History and homage

As Canadians debate our military’s role in Afghanistan, its evolving role in future international strife, and even the need to give the military identity a facelift, it is important to remember that armed forces, at their core, are about extraordinary people who are prepared to do remarkable things on behalf of the nation.

As Canadians debate our military’s role in Afghanistan, its evolving role in future international strife, and even the need to give the military identity a facelift, it is important to remember that armed forces, at their core, are about extraordinary people who are prepared to do remarkable things on behalf of the nation.

The average Canadian couldn’t, or wouldn’t, don a uniform and go into a field of battle. We would be ill-equipped mentally and physically to evaluate the risks, and then demonstrate the heroism and bravery that the nation expects of its military personnel.

But more than 110,000 Canadians, in active and reserve units, are members of what will now be known as the Royal Canadian Navy, the Canadian Army and the Royal Canadian Air Force. They understand the risks of their chosen profession and they accept those risks, even though the results can be tragic.

In the Afghan conflict, 157 Canadian military personnel have died. Not since the Korean War (1950 to 1953) have so many Canadian soldiers died in defence of freedom.

The change in name announced this week for the Canadian Forces is about “reconnecting today’s men and women in uniform with the proud history and traditions they carry with them as members of the Canadian Forces,” said Defence Minister Peter MacKay.

If it also helps Canadians in general to pay homage to today’s soldiers — just as we do those who fell in the First World War, the Second World War and the Korean War — then the name change is worth the effort.

Paying homage is no small thing. It is important to show the members of the military — and their families, who are asked to make similarly extreme sacrifices — that Canadians appreciate their efforts and their sacrifice.

In late 2008, Ontario artist Dave Sopha started a project to honour Canadian military who have died in Afghanistan. It has evolved into Portraits of Honour, a three-metre-by-12-metre oil-painted mural that features the faces of all of those who have fallen in the last nine years.

Portraits of Honour is on a year-long cross-Canada tour and will stop at more than 100 locations coast to coast, raising awareness about the sacrifices our military make, and raising money for the Military Family Fund, through sponsor Kin Canada, to support soldiers who have been injured, emotionally and physically.

Sopha used photos of the soldiers, and spoke to family members, to help render each of the subjects. The project has taken him 6,500 hours to complete, he estimates. He has poured his heart into the mural, and Canadians have turned out by the thousands since the tour began in June to see it and to pay their respects.

In Red Deer, the Portraits on Honour project has evolved into a series of events, and grown to encompass a number of service groups, organizations, schools and businesses.

When the tour stops here on Sept. 16 and 17, it will include a Regimental Dinner, a Highway of Heroes along College Boulevard with a Canadian flag on display for each fallen soldier, and parades by past and present military personnel. The dinner sold out quickly and the $50,000 raised from the dinner will remain in Central Alberta to form a scholarship for local soldiers who served in Afghanistan, and their families.

The local Kinsmen also hope to raise $100,000 here for the national fund, through personal and corporate donations. It is a lofty goal.

And organizers hope to give Central Albertans a greater understanding of the depth of sacrifice made on our behalf by the military. As many as 10,000 local school children are expected to view the display.

And, hopefully, we will all be left humbled by, and more than a little thankful for, the work Canada’s military personnel do on our behalf.

John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.