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Ottawa’s plan to mark world wars has DND wary of spending backlash

The National War Memorial is seen in Ottawa.

DAVE CHAN/The Globe and Mail

The Department of National Defence fears public denunciation over government spending on the centennial of the First World War and the 75th anniversary of the Second World War, with senior officials harbouring concerns that Ottawa will be pilloried for wasting money that should go to veterans instead.

"There is the risk of criticism for spending on commemoration instead of investing more in services and benefits for veterans," an internal Defence communications plan for Canada's commemoration of the two 20th-century conflicts says. The draft strategy also warns that media may "raise concerns about the cost of the commemoration activities during a time of fiscal restraint."

Government-funded tributes and remembrance events begin in 2014, the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War, and continue for six years. "Our achievements during the war were a vital step on the road to full nationhood, with Prime Minister Robert Borden gaining the right to sign the Treaty of Versailles," the National Defence plan says.

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Plans include commemoration of important battles, such as 1917's battles of Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele, "widely considered to represent Canada's coming of age as a nation."

Following on the heels of the Conservative government's $30-million commemoration of the War of 1812, these new public-affairs campaigns are part of the Tories' efforts to restore Canada's military tradition to prominence in the national identity.

The Harper government is increasingly sensitive about its record on military veterans and suffering soldiers. The government has tried to cultivate an image as pro-military since taking power, but has managed to alienate a vocal group of veterans and families angered by what they feel is insufficient federal support for soldiers and former soldiers.

Critical reports from the federal Auditor General's Office and ombudsman have only fuelled controversy.

How much Ottawa is spending to remember the First World War and Second World War is a mystery.

The Department of National Defence referred queries to the Department of Canadian Heritage, where an official repeatedly declined to offer a dollar figure. "The Government of Canada has funded and will continue to fund significant national milestones that are an important part of our shared history," Heritage spokesman Len Westerberg said.

"There is not one special budget for these combined events."

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Records obtained under access to information by researcher Ken Rubin show the Department of National Defence prepared a three-part "mitigation strategy" if it faces questions about why Ottawa is not spending more on veterans instead of funding tributes to military service.

Officials are to say that commemorating key milestones is "an important part of how Canadian society marks its progress," the DND plan says.

Forty-five thousand Canadians died in the Second World War, it notes, helping "win the struggle against tyranny." Through the ordeal of war, it says, "Canada matured and modernized as a nation."

Officials are instructed to say that the government is "committeed to providing injured and ill members of the Canadian Forces and veterans with the care and support they need." Finally, they're told to note the commemoration spending comes from existing departmental budgets rather than newly allocated money.

Defence planners are warned to tread lightly with Quebeckers "who are more pacifist than other Canadians." Focus groups conducted in 2012 for DND found that francophone participants acknowledged that while commemorating historical events is important, "they felt these celebrations need to be modest in scale."

DND must also contend with limited public appreciation for remembrances of particular battles, its strategy paper says. "Commemorating individual battles is seen by some as excessive," the plan says. "Despite the general consensus that Canada's historical legacy is important, fewer focus groups participants could clearly articulate why marking such events is important. This was particularly true among youth participants."

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The department is applying lessons it learned from Ottawa's robust commemoration for the 200-year-old War of 1812, which the government branded as the "Fight for Canada." It found less enthusiasm for the PR campaign among national media. "At the national level and in social media it was neutral to negative as academic commentators and pundits tracked costs to the dollar and waged their own information campaigns about a 'campaign to politicize history.' Meanwhile at the local level it was more positive, factual coverage."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More


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