Ministers' responses on Afghan monument contract 'pathetic': design team

OTTAWA — An architectural group that lost out on building a monument to Canada's mission in Afghanistan is accusing two federal cabinet ministers of giving a "pathetic" explanation for how the contract was awarded.

The design by Team Daoust was selected by a jury, but the government overruled that decision to award the contract to another group.

The government says it wanted to reflect the preference of veterans who filled out an anonymous three-question survey online.

Heritage Minister Pascale St-Onge and Veterans Affairs Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor testified about the controversy on Tuesday evening at a meeting of the House of Commons veterans affairs committee.

In an opening statement that took less than a minute, St-Onge said she would defer to her colleague to answer questions about the process.

"The Department of Canadian Heritage played a strictly administrative and support role in this project," she said in French. "Canadian Heritage shared its expertise with Veterans Affairs Canada when it comes to the design competition."

She referred questions from fellow MPs to Petitpas Taylor throughout the meeting.

Renée Daoust, a spokesperson for Team Daoust — which includes the firm Daoust Lestage Lizotte Stecker, artist Luca Fortin and former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour — called that response unacceptable.

"It was pathetic, I must say," she said in an interview Wednesday.

She pointed out that documents her group has received under access-to-information laws contradict St-Onge's assertion that her department played only a supporting role.

A February memo stated that the heritage minister "is accountable for the implementation of the policy on national commemorative monuments for federal lands in Canada's capital region," and asked then-minister Pablo Rodriguez to sign off on a request from Veterans Affairs to overrule the jury's decision.

The same memo made it clear that the survey results were not meant to select a winner for the competition.

Petitpas Taylor said that listening to veterans was the least the government could do to honour their sacrifice.

"The results were compelling, and as such, the government of Canada decided to listen to veterans and those with a connection to the mission in Afghanistan in selecting the preferred design concept," she told the committee.

The jury made its selection from a short list of five bids in November 2021. The $3-million commission was awarded to a team led by Indigenous artist Adrian Stimson in June of this year.

Government officials told Team Daoust that it was the jury's top selection — but that the contract would go to Team Stimson instead — just hours before Veterans Affairs held a news conference announcing the winner on June 19.

The deputy minister of veterans affairs, Paul Ledwell, told the committee the government offered to compensate Team Daoust. "There was a 10 per cent number on the table. This is a normal figure," he said in French.

Daoust said they were offered $34,200 and did not accept any compensation.

Team Daoust has instead been rallying support in the art and architecture community, in which many people have expressed concerns about whether the government will follow its own processes in future competitions.

"These were the rules of the game. It was clearly written down," Daoust said.

The group also sought the advice of polling firm Leger, which assessed the survey questions and its methodology and determined its results were not scientific.

Petitpas Taylor said the survey was sent through the accounts of veterans who receive services from the government.

"I think it's curious that the members of the committee are questioning the opinions of the veterans," she said in French.

"I am shocked that we are questioning veterans … we are creating a monument for them, and we need to ensure that we're listening to them."

Daoust disagrees with that characterization. She said the monument is meant to commemorate the mission in Afghanistan, which also included efforts by civil-society groups to build a democracy and promote education for women and girls.

"Now we're back in Canada to … commemorate that mission and we're associating the monument to the most anti-democratic process," she said.

She said veterans were well-represented on the seven-person jury, which was told to take the survey results into account in making its decision.

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.

The Veterans Affairs Department confirmed that the jury members signed confidentiality agreements that would prevent them from speaking publicly about the selection process.

Team Daoust has been asked to appear before the committee next week.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 1, 2023.

Sarah Ritchie, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version stated that Heritage Minister Pascale St-Onge and Veterans Affairs Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor testified at the veterans affairs committee on Monday evening.