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Harper's fallen-soldier policy switch blasted

Liberal defence critic calls the manner of PM's about-face a 'shabby climbdown'

Michael Den Tandt, Globe & Mail, 29 May 06, p. A4.


Opposition politicians criticized Prime Minister Stephen Harper yesterday for the way in which he reversed a controversial ban on public access to repatriation ceremonies honouring fallen Canadian soldiers, while several military families said they welcomed the change.


Mr. Harper said Friday that families of soldiers killed overseas -- not the government -- now will decide whether the news media can watch the caskets of their loved one being returned to CFB Trenton.


The only caveat is that all families involved in any given ceremony agree.


Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor issued a six-paragraph statement yesterday cementing the change.


"As Minister of National Defence, I have reviewed the policy of having the repatriation ceremony open to the public and therefore accessible to the media," Mr. O'Connor said through a spokesman.


"Although I firmly believe this is a very emotional time for the family and solemn event between the family and the Canadian Forces, it is also important that the government of Canada respects the wishes of the grieving family." Therefore, Mr. O'Connor continued, "if the primary next of kin wishes to have the repatriation ceremony open to the public, the government of Canada will respect this." The government's about-face followed weeks of criticism, including objections from relatives of soldiers killed in Afghanistan. Long-standing military policy until the Conservatives took office this year was to allow families to decide whether to admit the media to the ceremonies.


"I think it's good," said Jane Wilson, whose son, Corporal Timothy Wilson, was killed in a vehicle accident in Kandahar province in March. "I think [Mr. Harper] should listen to Canadian families and the Canadian public. He's an elected official and he has a duty to do what Canadians want, not what he wants." Both Ms. Wilson and James Davis, whose son Cpl. Paul Davis was also killed in March, gave credit for the government's reversal to military families who spoke out publicly against the ban.


Richard Leger, whose son, Sergeant Marc Leger, was killed in Afghanistan four years ago, spoke publicly against the ban in April. Not long afterward, Ontario Provincial Police officer Lincoln Dinning sharply criticized the policy during the eulogy for his son, Cpl. Matthew Dinning, one of four soldiers killed by a roadside bomb in April.


Then on Friday afternoon, Tim Goddard, the father of Captain Nichola Goddard, raised the issue in his eulogy for his daughter. "I find it troubling that the privacy decision means we are keeping the press outside the wire, where the bad guys are," Mr. Goddard said.


"I would like to think that Nichola died to protect our freedoms, not restrict them." Opposition criticism yesterday focused not on the reversal, but on Mr. Harper's apparent inability to say he had changed his mind.


"When we raised questions in the House, he answered in a partisan fashion, saying this is not for photo ops, this is about the families, and grieving," said Liberal defence critic Ujjal Dosanjh. "Then he tries a climbdown. I might say it was a very shabby climbdown." "I believe that Mr. Harper's assertion that he had standing instructions to consult with military families was a bald-faced lie," Mr. Dosanjh said. The Prime Minister's Office did not respond to a request for comment yesterday.


NDP Leader Jack Layton said he was happy the policy was changed.


"We have called for that kind of respect to be shown to fallen soldiers who are repatriated here," he said. "We know it's very meaningful to Canadians to be able to identify with that whole process." But Mr. Layton said the Prime Minister would have done better to simply acknowledge that he had heard the families' point of view and decided they were right. "I think that's always a good approach to take in politics because it just shows there's an element of human response," he said.


In his remarks to reporters in Victoria on Friday, the Prime Minister said he'd given "fairly clear instructions that, when bodies were to come home, families were to be consulted. And if all families were agreed on making that particular ceremony public, that our government should have no difficulty with that. I'm not sure what happened in this case."

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