Memorial to Canadians killed in Afghan war to tour the country

OTTAWA – A temporary memorial to Canadians killed during the Afghan war has been erected in Parliament’s hall of honour.

The tribute, using the black granite plates originally installed on a cenotaph at Kandahar Airfield, will travel the country and to Washington, D.C., over the next year in the run-up to Canada’s final withdrawal from Afghanistan next March.

The plan is to have the memorial displayed at provincial legislatures, or nearby buildings depending upon space, and at the embassy in the U.S. capital.

The plaques — 190 in all — are etched with the photographs of Canadian soldiers and civilians killed during the decade-long conflict, as well as Americans who died while under Canadian command in Kandahar.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay unveiled the memorial and called it a fitting tribute to those who gave their lives.

He recalled the repatriation ceremonies at the air force base in Trenton, Ont., which marked the return of the dead.

“It’s a very overwhelming emotional feeling, having been at too many repatriations,” MacKay said when asked what it was like to see the display.

A private unveiling for a few families was held Monday night and MacKay said it brought back painful memories for everyone.

“At the same time, I believe this appropriately honours their memory,” he said.

The country’s top military commander was supposed to attend the ceremony Tuesday, but bowed out at the last minute to be replaced by Lt.-Gen. Stuart Beare, who is in charge of both domestic and overseas operations.

The sacrifices were not in vain, said Beare, who served for a year as the deputy commander for the NATO police training mission in Afghanistan prior to his appointment in Ottawa.

As they do each spring, the Taliban and other insurgent forces have recently ramped up attacks in Afghanistan, putting pressure on local security forces and NATO troops ahead of the alliance’s planned withdrawal next year.

The country that western troops will be leaving behind is still troubled and will remain so for the foreseeable future, Beare said.

“Progress in Afghanistan does not mean an absence of violence,” he said. “It will always be a challenged neighbourhood.”

The measure for success, Beare insisted, is whether Afghan troops and police are able to cope with the threats and violence. Viewed in that context, there is cause for optimism, he added.

MacKay echoed that, even though published reports show as many as 900 Afghan troops were killed fighting insurgents in June alone.

Throughout the last few months, there have been a series of deadly attacks on symbols of civilian and democratic authority in Afghanistan.

Since the end of the Kandahar combat mission two years ago, the Canadian training mission in Kabul, with up to 950 soldiers, has captured little public or political attention.

The last Canadians are due to pull out next March, with the last of their equipment coming home by the summer

Some veterans of the bitter Afghan fighting are resentful that the Harper government has yet to pay to tribute to the war, as it did with the short-lived Libya bombing campaign.

MacKay says the Kandahar cenotaph was dismantled at the end of the combat mission in 2011, but will eventually be reassembled in Ottawa, complete with the granite plaques.

Lt.-Col. Rob Foster, the officer in charge of finding the cenotaph a permanent home, said a marble and granite structure will have to be housed indoors to protect it from the harsh Ottawa winter.

Two locations — the current National Defence Headquarters downtown and the planned new headquarters site in the west of the city — are under consideration, he said.

No decision has been made. The estimated cost for reassembling and installing the cenotaph permanently is expected to be about $2 million.