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Red tape in Ottawa increases cost of Canadian Hong Kong veterans memorial

By John Cotter


Red tape in Ottawa has volunteers scrambling to raise more money to pay for a memorial designed to honour Canadians who fought in the Battle of Hong Kong during the Second World War and then languished for years in brutal Japanese prison camps.

The cost of the memorial, to be unveiled Aug. 15, doubled to $300,000 after the National Capital Commission requested design changes to make it a better fit with the city’s landscape.

The requirement has put unwelcome pressure on the Hong Kong Veteran’s Commemorative Association, which is funding the project with private donations.

“With these changes we were expecting some cost increases; however, we were shocked to see how much,” reads an association newsletter sent to members. “We have to deal with NCC-approved companies and we are building in prime time, so the cost was a huge difference.”

The association is asking families of the veterans to donate more cash. Corporations and Royal Canadian Legion branches have also been approached.

The capital commission said the design changes were necessary to make the memorial and the landscaping around it complement its prestigious Sussex Drive location — an area that includes Rideau Hall and the prime minister’s residence.

Spokesman Jean Wolff said the commission wants to ensure the memorial is appreciated by Canadians for years to come.

“We understand that for people who are building their first monument the cost is a surprise and what the project entails is a surprise,” Wolff said. “A monument there has to fit the area and must also do justice to the history of these veterans.”

Brian Forbes, secretary-general of the National Council of Veterans, said the former soldiers deserve better after their torturous experiences during the Second World War.

“If there was ever a group that deserved more sympathy, the Hong Kong veterans shouldn’t have been put through this process.”

Canada sent 1,975 raw troops — the Winnipeg Grenadiers, the Royal Rifles of Canada and support units — to bolster Hong Kong’s defences in November 1941, only weeks before the Japanese attack. After a 17-day battle, the survivors surrendered.

More than 290 Canadians were killed in battle or died of their wounds. Another 267 died in prison camps, where they were forced to provide slave labour.

Phil Doddridge is one of the few remaining 82 survivors who is healthy enough to attend the unveiling of the memorial, which is being engraved with the names of all the troops. He was a strapping 19-year-old when the Japanese attacked, but by the time he was liberated in 1945 he had withered away to a sickly 104 pounds.

When it comes to the Second World War, the news media tend to focus on D-Day, Doddridge said from his home in New Richmond, Que. The memorial will ensure that the sacrifice of the Hong Kong veterans will be remembered.

“I want to see all those names carved in stone,” said Doddridge, 87. “We sort of feel that we have been forgotten. “

“A friend of mine who lives in the Toronto area recently suffered a stroke and he can’t go now, and he was determined to go. I am afraid that there won’t be too many of us there.”

The children and grandchildren of the veterans will outnumber the surviving soldiers at the event. In a sense, the granite wall will be a memorial to them as well.

Some of the soldiers suffered serious physical and emotional problems when they came home because of their harrowing ordeal in the camps, including beatings, overwork and starvation. Some died within a few years of returning to Canada, their bodies and minds too ravaged to heal.

For those who survived, the pain never went away.

“Our wives and families, too, suffered a lot because there was alcoholism and suicides and nightmares,” said Doddridge.

“We all had nightmares and I still do. I am sure that the periods of despondency that I showed had an adverse effect on my family.”

Mae Bolger of Medicine Hat, Alta., is flying to Ottawa for the unveiling with her sister.

Her father, John Doiron, died a few years ago after suffering from alcoholism and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Bolger said he never talked about his war experiences. Speaking with the surviving veterans helps her remember her father.

“They tell us stories about our dad,” she said. “We all had that kind of dysfunction in our homes, but we forgave our fathers because of what happened to them.”

Despite the money woes, the commemorative association said the monument will be unveiled on schedule.

Paying the bills may take more time.

“It has been a struggle,” said Carol Hadley, whose father and two uncles fought with the Winnipeg Grenadiers.

“We are getting a bit of a response, but certainly not the deep pockets that we need to put it up. Maybe the nickels and dimes are going to do it.”