Blame France

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Blame France

Post by Trooper on Mon Jan 15, 2018 7:25 pm

Blame France, downplay problems: Veterans Affairs had talking points after Vimy 100 complaints

Tom Spears
Published on: January 15, 2018


As angry complaints washed over Veterans Affairs Canada about its handling of last spring’s Vimy Ridge centennial, the department’s communications strategy appears to have been to minimize the blame — and, where possible, shift it.


The event in France last April hosted 25,000 Canadians, many of whom reported big problems.

As this newspaper reported in December, scores of visitors wrote letters complaining of being pushed against metal barriers and being stranded in the dark for hours after the ceremony. There weren’t enough toilets or drinking water. Even students working as Vimy guides complained of dangerous chaos.

Inside Veterans Affairs, however, the paper trail shows an official effort to publicly portray Vimy 100 in the most positive light, or to point the finger of blame elsewhere.

Documents revealing the department’s communication strategy have now emerged, through our latest access-to-information request.


A senior official at Veterans Affairs did, in the end, apologize last month during an interview for the experiences of some travellers.

But behind the scenes, the department’s first reaction appears to have been to avoid criticism in various ways:

Blame France.

People with tickets had to get new ones at the last minute, causing mixups and complaints. “Due to additional measures put in place at the request of the Government of France, all electronic tickets had to be re-issued for the event,” says the department’s document summarizing for officials how to answer questions, called “media lines.”

Also, “given the complexity with managing public ceremonies in the current security environment within the Republic of France, the timing and movement around the ceremony on April 9 needed to be very closely managed. … French authorities and the Gendarmerie controlled access to the site…”

Blame the site.

Thousands of visitors were placed behind the monument, and many wrote to say they were unable to see the ceremony at the front.

There was “limited space” in front of the monument, the media lines say, and “accessible space at the front of the monument for large crowds to gather presented some challenges. Organizers arranged seating, video screens and sound infrastructure” to let people at the back see and hear the show.

That’s true, but the media lines don’t tell an important detail. Dazzling sunshine made it hard to see anything on the giant TV screen, and the sound system didn’t work. Many visitors saw and heard very little.

Gloss over problems.

Visitors reported being physically injured in the crush of people waiting two to three hours between barriers for shuttle buses. One woman wrote: “When the ceremony ended at 6 p.m., we stood in a solid uncontrolled mass of people, crushed and pushed for over 3 hours until a shuttle bus would be available for a small number to charge ahead. A person near me fainted but did not slump over due to the close mass of people.”

The media lines are much rosier: “Starting at approximately 6:00 p.m., shuttles moved people off the site from the shuttle pick-up areas back to designated parking areas after the ceremony. Shuttles continued to transport people until everyone had left the site.”

They add: “Canadian officials worked with their French counterparts to ensure safe and timely movement of the public. That said, issues around the departure process have been noted and will be communicated to our French partners for consideration in the planning of similar events in the future.”

And the people who were stressed, shaken up and dehydrated?

“Rest assured that Veterans Affairs Canada staff and volunteers were dedicated to the care and well-being of those who required assistance and worked to ensure they were provided with water and shelter in the tents located on the site.”

Say: We warned them.

“Due to security restrictions, road closures and the large number of people that were entering and exiting the site on April 9, visitors were strongly encouraged to expect delays and allow plenty of travel time.”

“Tour groups were advised to expect delays for departures due to the large number of people attending the event.”

Don’t mention it.

There were some 40 portable toilets — temporarily knocked out by a power surge — for 25,000 people. The lines were two hours long, a subject of the most common complaints.

The media lines don’t say a thing about it.

On Monday, department media relations officer Marc Lescoutre offered the following statement: “As previously stated by Brigadier General Ret. Michael Jorgensen … Veterans Affairs Canada shares the disappointment regarding logistical issues of the Canadians attending overseas event to mark the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. Veterans Affairs Canada will ensure to apply the lessons learned from this event in the planning of future events and activities.”

Voices from Vimy

The original letters of complaint to Veterans Affairs, released back in December, had been withering.

A tour organizer wrote that “provisions for safety, basic human needs and crowd control were dangerously inadequate,” and “some of our participants were injured departing the site.”

It added there was a real danger of trampling and there were two-hour waits for toilets.

One visitor wrote: “Wow, you knew how many people would have to be in the area south of the memorial and you could not get the sound right? Really sad that a large portion of the crowd, who travelled here at their own expense, could not hear or hardly see anything. Really, really sad. My tax dollars at work.”

A woman separated from her husband wrote: “Finally the crowd broke through the barriers. We were liked caged animals.”

A Vimy guide wrote: “The Overseas Events Team did an appalling job. THOUSANDS of Canadians and others were let down by the sheer incompetence of the planning committee.” The temporary security staff were “about as useful as a bag of hammers” and many of them abandoned their posts.

http://ottawacitizen.com/news/local-news/veterans-affairs

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