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Tug-of-war between minister, military brass delayed Afghanistan memorial date

OTTAWA – A memorial for Canadians killed in Afghanistan is making its way across Canada this summer and fall, but only after a drawn-out struggle inside the department over how and when to commemorate the mission.

Sources familiar with planning for the display say delays and disagreements went on for months between the defence minister’s office and the chief of defence staff, part of the often-difficult dynamic between the two centres of power.

The result was a hastily announced unveiling a year ago on Parliament Hill that left some military families wondering why they were given so little notice.

The idea of bringing the 190 granite plaques etched with the faces of soldiers and civilians killed in Afghanistan stretched back to 2012.

The plaques came from a cenotaph erected at the Canadian Forces base in Kandahar.

Officials and political staff were aware of criticism within the military that there had not yet been a real tribute to the Afghan mission and its fallen soldiers, even though there had been a significant commemoration for the short mission in Libya in 2011.

The former chief of defence staff, Walter Natynczyk, directed in the summer of 2012 that the memorial should be unveiled and toured as part of a tribute to the mission. The Canadian Joint Operational Command put together a plan in October, supported by then minister Peter MacKay.

Natynczyk left his post in December, and was replaced by Tom Lawson. That’s when insiders say the plan ground to a halt.

By May, the memorial vigil as it is called was still sitting in an Ottawa-area storage facility, with no date set for the unveiling. The Canadian Joint Operational Command issued a warning order in May that the task needed to be completed.

Lawson was opposed to doing anything until the mission was officially over and every soldier returned home — in other words, wait another year until 2014.

MacKay felt differently, wanting to do the unveiling in the spring as originally planned. The cenotaph had already been up in Kandahar and the portable version was ready to go.

“MacKay didn’t think it was right for this vigil, which was ready to go, and which was beautiful, to sit gathering dust in a warehouse for another year where nobody could see it,” said a senior Conservative, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Ultimately, after weeks of wrangling and changing plans, the date was set for July 8. Families of the fallen soldiers and civilians were given only four or five days’ notice. Lawson was scheduled to attend that day, but pulled out at the last minute.

“What we wanted to do is maximize in advance of Canada Day the opportunity for Canadians to see it on Parliament Hill,” MacKay told reporters earlier this week.

Senior Conservative sources reject the suggestion that MacKay was to blame for the way the event unfolded is unfair, given the many months of discussions.

The National Day of Honour held this May to mark the close of the Afghan mission was also criticized for last-minute planning and poor communication with the public. Some veterans’ groups suggested the day was more about public relations for Conservative politicians than for including Canadians and veterans in the event.

The Afghanistan memorial vigil is currently on display at the Canadian Forces Base in Petawawa, Ont., and will travel on to the British Columbia legislature.

It commemorates 158 military personnel, one Canadian diplomat, one Defence Department contractor, a Canadian journalist and more than 40 American soldiers killed while serving or working alongside the Canadian Afghan mission.