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Outside fundraising group to cover the cost of families travel to Afghan tribute

By: Murray Brewster, The Canadian Press

 | Apr 04, 2014 - 11:23 AM |
OTTAWA - The Harper government is negotiating with an outside fundraising organization to cover the costs to bring the families of Canada's Afghan war dead to Ottawa for a national commemoration.

Bronwen Evans, managing director of the True Patriot Love Foundation, says both the Prime Minister's Office and National Defence reached out to them more than two weeks ago to discuss how the group could help.

The talks are still ongoing, Evans added.

The foundation, first established in 2009, has raised $14 million donations. As part of its core mandate it steps in "where government is unable to fund programs" that support the well being of members of the military.

Defence Minister Rob Nicholson addressed a foundation dinner in Calgary late Thursday, and a spokeswoman for the minister confirmed the negotiations.

The idea of honouring those who fought the brutal guerilla war and helped train Afghan forces was highlighted in the Conservative throne speech last fall and Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently set aside May 9 as the day.

Yet, Nicholson told a House of Commons committee Thursday that details for the overall tribute are still being worked out and he wouldn't say how much it might cost.

"At this point, we're in the planning process," he said in response to questions from Liberal defence critic Joyce Murray. "It's an evolutionary exercise. We're working on it as we speak."

On Wednesday, CTV News obtained letters that went out recently to relatives of the 158 soldiers who died during the mission. The notes encouraged them to attend but said it would be on their own dime — a position Nicholson quickly refuted at the outset of Thursday's committee meeting.

He made no mention of the talks with True Patriot Love.

Nicholson said that the letters were a mistake and the intention was simply to make sure relatives set aside the date.

He wouldn't say whether his office was aware of or approved of the letters.

The apparent confusion comes even though the commemoration branch at National Defence has been examining and revising various plans and scenarios for over four years.

One of the first suggestions involved family members participating in a candlelight ceremony and procession from the Centennial flame on Parliament Hill to the National War Memorial, about a block away. But that plan was abandoned since the memorial is under renovation.

The Conservatives plan a string of commemorations to mark milestones of past wars over the next six years. Through access to information, the Liberals discovered that National Defence will be required to contribute $27 million toward these events.

Murray accused the government of taking that money from operations and maintenance, as well as care for the wounded.

Nicholson bristled at the suggestion and pointed out that medical care for members of the military is a completely separate part of the department's budget and it is not affected. He was less clear on whether the operations budget would be hit.

The Royal Canadian Legion recently expressed concern about the number of events the Harper government is planning and wondered what kind of impact they would have on the budgets of both Defence and Veterans Affairs.

The absence of details and accountability is troubling, said the national head of the Legion.

"The government has not been transparent or candid about the actual budget being planned for all of these events," said Gordon Moore, the dominion president.

"This funding cannot be diverted from the care afforded our veterans and serving military members injured as a result of their service or from necessary changes to enhance their care."

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