A Nation Mourns Too


I think Stephen Harper got himself caught in a small perfect storm recently, when his government made two announcements on policies towards Canadian military procedures.

The decision to not lower the flag to half mast on the parliament buildings is small potatoes, in my opinion. Sure, it’s easy to spin that as disrespecting the troops, except that the practise was rather new; the Liberals brought it forward in the last couple of years. If the broader tradition was not to lower the flag, then the Conservatives can’t be faulted for moving back to it. You have to face the thinking that maintained the tradition in the first place.

Pragmatically speaking, our military is active in dangerous areas of the world, and we have to be prepared for casualties. There is every possibility that if we lowered our flag for every soldier who died on duty in Afghanistan, the flag might never come up again. We already have a respectful holiday dedicated to the sacrifices of our soldiers, past and present. That’s the best time to show our respect. Even if Rick Mercer might disagree in eloquent fashion.

But the timing of this decision is what killed Harper. It comes out at the same moment as the decision to block the media from CFB Trenton, preventing images appearing of flag-draped caskets returning from Afghanistan.

Again, there is a spin element here. This is precisely the sort of thing that the Bush Administration got garrotted on with the war in Iraq — it doesn’t matter that this policy was brought in during the last days of the Clinton Administration (hey, he did plenty of things I disagreed with), the Bush Administration was still seen as hiding behind this policy, and hiding the true cost of the war in Iraq from the American people. This is the sort of thing that hands red meat to Jack Layton, though I understand the sentiment. I think Canadians, like most Americans, are decent, grown-up people, who don’t like to have things sugar coated for them. If Harper gives any indication that he fears the Canadian response, then the natural response of Canadians is to wonder what it is he has to fear, and that’s his own fault.

There is an argument to be made in respecting the privacy of the soldiers’ families. My father himself argues this, but nobody is suggesting we send television cameras into the churches to tape the funeral services. And there is an equally good argument that Canadians in general deserve their own time to view the coffins and to mourn, and the reception of the caskets at CFB Trenton is an ideal time to do this. I like Andrew Gurudata’s comment when he says:

These soldiers died in our service, and as such we should ALL be allowed to be a part of the mourning for them, even if only via images and reports. The media is our proxy in that process, and by blocking the media, Harper is robbing us of our right to mourn and honour these heroes appropriately.

With all due respect to the families of the fallen soldiers and their wishes for privacy, I don’t think they necessarily have the clarity of thought to realize that the deaths that touch them touch the rest of the country too. And just as they need this to mourn, so do we all.

Andrew himself worked for the military for over five years. He also makes an interesting comment on the flag issue that I had not considered:

If tradition is to honour all soldiers from all wars on one date per year and that is a long-standing tradition, then maybe it does make sense to maintain that tradition, to respect all those who passed in wartime int he past…

However, one thing that keeps sticking for me is that as far as I can tell, these men did not die in a war. In april of 2004, the role of the troops in Afganistan was descibed as follows by the prime minister:

“Canada’s role in Afghanistan has all the hallmarks of the new type of operation the Canadian Forces will be expected to lead: it’s a multilateral mission authorized by the United Nations and led by NATO; undertaken at the invitation of the Afghan government, and aimed at reviving a failing state, for humanitarian reasons and at the same time ensuring that it cannot be used as a base of operations for terrorists.”

Based on statements such as these, Canada has not, as far as I can determine, technically declared themselves to be at war. And in descriptions of their activities, we’ve been told that the soldiers have been spending most of their time there doing reconnaissance, but were also involved in “building schools, orphanages, roads, culverts, police gear, water projects and garbage collection points.” These are not wartime activities.

Therefore, these men died as part of a peacetime deployment, which is historically less “typical” than wartime deaths. Which makes me think that they deserve special consideration. Such as the lowering of flags.


Harper could have had a fair chance of winning the argument on either of these issues. The fact that both came up at the same time hurt him.

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