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.
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.
“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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.