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The fall of Panjwaii casts a long shadow over Canada's Afghan war veterans – CBC.ca

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The declaration that Panjwaii — a wild, angry district of Kandahar province in Afghanistan — had fallen to the Taliban was greeted this week with a mixture of shock, numbness and resignation by many of the Canadian soldiers who fought in that part of the country for the better part of five years.

A lot of Canadian blood was spilled on that lonely, scorched patch of land. Some of it belonged to former corporal Bruce Moncur.

There was also a lot of sweat and heartbreak folded into the gnarled, sun-bleached grape and marijuana fields in this region west of Kandahar City.

Just ask retired leading seaman Bruno Guevremont.

Panjwaii District centre as seen from the Canadian military’s forward operating base at Ma’sum Ghar, west of Kandahar City, in the spring of 2009. (Murray Brewster/The Canadian Press)

In many ways, both men left a little bit of themselves behind in Panjwaii — a sprawling, once-prosperous checkerboard of sand, farmland and ancient, dead volcanic hills that rise steeply out of the desert floor.

When soldiers referred to the killing fields of Kandahar, more often than not they were talking about Panjwaii — where Canadian troops did most of their fighting and dying amid endless fields, mud-walled compounds and empty villages.

Against an often-unseen enemy, they fought for the place over and over again throughout the five-year combat mission, which formally ended a decade ago this week.

The Taliban — the enemy that Canadian soldiers managed to keep at bay but never quite defeat — swept through Panjwaii last weekend, handing Afghan Army troops a significant defeat and delivering a major psychological blow in the wake of the American withdrawal.

‘It’s never going to end’

Following up on their victory in Panjwaii, Taliban insurgents reportedly penetrated Kandahar City late in the week. The Taliban desperately wanted control of Kandahar City, the second largest in Afghanistan, and spilled a lot of their own blood trying to get there — mostly with the Canadians standing in the way.

The city and its surrounding region was their spiritual home, birthplace and first seat of power, a place from which they projected their own brutal version of Islam in the 1990s.

Retired leading seaman Bruno Guevremont, a former bomb disposal technician who served with the Canadian Army in Afghanistan. ( Bruno Guevremont/Facebook)

Guevremont said he was shaken by the thought that the villagers he’d protected, and sometimes shared tea and flatbread with, were about to return to that kind of misery.

“What’s the feeling I got when I heard that Panjwaii, (the Afghan National Army) had withdrawn and the Taliban was moving back in? It was anxiety. It was exhaustion,” said Guevremont, who dismantled insurgent bombs and disarmed a live suicide bomber single-handed in the spring of 2009.

“It’s like, this is never-ending. It’s never going to end. I’m thinking about the local population. I mean, I made friends over there.”

Bruno Guevremont says he is the only member of the Canadian Armed Forces to dismantle a suicide vest on a live bomber. (Bruno Guevremont/Facebook)

He said the news brought back vivid memories of the three times his team was called in to defuse bombs at schools.

“Once, we got there too late where an IED had actually detonated on a school, so a lot of children had died,” said Guevremont. “There were two where IEDs were prepared to go off when the kids came out of school and we got there in time and dismantled those IEDs.”

While he worries about the ordinary Afghans caught in the path of the advancing Taliban, he said he also remembers the insecure feeling of being an outsider among Afghans — of not knowing who could be trusted.

Guevremont recalled being asked by locals to respond to a report of a rocket strapped to the underside of a bridge — only to discover that he’d been led into a minefield. He had to dig and tiptoe his way out.

Ten years later, he is left with a sense of dismay — and futility.

“So, you’re thinking, ‘What did we do for 20 years? What did we do there for the whole time that we were there?'” he said.

He’s not the only one asking those questions.

‘It was an inevitability’

The hardened resolve and patient, wait-and-see attitude shared by the 40,000 Canadians troops who served in Afghanistan showed cracks here and there on social media this week.

What was it all for? It’s a question that, over the past decade, has been answered with the claim that Canada’s intervention empowered Afghans to choose their own destiny.

But for some former soldiers, fatalism has taken over.

“It was an inevitability,” said Moncur, who suffered a major head wound in 2006 at the onset of Operation Medusa, the biggest battle fought by Canadians during the war.

“I honestly thought it was going to happen. I never thought the Taliban stranglehold on Kandahar was going to be broken for that long.”

Bruce Moncur (right) in southern Afghanistan in 2006. (CBC News)

Moncur and many soldiers like him take a pragmatic view of their service in Afghanistan: they had a job to do — keeping the Taliban at bay — and they did it.

“It’s been 20 years now, a generation, and we lost a lot of blood and guts. But they lost too,” he said, referring to the full sweep of western involvement in Afghanistan following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. 

There is a phrase the Taliban liked to use in their propaganda against western forces: “You have the watches, but we have the time.”

Moncur said he has grown to appreciate the truth of that claim.

“The inevitability was, unless we were willing to retain that presence for a millennia, they were ultimately going to come out on top,” he said.

‘We didn’t finish the job’

Moncur said he believes the war was not worth the sacrifice in lives and treasure. As a veterans’ advocate who is married to NDP MP Niki Ashton, there is an important political dimension to his feelings about Panjwaii.

If Canada, he said, was serious about everything it claimed (and sometimes continues to claim) about its presence in Afghanistan, it would have not walked away from combat operations in 2011 and would not have left the country entirely in 2014.

“I have a hard time grappling with some of the politics that come after this, the decisions to leave,” he said. “I mean, we didn’t finish the job.”

For soldiers like Moncur, mixed in with that remorse and dismay over the fall of Panjwaii is a sense that Canada’s war in Afghanistan is ancient history now.

“I’ve moved on,” he said. “I think a lot of the vets have moved on from this.

“I think if you had to ask them what they’re more concerned about, the Taliban taking over Kandahar province or perhaps the state of the military within our country, I’m pretty sure most guys would be talking about what is going on with the Canadian military now.”

But Canada left some loose ends behind in Afghanistan — flesh-and-blood ones.

Growing calls for Ottawa to rescue the local Afghan translators who worked for the Canadians and were left behind after 2014 have put the Liberal government on the spot in recent days.

Those calls started with ordinary soldiers but are now coming from some of the country’s top former commanders — who say they’re not prepared to see people who risked their lives for Canada sacrificed to the Taliban.

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Response to mass shootings should be ‘political and immediate,’ survivor says

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OTTAWA — Former public safety minister Bill Blair was asked yet again Wednesday about whether his government interfered in the investigation into the April 2020 shooting spree in Nova Scotia — a question that has grabbed political attention in Ottawa for over a week.

Blair and the Prime Minister’s Office are accused of pressuring RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki to release details about the type of weapons used by the gunman, with two RCMP officials alleging Lucki told them that information was connected to upcoming gun legislation.

The government announced a ban on assault-style weapons on May 1, 2020, after cabinet approved an order-in-council enacting the changes.

The Conservatives have accused the Liberals of using a tragedy to further their agenda. NDP leader Jagmeet Singh said in a statement last week that it’s completely unacceptable for a government to “use this horrific act of mass murder to gain support for their gun policy.”

But that’s not how a survivor of another mass shooting sees it.

Heidi Rathjen was a student at Montreal’s École Polytechnique in December 1989 when a gunman murdered 14 women and injured 14 others at the school.

She said the response to mass shootings should be “political and immediate.”

“The Conservatives and the gun lobby have been falling over themselves claiming that the (orders-in-council) were some kind of devious self-serving political move that exploited a tragedy, while for the majority of Canadians banning assault weapons is the right thing to do to prevent mass shootings,” she said in an email to The Canadian Press.

“If it took a tragedy to prompt the government into long-awaited action on gun control, that may be a sad commentary on politics, but it is surely beneficial for public safety.”

Rathjen, who leads an advocacy group called PolySeSouvient, said it “would have loved” for the government to respond immediately to what happened at Polytechnique.

“Unfortunately, it took six years of advocacy before a reasonable gun control law was passed, and victims’ families are still fighting for a complete ban on assault weapons — three decades later.”

Blair said his office worked with the RCMP on the list of banned weapons for months before the announcement, but those conversations had “no nexus” with discussions about the shooting spree.

“The RCMP of course were involved in those discussions from the outset because they are responsible for administering the Canadian Firearms Program,” he said.

Allegations of government interference came to light through evidence released by the public inquiry into the shootings, in written notes from Supt. Darren Campbell and a letter to Lucki written by RCMP strategic communications director Lia Scanlan about a meeting held 10 days after the shootings.

Scanlan’s letter, which was written nearly a year later, said Lucki mentioned “pressures and conversations with Minister Blair, which we clearly understood was related to the upcoming passing of gun legislation.” Scanlan’s perception that the commissioner was under political pressure left her feeling disgusted.

“It was appalling, inappropriate, unprofessional and extremely belittling,” Scanlan wrote.

Lucki has acknowledged she did “express frustration with the flow of information” in the meeting.

Blair and Lucki have denied there was any pressure to release a list of the weapons used in the shooting, and neither they nor the Nova Scotia RCMP revealed that information to the public before it was reported by the media in November 2020.

Former police officer Michael Arntfield says if the alleged interference happened, it’s unclear how it would have impacted operations or the investigation.

But more importantly, he says, the “juicy political scandal” is distracting from what is supposed to be an inquiry into why and how a man disguised as a police officer and armed with illegal weapons was able to evade police and continue killing for more than 13 hours.

“The larger conversation about systemic problems in the RCMP operationally, administratively, has been paved over,” he said.

Blair said he did have questions for Lucki when they spoke, and made a point to note that the government “did hear very clearly concerns from the people of Nova Scotia” about the RCMP’s actions.

He said that’s why the public inquiry — which he initially opposed calling — has been tasked with exploring the RCMP’s communication.

The force released limited information to the public on Twitter during the shootings.

It sent a single tweet on April 18 warning of a “firearms complaint” in Portapique, even though the communications officer on call that night was aware there were multiple people dead and that the gunman’s whereabouts were unknown.

Thirteen people were killed that night and several buildings burned to the ground. The next morning, the gunman took another nine lives as he drove through rural parts of the province, evading police until just before noon.

The inquiry has heard it took 27 minutes to get Scanlan’s approval that morning for a tweet warning the public that the gunman was driving a mock RCMP cruiser and wearing a police uniform.

During that time, Kristen Beaton and Heather O’Brien were murdered on the side of the highway in Debert, N.S. Beaton was pregnant when she was killed. Her husband, Nick Beaton, and O’Brien’s daughter, Darcy Dobson, led the calls for a public inquiry into what went wrong in July 2020.

“When you pulled the oxygen out of (an inquiry) that was assembled at the behest of bereaved families to get answers about what’s wrong with the RCMP, it distracts from the original motivation of the inquiry,” Arntfield said, adding the questions about what went wrong are of “life and death interest to Canadians.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 29, 2022.

 

Sarah Ritchie, The Canadian Press

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Alberta Utilities Commission approves $31M ATCO fine, says in public interest

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CALGARY — The Alberta Utilities Commission has approved a $31-million fine proposed for ATCO Electric’s attempts to overcharge ratepayers for costs it shouldn’t have incurred.

In April, ATCO Electric agreed to pay the penalty after a commission investigation found it deliberately overpaid a First Nation group for work on a new transmission line.

It said ATCO also failed to disclose the reasons for the overpayment when it applied to be reimbursed by ratepayers for the extra cost.

But in May, the Consumers’ Coalition of Alberta said the proposed settlement doesn’t adequately compensate people in the province for the harm they have suffered.

The commission says in its ruling that after carefully considering the settlement agreement, it is satisfied that accepting it is consistent with the public interest.

The commission also says the agreement would not bring the administration of justice into disrepute.

“The commission considers that the settlement is fit and reasonable, falling within a range of reasonable outcomes given the circumstances,” reads the ruling released Wednesday.

The settlement came after an investigation into a complaint that ATCO Electric sole-sourced a contract in 2018 for work needed for a transmission line to Jasper, Alta.

The agreement says that was partly because another of Calgary-based ATCO’s subsidiaries had a deal with a First Nation for projects, including for work camps on the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion.

The statement of facts says ATCO Electric feared that if it didn’t grant the Jasper contract to the First Nation, it might back out of its deal with ATCO Structures and Logistics. It’s illegal for a regulated utility to benefit a non-regulated company in this way.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 29, 2022.

 

The Canadian Press

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Some cities rethinking Canada Day parades amid rising costs, funding challenges – CTV News

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MONTREAL –

Canada Day celebrations are making a return after two years of scaled-down festivities because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but some Canadians hoping to catch a traditional parade may be out of luck.

Several cities say the rising cost of security and insurance, in addition to troubles securing funding, is forcing them to rethink their celebrations.

In Montreal, there will be no Canada Day parade for the third year running, and this time COVID-19 is only partly to blame.

Organizer Nicholas Cowen says that while the novel coronavirus is a major concern, the federal Heritage Department offered less funding in a year when inflation is at its highest level in decades.

“The parade receives a grant so it is very much like receiving a check for the same amount every year,” he wrote in an email. “This year the funding was to go back to 2015 levels at 2022 prices.”

The parade’s executive director, Caroline Polcsak, explained in an interview that the price of insurance has increased along with almost everything else — down to the ingredients of the large, traditional cake that is served to the public. She said corporate sponsors are hard to get because parades cannot offer tax receipts.

“For the parade, this means less money, higher prices,” Cowen wrote.

Instead, Canada Day celebrations in Montreal will take place at the Old Port, where events will include face painting, games, cake and a concert.

Heritage Canada did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.

Montreal is not the only city where Canada Day organizers are blaming the rising cost of insurance and security for cancelled parades.

In Strathcona County, Alta., the Sherwood Park and District Chamber of Commerce announced in May that the Canada Day parade would not take place.

“Unfortunately, our success coupled with the many recent incidents at other parades in Canada and the United States has significantly increased the risks associated with parades and the onus on the event organizers,” executive director Todd Banks wrote in a message.

Banks said, “The costs of physical infrastructure, insurance and security obligations have now grown beyond our capabilities when considering all the monetary and volunteer requirements.”

Last year, six people were killed and dozens injured after a man is alleged to have deliberately driven his SUV into a Christmas parade in Waukesha, Wis. And in Toronto in 2019, four people were injured after shots rang out at a parade celebrating the Raptors’ NBA championship win.

The Vancouver Fraser Port Authority, which cancelled that city’s Canada Day parade in 2018 over rising prices, announced this year it would neither host a parade nor present a fireworks display, citing “rising costs for safety and security, and across the events industry,” adding that it would instead focus on other events.

Banff, Alta., made the decision to replace its parade with a day of activities and performances.

On its website, the city mentioned several factors for replacing its parade: a desire for less crowding during the pandemic; the advantage of being able to offer performers staggered time slots; a reduction in the use of fossil fuel-powered vehicles; and staffing challenges that have “affected the town’s ability to move all barriers and planters for a one-hour event.”

Last year, many cities opted to cancel Canada Day events after the discovery of unmarked graves at sites of former residential schools. While most events are resuming this year, some cities, such as Winnipeg and Thunder Bay, have chosen to observe Canada Day with cultural programming rather than celebratory events such as parades and fireworks.

The cancellation of Montreal’s parade came months after the death of Roopnarine Singh, a Trinidad-born doctor who organized the city’s first Canada Day parade in 1978 with just a handful of vehicles after being dismayed there was no celebration to mark his adopted country’s birthday.

In an interview in 2017, Singh recalled years of fighting to secure funding for the event, occasionally becoming a thorn in the side of political leaders who didn’t want to anger the province’s separatist faction in the years surrounding the two referendums.

Cowen said Singh, who died in March, had hoped to be in Montreal this summer for the parade. Polcsak said he undoubtedly would have been “upset” to see the event he fought for so hard cancelled.

Both organizers say they’re working hard to secure the funding they need to bring back the parade next year.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 29, 2022. 

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