Feds won’t say why they scrapped vet consultation on Afghan monument vision

The federal government changed the final design choice for a proposed memorial to Canada’s mission in Afghanistan following the Taliban’s takeover of the country, but Ottawa did not consult with veterans to see if they felt the situation warranted a change.

The monument is intended to “pay tribute to the commitment and sacrifice of Canadians to help rebuild Afghanistan,” according to its vision statement, but the government rejected the first design chosen by a jury and selected another option.

The Veterans Affairs Committee has already been studying the issue, but just before Christmas, Conservative MP Blake Richards, frustrated by the government’s lack of responses, tabled a motion to order the government to hand over more documents to explain its decision. .

“All we know is that the Prime Minister’s Office has interfered in this process which has delayed, at the very least, the construction of this monument,” Richards said at a Dec. 21 committee meeting.

NDP MP Rachel Blaney said she will support the motion at a future meeting.

“We want these monuments to honor the people who worked hard, who sacrificed so much, and now there are a lot of questions and the government can’t answer them in a way that makes sense,” he said in an interview.

More than 40,000 Canadian soldiers and hundreds more civilians and government officials served in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2014. Seven civilians and 158 members of the Canadian Armed Forces were killed. The previous Conservative government announced plans to build a national memorial to the mission in 2014.

A design competition was launched in August 2019.

In November 2021, a jury tasked with reviewing proposals for the monument chose the design by Team Daoust, made up of Daoust Lestage firm Lizotte Stecker, artist Luca Fortin and former Supreme Court judge Louise Arbour. The Daoust team described their lace-like stone wall as a reference “to a vision of the world through the magnified motif of a burqa, a vision opened by the axis of democracy.”

That selection came three months after Kabul fell to the Taliban, prompting sweeping changes and a rollback of women’s rights, including extreme restrictions on girls’ education.

Shortly after the design was chosen, government officials began to question internally whether it was the right vision given the changes in Afghanistan.

In the end, the government opted for a different option. Last June, then-Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay announced the memorial would be designed by Indigenous artist and Armed Forces veteran Adrian Stimson.

Stimson’s proposal included the names of Canadian soldiers killed in Afghanistan and featured a central segment with helmets and body armor arranged on crosses.

In documents submitted to the veterans affairs committee last fall, the jury acknowledged the impact of the Taliban since then, but also said Daoust’s design better reflected that the sacrifices made by Canadians in Afghanistan “were not in vain,” particularly with regard to women’s education. and girls in Afghanistan.

The documents show that plans were made to consult with the families of veterans who died in Afghanistan, but those consultations never took place. They also show that the government was warned by Heritage Canada officials that it could not simply overturn the jury selection and award the $3 million contract to someone else without risking a lawsuit.

But a month after that warning, the government was considering doing just that. The documents show that both the Prime Minister’s Office and the Privy Council Office were involved in those discussions in mid-2022.

Notes prepared for a May 2022 meeting between Privy Council, Veterans Affairs and Heritage officials show they discussed starting consultations to help decide whether the vision for the memorial was still valid or whether the process should be restarted.

The draft plan proposed reaching out to design teams, jurors, veterans and families of those killed in Afghanistan to ask two specific questions: “Have your views on Canada’s involvement or achievements in Afghanistan over the past year? Is this view still valid in light of the current situation in Afghanistan?”

The government will not answer questions about why that plan was not implemented, citing attorney-client privilege. A Veterans Affairs spokesperson said in response to questions this week that he decided to rely on feedback from an anonymous online survey conducted in May and June 2021, seeking opinions on the five finalist designs.

Heritage Minister Pascale St-Onge and Veterans Affairs Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor appeared before the veterans affairs committee last October to answer questions. Both insisted the government needed to listen to veterans and was using the survey to do so.

“I’m surprised that we are questioning veterans…we are creating a memorial for them and we need to make sure we listen to them,” St-Onge said in French.

Since the announcement in June, Team Daoust has launched a petition calling on the government to reverse its decision, arguing that it did not follow its own rules for the design competition.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 11, 2024.

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