A travelling memorial to honour the men and women who died in Afghanistan was unveiled on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, as the training mission begins to wind down ahead of its conclusion on March 31, 2014.
Defence Minister Peter MacKay attended the unveiling of the Afghanistan Memorial Vigil alongside Lt.-Gen. Stuart Beare, commander of Canadian Joint Operations Command, who served in Afghanistan.
"We do so to honour the bravery, the dedication, the valour and professionalism of the civilian and military personnel who have fallen in Afghanistan," MacKay said.
The memorial is made up of the plaques originally displayed at the Kandahar Airfield cenotaph in Afghanistan.
It contains 190 plaques representing 201 fallen: 158 Canadian Armed Forces members, one Canadian diplomat, one Canadian civilian contractor, one Canadian journalist, and 40 U.S. Armed Forces members who were under Canadian command.
The memorial will be open to the public and remain on Parliament Hill throughout the summer and that until Remembrance Day, MacKay said. It will then travel across the country and Washington, D.C., for two years before returning to a permanent, yet to be determined, location in the National Capital Region.
"This memorial is a very real expression of Canada's gratitude to those who fought against terrorism, to defend global peace and security, and the families who stood steadfastly behind them during their deployment," MacKay said.
Family members and loved ones took part in a private viewing on Parliament Hill Monday evening, he said.
However, the family of Pte. Joel Wiebe, 22, who was killed in 2007 by a roadside bomb near the town of Sperwan Ghar, southwest of Kandahar, says they were not given enough notice to attend the event.
Asked about it by CBC News after the unveiling of the memorial, MacKay said that Wiebe's family "will be given an opportunity" as the memorial will be on permanent display.
"The decision was taken to begin after Canada Day and to carry on through until the end of the mission," MacKay said.
Troops deployed in the second rotation of Canada's contribution to the NATO training mission in Afghanistan started coming home at the end of June.
Throughout the months of June and July, approximately 900 Canadian military personnel will be deployed in the area of Kabul, gradually replacing Canadian military members who were deployed in the second rotation.
The troops will participate in the final rotation of Operation Attention from June 2013 to March 2014, at which time the responsibility for security will be transferred over to the Afghans.
Beare credited the Canadian Armed Forces for making "real progress" in Afghanistan noting that "the progress in Afghanistan doesn't mean an absence of violence."
"Progress in Afghanistan can really be measured by the capacity of the Afghan security forces to take on the violence and the threats to the people of Afghanistan themselves," Beare said.
MacKay said that Canada hopes the capability of the Afghan security forces "will hold and carry the day" despite the "tremendous amount of pressure that will remain in Afghanistan that's consistent with their history. They have very unhelpful neighbours," MacKay said.
"It is our hope that Canada's contribution will help form that solid foundation that they need to continue all of their efforts to remain a stable, democratic and peaceful nation."
In March, MacKay estimated the total operational cost for the training mission, over four years, to reach over $500 million by the time it comes to an end in 2014.
With a major cabinet shuffle looming, there has been much speculation about MacKay's fate as defence minister and whether Prime Minister Stephen Harper plans to move him out of cabinet.
Asked by reporters if he would like to stay on as defence minister, MacKay said it's the best job he's had and while he's happy to stay in the job, the decision is up to the prime minister.
Asked for parting words in the eventuality that he may indeed get shuffled out of cabinet, MacKay replied "this is not my last public appearance, I can assure you that — not as defence minister."
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