Veterans forced to watch in frustration as bureaucracy battles over site of Afghan memorial

Two Canadian Armed Forces soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, watch a grenade demolition explosion from a safe distance at the Kabul Military Training Centre range during Operation ATTENTION 2013. Photo: Sgt Norm McLean, Canadian Forces Combat Camera.

By Floriane Bonneville

Afghanistan mission veterans will have to wait longer for a monument commemorating the conflict after the Canadian War Museum recently balked at plans to place the memorial just west of its LeBreton Flats location.

Some veterans say they don’t understand why the site near the Ottawa River just to the west of the museum — owned by the National Capital Commission — was chosen if the Canadian War Museum could block construction of the monument.

Earlier this month, at a meeting of the NCC’s board of directors, museum officials — along with Raymond Moriyama, the building’s architect — raised concerns about the aesthetic impact and other drawbacks of placing a proposed monument so close to the museum.

Moriyama told NCC board members that he believed putting the memorial there would be a huge mistake. He said a vertical monument would impact “the essence of the design” of the museum, which is primarily horizontal.

Moriyama added that he designed the building so that it would appear to rise out of the water — a natural feature that he said would be obscured by a memorial. 

“If a monument were to be placed along its western edge, this powerful connection to the Ottawa River’s edge would be visually and experientially interrupted,” Moriyama wrote in a letter to the NCC.

One of Canada’s leading advocates for veterans, Sean Bruyea, said the government bodies responsible for the monument are treating its fate as a “bureaucratic game and not as a sacred duty to honour the fallen and the living.”

Veterans have been waiting for three years for a monument commemorating their sacrifice in Canada’s longest military mission. Veterans Affairs Minister Seamus O’Reagan said recently that the memorial could still be another three years away.

Phil Greene is a veteran of the Afghan mission. The former sergeant says veterans deserve better.

“We don’t deserve to feel like we’re being abandoned by the country again,” he says. Greene said he can’t understand the delays, because in the military, “when you are asked to do something, you do it right away, without questions” he added.

“I don’t need a statue to remember; I remember every day, but I think that Canadians need one to remember what we sacrificed,” he said.

Conservative Veterans Affairs critic Steven Blaney said it’s a nation’s duty to honour those who lost and risked their lives in Afghanistan.

“The mission ended in 2014 and we are confronted with additional delays of 45 to 52 months before constructing the memorial,” Blaney said in response to the controversy. “Those prolonged delays are unacceptable and the Liberals must stop going back and forth and finally take action.”

The memorial project was initiated in May 2014 by Julian Fantino, the veterans affairs minister at the time. The $5-million project was to be unveiled this year.

But when the Liberal government was elected in 2015, the future of the memorial became less clear. 

The project is now back in the hands of Canadian Heritage for what NCC chief executive Mark Kristmanson calls “sober reflection.”

The NCC is responsible for finding a site that fulfills a host of requirements, from harmony with the surroundings to the approval of stakeholders or organizations affected by the placement — including the war museum.

Yasmine Mingay, the museum’s director of public affairs, said museum officials are not opposed to a memorial commemorating the Afghanistan conflict, but that for architectural and other reasons they are concerned about placing the memorial on the proposed site between the museum and the river.

Mingay added that the museum’s memorial hall is a place where veterans are welcome to come to in order to remember, but that it was designed to commemorate all conflicts rather than one in particular.

“People would think that (the proposed monument) is part of the museum,” she said. To commemorate one war rather than another is not the mandate of the museum, she added. 

Discussions about the planned memorial with Ottawa-area Algonquin communities, which had been planned for this fall, have also been delayed. 

The NCC board had initially approved a site at Richmond Landing, well to the east of the museum, but Veterans Affairs Canada asked that it be reconsidered because the location wasn’t visible from the nearest roads and was too difficult to access.

That’s when the site close to the west side museum was proposed, an idea supported by a national veterans affairs advisory group.

The NCC has stated that if the location near the war museum failed to win approval, the Richmond Landing site would be reconsidered despite earlier concerns about its suitability. Two other sites closer to Parliament Hill had also been identified as possible locations.

Cedric Pelletier said an initial study of the four sites had been conducted to ensure the memorial’s compatibility with each area. The study had examined potential drawbacks for each of the sites:

• The Lawn of the Canadian Phalanx in front of the Supreme Court is on City of Ottawa land. There is noise and traffic in the area. There is also a limited space for gatherings, and there is existing underground infrastructure that could cause delays in construction.

• A site outside the Cartier Square Drill Hall, between Ottawa City Hall and the Rideau Canal, also raised noise and traffic issues. Underground infrastructure posed a potential problem, including emanations from a sewage odour control facility also planned for the area.

• The site west of the Canadian War Museum has significant soil contamination, which could delay completion of the project and is subject to foreground height control, which would limit the vertical profile of the monument. The site is close to a secondary site for Ottawa Bluesfest, and the memorial could potentially interfere with underground structures.

• Richmond Landing, apart from its relative remoteness from passersby, has high noise levels and it is also a contaminated site.

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