OTTAWA — An architectural group that was chosen by a jury to build a monument to Canada’s mission in Afghanistan says the government’s decision to award the contract to a different group is outrageous and anti-democratic.
Veterans Affairs Canada announced the approximately $3-million commission in June, awarding it to a team led by Indigenous artist Adrian Stimson.
“This is so anti-democratic,” said Renee Daoust, a spokesperson for Team Daoust, which placed first in the competition.
“They’re not respecting their own procurement rules that they have set up, and to us that’s really unacceptable,” she said
The team included the firm Daoust Lestage Lizotte Stecker, artist Luca Fortin and former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour, who acted as an adviser on the mission in Afghanistan.
Daoust said they learned they won the competition just a couple of hours before Veterans Affairs Canada held a press conference on June 19 – and then they were told the government was going to overrule the jury’s choice.
“We said, ‘Well, this is so unfair. Why are you doing this?’” she said.
The explanation given to the team, and to reporters at the press conference, was that veterans who participated in an anonymous online survey preferred the bid by Team Stimson.
Daoust was told she had 10 days to file a formal complaint with the Canadian International Trade Tribunal, which she did. The team also wrote letters to the federal government to no avail.
“If, as of now, the major public artwork or architectural components of Canada will be selected based on a survey, this is very, very worrisome. We said, ‘You’re creating a very dangerous precedent,’” Daoust said.
The jury considered the designs of five finalist teams and chose the winner in November 2021. Jurors included the CEO of the Winnipeg Art Gallery, architects, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, a Silver Cross Mother, Canada’s former ambassador to the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the deputy director of the Centre for the Study of War and Society at the University of New Brunswick.
Daoust obtained a memo through an access-to-information request that shows the Department of Veterans Affairs asked the Heritage Department to overturn the jury’s choice.
The Feb. 5 memo, which she shared with The Canadian Press, was sent to then-minister Pablo Rodriguez.
It states Team Stimson’s design got the most favourable feedback from the public, followed by Team Daoust’s, and that “determining a ‘Public’s Choice’ or providing a ranking between the proposed designs were not objectives of the survey.”
It notes the heritage minister “is accountable for the implementation of the policy on national commemorative monuments for federal lands in Canada’s capital region,” and that Veterans Affairs would take the lead on communications with the public once the decision was approved.
“Delays in awarding a design development contract will likely result in cost increases for the overall project,” the memo reads.
Rodriguez granted approval on May 11. Large portions of the memo are redacted.
The monument is set to be built in Ottawa’s Lebreton Flats area across the street from the Canadian War Museum, near the National Holocaust Memorial. It was first promised by former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper in 2014.
It could take another two or three years to finalize the design and construction, adding to what has already been a years-long process.
The House veterans affairs committee has called for Heritage Minister Pascale St-Onge and Veterans Affairs Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor to appear as witnesses to explain the decision.
Spokespeople for Petitpas Taylor and St-Onge both declined requests for interviews on Thursday.
In an emailed statement, Petitpas Taylor’s office said the department determined the monument should reflect the preferences of the survey respondents.
“When it comes to honouring the sacrifices of our veterans, we must listen to them,” said spokesperson Mikaela Harrison.
Stimson was a former member of the Armed Forces and joined the Canadian Forces Artists Program as a civilian in 2010. He spent time in Afghanistan and said in June that he incorporated that experience into the design.
His design will include the names of the 158 Canadian military members who were killed in the conflict.
The 13-year mission in Afghanistan involved more than 40,000 Canadian Armed Forces members.
An estimated 47,245 Afghan civilians were killed in the conflict between 2001 and 2021, along with 66,000 national police and military members and more than 51,000 Taliban and opposition fighters.
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