Remembrance is an action we all do. Remembrance leading up to November 11th is an act of respect for those who served and sacrificed for family, friends, country and future generations.
For me, this simple truth was driven home on Sept. 30, 2017. It was one of the most gut-wrenching days I faced in two decades as an elected official. It was the culmination of six years of work by a small committee tasked with developing a respectful memorial to the 163 Canadian Forces’ members who died on duty, during the 12-year Afghanistan mission.
A crowd of more than 1,200 had gathered for the unveiling of the 10-ton granite memorial. For the formal part of the ceremony, my wife, Judith, and I were seated with dignitaries, directly facing representatives of all B.C.’s Silver Cross families (those who had lost a loved one during the mission). The look on so many of those faces was haunting, a testament to the raw emotion that such grief understandably engenders. Some had come to grips with the reality that a loved one would not be coming home, many others had not!
Memorials such as the one placed at the corner of Quadra and Courtney (in Victoria) are always subject to questions: “Did the mission matter….Did we make a difference?” The committee working on the installation was committed to the proposition that this memorial be dedicated to the Canadian families suffering the loss of a loved one, and to the belief that the Canadian mission in Afghanistan led to profoundly positive societal change. The following metrics act as evidence that we DID make a difference in the lives of citizens in Afghanistan:
- In 2001 there were 1.2 million Afghani children in school but fewer than 100,000 were girls. In 2014, when the mission finished, there were 8.2 million children in school, with more than three million girls being educated;
- In 2001 there were about 3,500 schools with about 20,000 teachers. In 2014, there were 13,000+ schools with more than 160,000 trained educators;
- When the Canadian mission started in 2001, there were no women elected in Afghanistan’s national government. Twelve years later, 69 women were duly and democratically elected to their version of the House of Commons (28 per cent representation);
- 2001 saw only eight per cent of the Afghani population having access to healthcare. In 2014, because we had been involved in building clinics & protecting medical practitioners, more than 60 per cent of the population had gained access;
- In 2001, Afghani farmers were producing 1.6 million metric tons of grain crops, but less than 40 per cent was getting to market. Twelve years later, crop production had increased to 4.6 million metric tons, with more than 90 per centgetting to market (stabilizing the livelihoods of many farmers).
Supporting the development of civil society in distant parts of the globe came at a very high cost for the Silver Cross families. And yet, even as they continued to deal with the grief of unimaginable loss, many came to thank us for putting up the memorial. Through the tears, they appreciated the fact that others respected their loved ones’ service and sacrifice!
I have always worn a poppy during the period leading up to Remembrance Day, but Sept. 30, 2017 instilled in me a much deeper understanding of the importance of this small personal act. It is about respecting the service, and the sacrifice that so many Canadian women and men have given allowing future generations (at home and in those distant parts of the globe) to have a better life.
Lest we forget!
This opinion piece was written by Chris Coleman, a former six-term councillor with the City of Victoria.