Sackville councillors hear pros and cons of Cougar memorial at packed town hall meeting

It was standing room only at Sackville Town Council Tuesday night as about 100 people turned out to hear presentations for and against installing an armoured military vehicle known as a Cougar in Memorial Park.

Alex Thomas, who led the opposition to the Cougar, told council he didn’t think he was the only one surprised at how nasty and divisive the debate became both before and after the 8th Canadian Hussars decided to withdraw their gift of the Cougar in response to opposition to it.

“I also want to acknowledge that a lot of people in this room are angry — angry about the decision of the Hussars to withdraw their gift,” he said. “In a lot of cases that anger is directed at me or directed at other community members who have been opposing the Cougar.”

Thomas suggested that he understood the anger because “different symbols evoke different things for different people” and he urged both sides to come together on shared values rather than things that foster division.

Alex Thomas addresses council

Thomas said those opposed to the Cougar feel that a massive war machine would dwarf other monuments and minimize the Cenotaph’s central role in a small park that is meant to be a place of serene contemplation.

He argued that for some, the Cougar is a symbol of oppression because of its use in the prolonged standoff between the Canadian military and Mohawks during the Oka crisis of 1990.

“We live in an era where all institutions are beginning to ask difficult questions about Canada’s colonial past and how reconciliation can be achieved between settler Canadians and the original people of this land,” he said.

He ended by recommending that the town facilitate the formation of a citizen’s committee to help make decisions about memorials in the park.

“It is our understanding that such a committee formerly existed in Sackville, and that reviving it would help prevent this kind of divisiveness in the future by helping better define how the park could be used and developed,” Thomas said.

Cougar as a trigger

Next, Scott Timpa, a retired, disabled veteran urged town council not to install a Cougar in Memorial Park partly because it would serve as a recruiting tool for young people to join the military.

“It will sit there as an idol up on its cement pedestal and I am sure some young person is going to come along and say, ‘yeah that’s cool, I want to be a soldier,'” he added.

Timpa, who served more than 13 years in the military including in Afghanistan, bitterly pointed to court decisions establishing that the federal government has no legal obligation or “duty of care” toward injured soldiers.

“I firmly believe disabled veterans are being oppressed, divided, not treated equally,” he said.

Retired war vet Scott Timpa

“I ask everyone in this room, do you want your sons and daughters joining the military knowing that they have no duty of care to look after them when they are physically and, or mentally injured?” he asked.

Timpa said that aside from physical injuries and chronic pain, he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after spending five years in the back of a light armoured vehicle that is similar to the Cougar.

Although armoured vehicles provide safety, they also became death traps “on the streets of Kandahar, easy prey for the Taliban and a well-placed bomb,” he said.

“I’ve seen what a bomb blast does to a human body if you happen to be sitting inside one of these things,” he added. “I can smell and taste the blood and I probably always will.”

Timpa said he moved to Sackville from Halifax because there is no military base here to trigger his PTSD.

“When I lived in Halifax, it was a constant trigger seeing the navy ships in the harbour, all the military personnel walking around in uniforms or military aircraft constantly flying overhead,” he said, adding that seeing a military vehicle such as a Cougar also serves as a trigger.

“I hear the sounds of the cannons. I smell the exhaust fumes, the dust, the grease and I think about the people I knew who were killed in them,” he said.

“Therefore, I implore you, please to not accept this armoured vehicle as a gift.”

‘Mi’kmaq territory, not Mohawk’

Allan Dobson who spoke next, identified himself as a veteran who served in military peacekeeping missions for 15 years. He pointed to the more than century-long association between the town and the 8th Canadian Hussars.

“As a veteran, I’m honoured that the 8th Hussars offered us the Cougar,” he said.

Allan Dobson speaks on behalf of the Sackville legion

Dobson, who is a status Mi’kmaq living on the Fort Folly Reserve near Dorchester, said he was speaking on behalf of the Sackville branch of the Royal Canadian Legion where he’s been a member for more than 20 years.

He added that he was also speaking for Rebecca Knockwood, chief of the Fort Folly Reserve.

When he served during a Canadian peacekeeping mission in Somalia, Dobson said he saw the Cougar as a protector.

“We were going through, I’m going to say this, Indian country, downtown Mogadishu in convoys, open trucks,” he said, adding that the convoys were protected by Cougars.

“I was never in a Cougar, but I had the protection, they had my back [and] downtown Mogadishu was no place to be without somebody having your back.”

He said that while he sympathizes with Timpa’s experiences, he has a different perspective, adding that every time he passes by the M113 armoured personnel carrier on display in College Bridge near Dorchester, he sees it as an “old friend, an old protector.”

Dobson acknowledged that Cougars were used during the Oka crisis when governments requested the military’s help in restoring order under the National Defence Act after Quebec police had lost complete control. He suggested that without the military’s help things could have been a lot worse.

He also questioned the argument that indigenous people would object to a Cougar being displayed in Sackville’s Memorial Park.

“I talked to the Chief Rebecca Knockwood,” he said. “I asked her, did she express any opinion. She said no. There was no opinion expressed on behalf of Fort Folly First Nation to anybody.”

Sackville Legion President Doreen Richards with veteran Allan Dobson (L) and First Vice President Alf Walker

Dobson went on to say he didn’t know how some people in town perceived that the indigenous community would be upset by the gift of a Cougar.

“Where did that come from? he asked. “It didn’t come from Fort Folly and Fort Folly should be the ones you guys should be talking to,” he added. “This is Mi’kmaq territory, not Mohawk.”

He ended by saying that the local legion stands by the town’s acceptance of a Cougar for Memorial Park.

He said that branch President Doreen Richards would be willing to discuss incorporating the Cougar into a peacekeeping memorial that would honour indigenous people as well as veterans of the war in Afghanistan.

“This is something we can work out between all of us, but we still stand upon having the Cougar,” Dobson said.

Incivility and poor fact checking

After the presentations, Councillor Bill Evans condemned what he termed incivility in the ongoing debate over the Cougar.

“I don’t participate in social media, not because it isn’t a place where you can share things with families and friends, but because too often it’s a place where licence to act anonymously and without restraint leads to some pretty intemperate excesses,” Evans said.

Coun. Bill Evans

He accused people participating in debate on Facebook of failing to get their facts straight especially when criticizing town council.

“Council voted unanimously to accept the gift of the Cougar and no member of council that I am aware of has indicated that they want to refuse it,” he  said.

“Yet council has been pilloried individually, publicly and on social media for being despicable cowards for allegedly having done so,” he added.

“It’s one thing to have people tell you that they think you’re wrong when you vote on an issue, but surely the critic has an obligation to at least know how we voted.”

Evans acknowledged that “some logistical questions came up about how to implement the decision and then, the poop hit the fan.” He was referring to council’s decision to postpone installation of the Cougar after residents began objecting to it.

“The problem was created by poor fact checking and incivility,” he added. “It was not what the Hussars nor the town wanted. The Hussars said, ‘let’s stop this, let’s cool down and see if we can’t work something out’ and I concur.”

Evans concluded by saying the town is neither caving in to pressure, nor bulldozing ahead, but is trying to do the right thing.

“Let’s not let the poor behaviour of a few define our community,” he said. “This park belongs to all the citizens of Sackville and it’s our job as councillors to do, not what we want personally, but what we think is in the best interests of the entire municipality.”

Shame and division

Next, Councillor Allison Butcher said she also felt the need to speak. She said council decided to postpone installation of the Cougar to give constituents a chance to make presentations.

“And then, as you are all aware, things went off the rails,” she said. “There were media reports that went national, most of them portraying this whole process in less than a flattering light.”

Coun. Allison Butcher

Butcher said social media were “full of misinformation and speculation…and people got upset.”

She added that Sackville’s reputation was hurt not because of the issue itself, “but because of the shameful way that it divided us. It’s pitted neighbour against neighbour, people said horrible things about each other.”

Butcher said one of the community’s strengths is its diversity and the ability to live and work together.

Her voice shaking with emotion, she added: “I have been deeply ashamed by the divisive, unaccepting way that many have chosen to respond to people whose opinions are different from theirs. We are better than this.”

Butcher ended by saying she hopes the town and the Hussars can come to an agreement on a proper memorial.

“I look forward to the end of all of the arguing and the beginning of a collaboration that can showcase our community’s strength and its diversity” she said.

Cougar belongs in park

Councillor Joyce O’Neil said that in her 16 years on town council, nothing has upset or disgusted her more than the opposition to the Cougar in Memorial Park.

“Our Memorial Park is just that, a place to honour and remember those brave folk that gave their all and continue to serve so that we can live lives such as we enjoy today,” she said.

Coun. Joyce O’Neil

O’Neil added that Sackville has been blessed with the role the Hussars have played here.

“When the Armouries was here, they took in young people, taught them values and they joined the militia and they showed them how to grow into men and the kind of citizens they are today,” she said.

O’Neil said the park is “a very solemn place for me as the second name that appears on the World War Two plaque is my uncle who was a member of the 8th Canadian Hussars armoured division.” She added that both her husbands and an uncle served in the military.

“To me, the Cougar is a symbol of the 8th Canadian Hussars service as peacekeepers and it deserves a place in that Memorial Park,” she said.

O’Neil received sustained cheers and applause as she concluded: “I encourage the 8th Canadian Hussars to re-offer the Cougar to our town and for our council and citizens to gratefully accept and display the Cougar with pride.”

Deputy Mayor Ron Aiken, filling in for Mayor Higham who was away on business, ended the discussion by saying that council would be considering the issue further.

“We have a lot of talking to do about it I think, in light of what we’ve heard tonight,” he said.

He invited residents to e-mail the town or ask questions during the public question period at council’s next meeting on July 8th.

To read earlier coverage of council’s decision to accept the gift of the Cougar last February, click here.

To read coverage of council’s decision to postpone installation of the Cougar, click here.

To listen to the presentations as well as opening remarks by Deputy Mayor Ron Aiken, click here.

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8 Responses to Sackville councillors hear pros and cons of Cougar memorial at packed town hall meeting

  1. Rima Azar says:

    Thank you Mr. Wark for this article and for your amazing journalism, story after story.

    I think what we saw last evening was the power of people (the silent majority!). It is heart-warming to watch, regardless of the final decision (which I hope logically positive). I did not count people but there were A LOT of them inside and outside of the room, many seated and MANY standing up. The audience must have impressed our politicians who were respectfully all ears.

    One must say that in addition to this HUGE turnout, there were over 1000 signatures in Mr. David H,’s petition I signed to support ALL our veterans and their families, including retired veteran Scott Timpa.

    I think we also saw the courage of many people, those who spoke and those who remained silent as well as those who presided and those who listened, as politicians.

    Our deputy Mayor (Dr. Aiken), was courageous and full of sensitivity, not only his words but also his non-verbal behaviour (being a psychologist, I pay attention to these details from time to time). He did an excellent job, explaining to us all how to proceed. It is too bad that our Mayor “could not” be with us (hopefully we will see his own courage next week).

    Mr. Alex Thomas started with wise words, condemning the recent vandalism of the Ferret armoured car. Kudos to him for saying this. Of course, I disagree with most of what he said, but this does not matter. He was very courageous and respectful, as much as possible (he must have been intimidated by the presence of the silent majority).

    He brought a co-speaker, veteran Scott Timpa who raised SO many great points (veterans’ issues, due to lack of support by our federal Government ☹). His story is highly moving. I relate to it myself more than he would ever know. What I found both moving and beautiful is the silent support of his wife (her hand caressing his back for support before his talk; I was sitting behind them so I could see this gesture).

    Each experience is different, even for the same trauma. This being said, I also disagree with him about his position against the Hussars’ gift to our town. I say this and I happen to be someone who may have also been traumatized by war in my way. I was 2 years and 9 months old when civil war started in my country of birth. I have seen many tanks in action; one under my parents’ balcony where I was playing with my sisters (I was 6 then). The tank was being used to torture a man (sorry to be graphical ☹). I will NEVER ever forget this scene until I die. So, I understand how he is triggered by a cougar. The truth is: me too…but I learned to ignore the armoured vehicle whilst driving past the Memorial Park, at least twice per day.

    Veteran Allan Dobson did an OUSTANDING presentation. He corrected Mr. Thomas and his friends (+ the other trendy hardcore social justice activists) by reminding them that we are on Mi’kmaq territory and not Mohawk’s. He also raised a CLEVER point: He consulted the Chief of the nearby Fort Folly community. She does not object the Hussars’ gift to our town. He also made an excellent point when he clarified the Oka crisis facts to everyone.

    After veteran Allan Dobson’s great speech, veteran Scott Timpa got upset. He raised his phone and asked the audience to search the story of Oka crisis. When he pointed his phone to me, I stood up spontaneously and said loudly: “It is not true. I am from Québec. I know Oka very well. He is right”, pointing to veteran Allan Dobson. He ended up sitting down because this is the truth.

    I feel sorry for retired veteran Scott Timpa MORE than he ever thinks (I will pray for him in my heart tonight before going to sleep, if he does not mind). However, he is wrong on this one. We can be right when it is our story. We cannot change history just to make it fit trendy ideologies. I hope our town Councillors will take the right decision.

    Finally, I thank Councillor Evans and Butcher for their thoughtful interventions.

    As for Councillor Joyce O’Neil, I salute her COURAGEOUS and truthful words. What a lady! I can only agree with her and rejoice to hearing political wisdom.

    I look forward to next week to see what will happen.

  2. University towns are probably the most culturally confusing place I have ever lived in my over 50 years .. I think if I had known what goes in a university town I would probably not have moved here and invested in real estate. That’s what the problem is; we have people with very conflicting values living here… its not a big place but there a lot of things that come up and divide the people.. the drive-thru at the Alders was another issue I thought ridiculous but I just sit back and watch now .. and observe.. I don’t think you’d ever reach a “consensus” but a park for war memorials must maintain its profile and its dignity and when gifted a Cougar place it respectfully in a spot and hope that people understand that conflict and war are part of the world we live in even if we all wish for peace there are cultural and economic reasons for war that none of us can solve.. the Cougar will remind us that peace is our goal as a town and a society. I hope.

  3. Geoff Martin says:

    A couple of thoughts. Last evening was an interesting event. I must respond to Mr. Dobson’s comment that this is ‘Mi’kmaq territory, not Mohawk’. I would suggest to you that you need to maintain cross-Canada solidarity with other indigenous people if you want ‘reconciliation’ to be something more than symbolic. The establishment doesn’t want to spend money on reconciliation and you are making divide and conquer easy. You need allies, including those who agree with Alex Thomas and retired Corporal Timka.

    The other thing that has been totally lost is the land-use planning issue in Memorial Park. Many of us neighbours, who should be listened to, want the park to stay as it is. Please tell me, Councillor O’Neill, how many more military displays you want to put in the Memorial Park? Is this the last one? Where will it go exactly? If the media coverage is correct, the scout car already recognizes the 8th Canadian Hussars, though perhaps it needs a plaque. Will you say ‘no’ if the North Shore (NB) Regiment or Carleton and York or the Canadian Field Artillery come offering equipment? Or if the RCAF or RCN say they should also have a second display ‘to even things up’? We need a plan for this space and we obviously don’t have one.

  4. Sharon Hicks says:

    As usual, another timely report on the latest happenings at our Town Hall.

    As in any other democratic process, Council meetings have set rules and protocols to follow.
    The first meeting of the month, the “Special” Council meeting, is intended for “information-gathering”. Councillors receive advance notice from Town Departments regarding issues which will require decisions by Council.

    The second meeting of the month, the “Regular” Council meeting, is where all the action happens. Issues are discussed, full reports are delivered from each town department, and any required decisions are voted on by Council.

    At the “Special” meetings, citizens are allowed to make presentations to Council, provided they do the following:
    – Register with the clerk’s office at least 2 weeks prior to the meeting date
    – Provide the text of what their presentation will be
    – Respect the 10-minute time limit allowed for the presentation
    – Be prepared to answer questions from councillors following the presentation

    Councillors are then allowed to ask questions of the presenters, but only to clarify the information presented.
    – Councillors are not to express personal opinions on the information
    – Councillors are not to debate the information – that happens the following week
    – There is no decision made regarding the information presented – that too happens the following week

    That being said, from what we saw and heard at the July “Special” Council meeting Tuesday night, it’s clear that while certain listeners may have appreciated and / or agreed with the statements delivered by the 3 Councillors noted in the article, the fact is they were out of line in making those remarks.

    Even though Deputy Mayor Aiken explained the proper procedure before the first presentation began, Councillors Evans, Butcher and O’Neil chose to deliver their previously-prepared statements anyway.

    Councillors Phinney, Black, Mesheau, and Tower, on the other hand, correctly chose to honour the proper protocol, and remained silent.

  5. Dodie says:

    Geoff, I agree. I was actually a little shocked at the inference that military involvement at Oka was okay because they were Mohawks.

    • Rima Azar says:

      Dodie, veteran Dobson NEVER said that OR inferred that. You can listen to the tape on the Town website to confirm.

      All what he said was describing the historic facts. It started when a blockade was erected by Mohawks in Kanesatake. When the Québec provincial police intervened, one of its officers got killed by an unknown warrior. During the confrontation, the Québec Government asked for assistance from the army.

      Our army was DISCIPLINED and ended the crisis.

      • Dodie says:

        Rima, I heard what he said as I was at the meeting. And you are right, he didn’t say those exact words. But by repeating that phrase several times (that they were Mohawk, not Mi’kmaq), I felt that he was inferring that it didn’t matter because the people at Oka were not Mi’kmaq. I apologize if that is not what he meant but I am at a loss to explain why he would even make that distinction if that is not what he meant.

  6. Elaine MacDonald says:

    If what was said here is true – and I don’t doubt it is – I will step up and say that I was not “angry” at Alex Thomas for his stance on the Cougar, but his lack of courage to stand up and defend his so called facts when asked to clarify them. I’m angry that he felt he had to tell half-truths in order to get people on his ‘side’.

    I didn’t go to the meeting, because after the last comment Alex Thomas made with mention of me specifically, it was THEN that I got angry, angry enough that I knew going would not be a wise idea. Better to let the cooler, more knowledgeable heads than mine deal with the situation.

    I am glad that things seemed civil. I am deeply sorry for the trauma Mr. Timpa has suffered and I don’t doubt there is anyone around who disagrees that vets are treated horribly by our Government and, by extension, us.

    But I would like to say that, Mr. Timpa, someday, sadly, we may need our military once again. It is on us, as voters, that soldiers are sent to war zones because it is we who put the Government in power and who ultimately make the orders soldiers must follow. Having had a Grandfather and Great Uncle in WWII, and that same Great Uncle in Korea, having an Uncle in the military and now cousins as well, plus friends, I may never understand the trauma, but I understand the sacrifice. Being an Air Cadet while we still had the Armories also gave me great respect and more thought into the military than I ever had, and admiration for the 8th specifically, as I always saw them as part of the town, and was more than heartbroken when the Armories was taken down and the 8th left.

    The blame that Canada has failed its vets is on ALL of us, not just the Government.

    And if someday my niece, or any of my other cousins, or other family, or friends, see something and wish to join the military, then I will be there to support them as much as I can. I have no right to deter that desire from them if that is what they wish to do. Humans are violent creatures; we will always need people who will stand up for those of us who can’t fight back

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