The site sits along the Ottawa River, on the east side of Booth Street. Across the road, the poetic angularity of the Canadian War Museum asserts an arresting presence, with the dramatically weathered steel of Raymond Moriyama’s design met by the hauntingly crisp, light concrete form of Daniel Libeskind’s adjacent National Holocaust Memorial. Here, in the heart of the capital city’s cluster of symbolic public architecture, the National Monument to Canada’s Mission in Afghanistan is poised to add to a place of cultural reckoning. What should it look like?

While the site remains a patch of grass, its future is a locus of controversy. Via a design competition announced in 2019, the federal government invited interdisciplinary teams of artists, architects, landscape and urban designers to share their visions. In 2020, five shortlisted concepts were revealed to the public, and the government finally announced a winner in June of this year: a design led by Adrian Stimson — a Siksika artist and Afghanistan war veteran — in collaboration with public art practice LeuWebb Projects and landscape architects MBTW Group. Shortly thereafter, however, finalists Daoust Lestage Lizotte Stecker publicized documents revealing a hastily amended procurement process: Its team had in fact won the jury vote intended to select the memorial. Instead of honouring its jury selection, the federal government abruptly changed tack, using the results of a public poll — which favoured Stimson and co’s design — as a justification for awarding the final project.

Conceptual rendering of Team Daoust's concept for the National Monument to Canada's Mission in Afghanistan.

Conceptual rendering of Team Daoust’s concept for the National Monument to Canada’s Mission in Afghanistan.

Ahead of an October 31 hearing that confirmed the government’s decision was driven by the online poll, the details were gradually revealed. On the firm’s website, Daoust Lestage Lizotte Stecker — which worked on the concept with artist Luca Fortin and former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour, who served as an advisor — re-published a translated excerpt from an explanatory letter from Veterans Affairs Canada, which it received a day after the winning team was announced on June 19. “Despite the fact that the jury designated your concept as the winning concept of the competition, after careful consideration, the Government of Canada has decided to select the concept developed by [another team] and, consequently, to award the contract to that team,” the letter reads.

The simple, uncontested facts are arresting. In stark contrast to an otherwise hermetically risk-averse federal procurement bureaucracy enamoured of procedure and fine-print protocol, the government callously broke its own rules. An investigation by La Presse journalist Laura-Julie Perrault delved into the details of the $3-million contract, confirming that the competition’s regulations did not include any provision for a potential override of the jury decision. In response to her series of inquiries probing the rationale for the decision, federal representatives averred only that the government “made this decision, which is consistent with feedback received from veterans, their families and others who participated in the mission.”

Artist’s rendition of the Team Stimson design concept for the National Monument to Canada's Mission in Afghanistan.

Artist’s rendition of the Team Stimson design concept for the National Monument to Canada’s Mission in Afghanistan.

The feedback came in the form of the online survey (conducted in 2021) which engaged over 12,000 respondents, the majority of whom have some connection to the Afghanistan mission, whether as veterans and/or their family members, or as active military personnel. While only one of the questions explicitly focused on design, the answers — which included reflections on visitor experience and symbolic meaning — revealed clear aesthetic and thematic preferences. By comfortable margins, the Team Stimson design was deemed to best “express Canada’s deep gratitude for the sacrifices made by Canadians who served in Afghanistan,” create “a solemn place of reflection,” and provide “an appropriate setting for gatherings and ceremonies.”

Artist’s rendition of the Team Stimson design concept for the National Monument to Canada's Mission in Afghanistan.

Concept Image — Team Stimson.

What did the jury think? In contrast to the extensively detailed polling results, the jurors remain bound by a confidentiality agreement. Still, a cursory look at the designs yields vital clues. Envisioned as a medicine wheel on a public scale, a circular memorial of four bronze helmets and flak jackets — which are raised on crosses — sits at the heart of Team Stimson’s concept, while the surrounding Corten steel walls are inscribed with the names of fallen soldiers. Even from a single rendering, the representational meaning is obvious and explicit, with the empty flak-jacket sculptures conveying a solemn sense of loss, as well as a spirit of healing and reconciliation within the medicine wheel.

Canada’s Afghanistan War Memorial and the Crisis of Design Literacy

Concept Image — Team Stimson.

Canada’s Afghanistan War Memorial and the Crisis of Design Literacy

Concept Image — Team Stimson.

Daoust Lestage’s vision is harder to parse. A delicate lattice wall with an angular incision, the concept takes a bit of reading to understand. Inspired by a Leonard Cohen lyric — “There is a crack in everything/that’s how the light gets in” — the the space is a “remembrance wall” that opens a cultural dialogue between the Canadian capital and Afghan cities, according to the design team. While the limestone evokes the nearby Parliament buildings, its intricately carved lace pattern hints at a burka. Through the strategically angled cut at the memorial’s centre, views frame the Peace Tower and the Canadian War Museum. The Daoust Lestage concept opens new vantages of familiar landmarks — and the Canadian mythologies they evoke — seen through the quiet filter of another culture and a foreign war. In doing so, it invites a new lens through which to view our surroundings and our past.

Canada’s Afghanistan War Memorial and the Crisis of Design Literacy

Concept Image — Team Daoust.

Canada’s Afghanistan War Memorial and the Crisis of Design Literacy

Concept Image — Team Daoust.

Which is the better design? At face value, it can be tempting to diagnose the schism between the open online survey and the expert-appointed jury as a symptom of a broader aesthetic divergence between popular sentiment and an elitist design community. Yet, it’s probably the wrong question. Rather than aesthetic taste, the fundamental failure is one of public process and civic discourse.

For starters, the seven-person jury wasn’t dominated by designers. Architect Talbot Sweetapple and landscape architect Virginia T. Burt were joined by Master Warrant Officer Steve Chagnon, a veteran of the Mission in Afghanistan, and Reine Samson Dawe, who lost a son in Afghanistan and represented the families of the fallen. University of New Brunswick military historian (and former Canadian Armed Forces member) Lee Windsor, Winnipeg Art Gallery director Stephen Borys, and former Canadian ambassador to Afghanistan Arif Z. Lalani rounded out a jury, which integrated the viewpoints of veterans and their families with those of Canada’s public representatives, scholars, cultural leaders and designers.

These seven jurors convened to discuss and analyze the design concepts, then studied the five shortlisted projects in greater depth a second time. Spanning months and multiple hours-long conversations, such a process entails the sharing of reflections, and typically spurs the gradual changing of opinions and evolution of thought. The jury members aren’t smarter or more sophisticated than the 40 million Canadians they represent, but they were afforded the opportunity to assess the design concepts with appropriate depth and consideration. By contrast, privileging the results of a digital survey — one which took minutes to complete and assessed only first impressions — is a craven, perfunctory simulacrum of democracy. The jury had a conversation, and 12,000 Canadians had an online questionnaire. If we lack a robust design culture in our country, it’s not for a lack of public intelligence or aesthetic literacy; it’s because we either deny the opportunity for meaningful discourse to take place, or refuse to respect its outcomes.

Procurement and procedure aside, the jury process was designed to foster meaningful discourse, condensing the broader civic conversation we ought to be having as Canadians. Indeed, this is why design competitions and their juries can be so valuable — and similarly robust conversations can take place on the civic scale through meetings, design presentations, consultations and carefully organized public votes.

In an open letter to the Standing Committee on Veterans Affairs, architects David Sisam and Joe Lobko defend the jury process, invoking the open competition to design the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., which sparked a similar controversy when Maya Lin’s now-iconic concept — a V-shaped granite wall inscribed with the names of the dead — was selected by a jury in 1981. While the design was derided as “a monument to defeat” in its time, the site is now “a sacred place for veterans and their families as well as one of the most visited memorials in Washington,” write Sisam and Lobko. 

Could the same happen in Ottawa? A public memorial can be a powerful vessel of culture, history and national spirit. Yet, the whole of the controversy — from the structure of the jury and public poll to the design critiques — also reflects deeper failings. As a body politic, we’ve never adequately addressed the bigger questions. Why were we in Afghanistan? What did we accomplish? Should we celebrate it or regret it? What did those fallen soldiers give their lives for? A monument can help nourish a rich civic discourse, but it must also emerge from one.

In the meantime, however, we’re left with a more prosaic truth: The federal government misled the design teams, the jury, and the Canadian public. As Daoust Lestage founding partner Renee Daoust put it, “They’re not respecting their own procurement rules that they have set up, and to us that’s really unacceptable.” If nothing else, it shouldn’t be acceptable to the rest of us either.

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