The National Day of Honour is intended as a day to mark the contributions and sacrifices of the thousands of Canadians who served in Afghanistan, but it has been swirling in controversy since the federal government announced the unprecedented event in March.
The criticism began with questions whether it was conceived and arranged at the last minute, and grew to include concerns it is more of a political showcase than a day to remember the 40,000 Canadians who served, and the 162 Canadian soldiers and civilians who died on the mission.
“I’ve certainly heard that people feel it was rushed,” CTV’s Mercedes Stephenson told Canada AM from Parliament Hill Friday. “When I’ve talked to people in the military, they’ve said they didn’t understand why this was scheduled at the last minute.”
While some vets have told her they welcome the event, and the formal sense of closure it will bring, Stephenson has heard from others who don’t like the idea of having a day dedicated solely to the mission in Afghanistan.
“They say Nov. 11 should be the day when we remember all of our war dead, all of our wounded, all of those who served,” she says.
The Royal Canadian Legion has also expressed frustration, saying they were given insufficient notice that they would be asked to take part.
Royal Canadian Legion Dominion President Gordon Moore said Thursday many legions received notice only a couple of weeks ago that they were being asked to prepare ceremonies and have been scrambling to assemble events at each of the country’s legion halls.
He said many of the veterans he’d spoken to were not interested in taking part in any of the ceremonies, and were still angry with the way the federal government has let them down with changes to benefits and disability pensions.
The last Canadian flag flown at the International Security Assistance Force Headquarters in Kabul will be part of Friday’s Day of Honour -- but that too has been the source of controversy.
The flag is contained in a special baton that has been making its way from CFB Trenton to Ottawa over the last five days, as part of the "Soldier On Afghanistan Relay," but there has been disagreement over who should accept the flag.
When the Prime Minister’s Office announced this week that the flag would be handed over to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, many veterans became angry, saying it should not go to a political figure. Instead, they said it should go to Governor-General David Johnston, who is the Canadian Forces’ commander-in-chief.
“Some military folks and political folks were saying is that really appropriate? Does that make it a partisan event? And the government wasn’t backing off of it,” Stephenson says.
The government has since announced a sudden change of plan, saying the flag would be handed to the governor general after all.
The change of plans echoes a similar about-face last month, when the families of the 158 Canadian soldiers killed in Afghanistan were invited to attend the National Day of Honour, but were told they would have to pay their own travel expenses.
The invitation, which came in the form of a letter from National Defence Minister Rob Nicholson, upset many military families who said they couldn’t afford the cost of travelling and staying in Ottawa.
After CTV News obtained the letter, Nicholson said it contained “false information” and had been sent out prematurely. A source told CTV News that Nicholson personally intervened to reverse the plans, blasting his own department for sending out letter.
The Canadian Forces is now covering their hotel expenses, flights, and transportation to and from the airport.
Still, others are focusing on the positives of the day, and say they welcome the chance to pay tribute to those who served in Afghanistan.
Retired Gen Walter Natynczyk, who served as Canada’s Chief of Defence from 2008 to 2012 and is now the president of the Canadian Space Agency, says to him, today’s Day of Honour should simply be about saying thank-you to the 40,000 Canadians who served in the region since 2001.
“Today is about honour and respect and gratitude,” he told Canada AM from Parliament Hill, “It’s about recognizing every one of those men and women who served, whether they wore a uniform or were there as RCMP or civilians, and the fact that Canada cared.”