a memorial service got underway, families gathered around a memorial to Afghanistan on the Senate floor, some kneeling to find the names of fallen family members.
The Harper government is rolling out the red carpet for the Canadian military by presenting battle honours to the army and air force units that fought in Afghanistan, as well as and navy ships that deployed for the war on terror, The Canadian Press has learned.
Harper will announce that 63 army regiments, plus special forces and the navy’s fleet diving unit, as well as four air squadrons, will be bestowed an Afghanistan Theatre Honour. Fifteen warships will receive the Arabian Sea honour.
Battle honours are a public recognition that carry historical weight for soldiers, aircrew and sailors and help forge the identity of the units in which they serve.
Theatre honours are give out for participation in overall campaigns and are different from the recognition given individual units for specific battles, such as D-Day in the Second World War and Vimy Ridge during the First World War.
There are also plans to etch the dates of war in Afghanistan into the National War Memorial, and relocate a cenotaph that once stood behind the Canadian headquarters in Kandahar at a new permanent home in Ottawa.
A portion of that memorial is on display in Parliament and will tour the country, arriving back in Ottawa in time for Remembrance Day.
Friday’s agenda features a parade, a memorial service in the Senate, a 21-gun salute and two flypasts of helicopters and aircraft that took part in the war in Afghanistan.
The breakfast involving the families was organized by the True Patriot Love Foundation, but paid for by corporate sponsors, some of which have forked over as much as $3,500 for four tickets.
Other companies, such as Air Canada, have contributed as much as $200,000 towards the event _ something that has made opposition politicians and even some family members uneasy.
But Bronwen Evans, the executive director of the foundation, described it as a way for the business community to show its appreciation.
“The mandate of the True Patriot Love Foundation is to build bridges between our military and civilian worlds, and if corporate Canada was not included in the Day of Honour we would be missing an important and large sector of Canadian society,” Evans said in an email.
“We believe that it’s essential that our military, veterans and their families feel the support of all sectors _ the public and not-for-profit sectors will be there, and the corporate sector should be there too.”
If there is a surplus from the breakfast event, the foundation will put the money towards the cost of hosting the families in Ottawa, she added.
Historian Jack Granatstein says there’s been a lot of attention on the corporate involvement, but it’s not much different than business involvement and sponsorship of war bond drives during the Second World War.