It started as a simple two-tonne boulder, a nondescript hunk of rock plucked from the lonely Afghan wilderness and hung with a few plaques, but through almost a dozen years of war and heartbreak it has morphed into a major symbol of national sacrifice.
The cenotaph being re-dedicated Saturday in a large public ceremony in Ottawa looks almost nothing like the original, humble soldier’s monument first unveiled in 2003 by a grief-stricken combat engineer.
It is bigger, more elegant and — as was demonstrated last spring — exceedingly more powerful.
As many as 1,100 people, including 585 family members who lost loved ones, are attending the service on the grounds of the new National Defence Headquarters.
The event started with a video of Canada’s war in Afghanistan and a montage of the faces to the fallen to the theme of Band of Brothers.
Governor General Julie Payette delivered an eloquent address, speaking to the families of the fallen and the sacrifice of their loved ones. “What they did was noble,” said Payette.
The country’s top military commander, Gen. Jonathan Vance, choked back tears on several occasions.
Among the fallen is Cpl. Nick Bulger, who was a member of Vance’s team when the general was combat commander of the Canadian mission. Bulger was killed in a roadside bomb attack on Vance’s convoy in 2009.
Vance spoke about how the cenotaph was not only a place of sorrow, but also of inspiration. He said he often felt in Kandahar the fallen were still watching over them.
The ceremony follows public anger and frustration that occurred in May when the memorial hall, which houses the cenotaph, was opened in a private ceremony that included only senior government officials and high-ranking members of the military.
Family members were excluded and the public wasn’t notified until three days after the commemoration.
After learning about the families’ distress, Vance apologized for the frustration and hurt feelings and the federal government organized Saturday’s event, allowing the family of each fallen soldier to bring up to six members, at public expense, to Ottawa.
The gesture is deeply appreciated, said Jim Davis, of Bridgewater, N.S., whose son Cpl. Paul Davis was killed in the rollover of an armoured vehicle in 2006.
The families of fallen soldiers are tight-knit and have a support group that meets regularly. Shortly after the controversy over the private ceremony erupted, almost three dozen families were in Ottawa where defence officials took them on a low-key tour of the memorial hall in June.
Any lingering hard feelings, said Davis, evaporated once they saw the cenotaph and the reverence in which the memories of their loved ones were being treated.
“I was feeling the spirit of all those fallen soldiers because they were all there in a group,” he told CBC News, “It’s just highly emotional. And for anybody that’s in grief, I think it’s a wonderful experience to be in that room, in that hall.”
Part of the angst surrounding the cenotaph has long involved the choice of location. It is behind the security perimeter at the new defence complex in west Ottawa and not easily accessible for the general public, which the families had wanted.
Davis said he’s heard the explanations about protecting the site and preserving it from the elements, but still doesn’t entirely accept why the building could not have been erected as an addition to the Canadian War Museum.
The cenotaph — portions of which were displayed on Parliament Hill six years ago and subsequently toured the country — originally stood outside of the Canadian task force headquarters at Kandahar Airfield.
It was dismantled and brought back to Canada following the end of combat operations in 2011.
At the time, it included 192 black granite plates etched with the photographs of Canadian soldiers and civilians killed during the decade-long conflict, as well as those of Americans who died while under Canadian command in Kandahar.
A proposal by the previous Conservative government to create a separate, lasting, public memorial to Afghanistan has been stuck in bureaucratic disagreements across four different departments and agencies.
Shortly after last spring’s controversy, the National Capital Commission announced a site for that new monument had been chosen. The monument will be installed at Lebreton Flats, near the Canadian War Museum.
A design competition is expected to follow.