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Holding our breath: Creating a sacred space for remembrance

“Holding Our Breath” by Adrian Stimson, a large-scale installation based on the artist’s firsthand experiences and observations at a military base in Kandahar, Afghanistan. The work is informed by his conversations with soldiers, some of whom were First Nations, and his impression of daily life occurring at the military base situated in the vast Middle Eastern landscape.

It has been 13 years since my civilian deployment with the Canadian Forces Artists Program in Afghanistan. I spent two weeks total overall with the forces in Camp Mirage in the United Arab Emirates, and Kandahar and Masum Ghar in Afghanistan. It was an experience I will never forget and one that has continued to be a part of my artistic practice.

I am an Indigenous Veteran who served with the Katimavik military option in 1983. I completed my general military training in the Royal Canadian Navy junior ranks as an Able Seaman, now known as Sailor 2nd Class, at Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt, B.C. It was an amazing time that taught me a lot about myself and gave me opportunities that still resonate today. I come from a military Familial history: my father was a Captain in the Canadian Cadet Cadre Officers and my grandparents served in the Second World War, my grandmother being a wireless operator in the Second World War who married my grandfather, a Canadian soldier. My great-grandfather Captain Eric Deane, who served in both world wars, was given the Order of the British Empire by King George VI. We recently found out that he was being prepared for guerilla warfare/spy operations for the British should the Germans have invaded Great Britain. It is also important to note that I come from the Blackfoot people, who have a proud and strong history of warrior societies.

On January 22, 2010, I was notified that I was accepted into the Canadian Forces Artists Program and that I would be deployed to Afghanistan. I was very honoured and excited to have been selected, albeit with a bit of trepidation. My deployment was to take place mid-March with a lot of logistics to take place beforehand. I can remember thinking about what an opportunity it was, yet also realizing the reality of putting myself in harm’s way. My Family, friends and strangers were incredibly supportive, yet I know today that they hid their fears and held their collective breaths until I returned safe. I am eternally grateful for the kind words and support I received at that time.

The result of being deployed in Afghanistan led to two exhibitions, a solo exhibition that included drawings, installations, paintings and videos called “Holding Our Breath” and a group exhibition called “Terms of Engagement” that was curated by Christine Conley. I have written and given several talks over the years and continue to be interested in and to create work that is military-themed.

In 2017, the Canadian government announced the design competition for the National Monument to Canada’s Mission in Afghanistan. Along with Christine Leu and Alan Webb of LeuWebb Projects, and Jana Joyce and her team at the MBTW landscape architecture firm, we formed Team Stimson, of which I am the artistic design lead. Together we submitted our design and in 2022 we were selected as the winning design team for the National Monument to Canada’s Mission in Afghanistan. Team Stimson’s collective goal has been to imagine an enduring tribute to honour the commitment and sacrifice of the Canadian Armed Forces, police forces, public servants and civilians in helping to rebuild Afghanistan. This goal includes recognizing the support offered by Families, friends and communities in Canada and the people of Afghanistan. Our design journey has been a profound one of sitting with the names of the fallen daily and imagining a sacred space. We are inspired to realize this important place for reflection, remembrance, understanding and healing for all Canadians. The process is currently underway and our hope is to have it completed by 2027.

As a part of our submission for the National Monument for Canada’s Mission in Afghanistan, I relied heavily on the journals I kept while being deployed in UAE and Afghanistan.  For this article, I share some edited journal entries to give you context, insight and understanding of this complex conflict, one that sadly continues today.

March 17, 2010 — 1932 hours — Saskatoon John G. Diefenbaker International Airport
In the air, had a smooth takeoff. I read an article in the National Post about combat diplomat Ben Rowswell. The article brings home the dangers that exist, which is sobering. I am also reading the poems of Keith Douglas, British Second World War soldier, that my cousin Niki sent to me. My mind drifts to the imminent experience. Who will I meet? What will I see? How will I be? I don’t feel fear, only wonder for what lies ahead. I have a whole row of seats to myself, how cool is that!

March 19, 2010 — 0940 hours — Somewhere in the Middle East (Classified Location)
Now declassified, I can say I first arrived at Camp Mirage near Dubai, UAE.

I am back in a desert, a setting I love.
Rogers Pass,
Canuck Drive,
The sand flies Buzz,
The mourning dove flies,
Trans Canada Hwy,
To the patrol man’s gate,
Rows of barracks,
Gentle warm breeze,
A Maple leaf,
Against a palm frond,
Sparrows like home,
Chirp their morning song,
The heat rises,
The flies gather,
A Hercules plane flies over head,
An Illusion, a silence,
Personnel here and there,
Doing their duties.

There are many containers, kind of like walls dividing up the camp. It’s kind of quaint, each barrack has a little garden. A general told me that Kandahar is much different from this place. I can feel the heat building. He also mentioned that attacks at Kandahar happen usually at night.

2000 hours — There are many things going on in this camp tonight: soldiers playing bingo, watching TV, watching movies, playing games, or just hanging out. I saw the memorial plaques, which brings home the reality of being here. I can hear the call to the mosque, mixed with an American TV soap opera soundtrack, weird. I leave for Afghanistan at 0740 hours tomorrow morning.

March 20, 2010 — 0809 hours
Sitting on the tarmac, with the Hercules in front of me. The troops with their guns waiting to board. I have my vest and helmet.

0923 hours —
We just took off, very loud but smooth. The vibration goes through the body, earplugs in. There is a closeness I feel amongst the troops without knowing any of them. Together we join in this journey. I look at the sleeping faces, the cocked heads seeking that comfortable resting place, serenity, beautiful, such a juxtaposition, like sleeping children, sleeping in a pile of guns. How we are together, yet alone in our own minds, playing our lives repeatedly, our own little stories we tell ourselves, memories, and present circumstance — silence.

1421 hours — Kandahar —
 Kandahar (KAF) feels chaotic. There are concrete barriers all over. There are many countries here. Everyone I have seen has a gun. I was told that this is the most used airstrip in the world. I am told when you hear the siren, hit the ground, and stay there for two minutes until you hear all clear sirens. There is a relative feeling of safety within the compound, yet rockets do happen. I went to the boardwalk, checked out all the action, saw the Tim Hortons. You can hear the planes taking off constantly.

March 21, 2010 — 1105 hours
“In Afghanistan, Individual experience may vary” are the words the slideshow starts with. I am taught first aid emergency procedures. We watch some sobering images of IED (improvised explosive device) inflicted wounds. I’m feeling a little rattled, thinking about what and explosion does to someone physically and mentally. The shock waves make our hollow organs just bounce around. The human costs are enormous. I am going overland tomorrow.

March 22, 2010 — 0820 hours
Roll call, “Yes Corporal!” I am taught the emergency instructions for the armoured vehicle called the People Pod (Ppod). The Ppod feels like sci-fi, a box designed to withstand an IED explosion, technology at work. We load and strap into the dark space of the vehicle, a bomb sniffing dog is a long for the ride. We depart, small video screens reveal the landscape going by, air-conditioned with motion sickness bags all over, I dig in for a long morning’s drive.

1200 hours —
Arrive at forward operating base (FOB) Masum Ghar. What a ride in the Ppod! By coincidence, I am partnered with a First Nations Master Corporal Jamie Gillman from Saskatchewan. We know many people in common. I feel very fortunate to have him as a guide. On our tour, we went to various lookout points… The Taliban are all around us. We don’t really know who or where they are. I am shown other FOBs in the surrounding countryside, both Canadian and American. I hear gunshots coming from a distant camp. The Taliban take shots quite often.

March 23, 2010 — 0551 hours
Waiting for the sun to rise over the jagged peaks. A rooster crowing in the distance. A woman in a white shawl rides her bike. Cool crisp morning air. The hum of the generators behind. Voices in the town. Waking up. A bark… An Afghan army officer with a gun comes my way, checks me out. I show him my camera, “Sunrise,” I say, he smiles and goes on his way. A man in his backyard performs his morning ritual, birds calling the sun. Smoke from the homes rise. My host visits, he mentions that there was an explosion last night, we should know what it was today, he figures it was from a TIC, Troops in Contact.

0652 hours — Just heard a big blast to the northwest!

0745 hours —
I went to breakfast with the soldier I share quarters with, we talked about some of the blasts that he has experienced. “You could feel the percussion wave.” There have been several blasts around the countryside this morning. It makes you really fell that you are in a war zone. Yet the locals walk, ride their bikes or drive their carts to work. The goats are herded to the fields. Life carries on. A convoy of tanks is starting to prepare for a run. There are gunshots in the distance making an eerie echo. Wow there must be a battle going on over there, there is constant fire now.

0911 hours —
I just visited the Masum Ghar memorial on the hillside, commemorating the casualties of war. If you let in the fear, sadness and emotion, perhaps it would be too overwhelming… The sounds here are mostly mechanical: engines, generators, chopper blades, metal on metal, gravel crushing beneath tires, drills, saws, grinding mixed in with the odd gunfire and explosion in the distance. There are the natural sounds, birds of all types, voices in discussion, Afghani translators. It was beautiful to wake early and watch the sunrise while listening to the morning sounds, the call to the mosque, birds and the stir of people, to watch the sky grow slowly brighter. I was thinking about conflict. I can understand the deep-seated hatred that exists in people, yet I wonder why or how such ways flourish in a place so beautiful. Another chopper races by.

March 24, 2010 — 1950 hours
Life despite war, how do the locals cope? When I watch the village life around us, it seems calm, yet… the daily sorties and incoming rockets. I wonder how this affects their daily lives. Afghanistan has been at war forever, their fate is always in the hands of others. Life at the FOB is routine… nights are blackouts which means nothing goes on, the soldiers have their own computers with wireless access, worlds apart yet instantly connected. A soldier asked me if it was weird being around all these guns?

March 25, 2010 — 0645 hours
A blast in the distance. The northwest seems to be an active area.

0745 hours —
I leave today. The information is confidential until the last moment… I was just informed I leave at noon. My host the Master Corporal and I smudge together. I thank him for his generosity and time. We will meet again across the pond.

1240 hours —
The dust blows furiously around us. The chopper blades kick up the dust and small gravel hits us. Things move quickly. I follow the soldiers in a line, being directed by the chopper commandant as I get behind to enter. The heat from the engines blasts me. I step up onto the platform to get in. Thoughts of every Vietnam movie I have seen flashes through my mind. This is an American Chinook helicopter complete with gunners. We rush in, grab a place… We are all in and suddenly we rise. I look out the back, Masum Ghar fades into the distance. We pitch and turn over the mountain, we fly to the other base and pick up more soldiers. We fly back to Kandahar.

October 23, 2023 — 1514 hours
Postscript: It has been 13 years since this experience and as I reviewed my journal, I remembered vividly each moment. The Afghanistan conflict is a complex war that sadly is still evolving. For Canadians, we lost 158 Armed Forces personnel, a diplomat, a DND (Department of National Defence) contractor and a journalist. I have sat with these names, knowing they are more than just names. They were our daughters, our sons, our sisters, our brothers, our Family, and our friends. And they made the ultimate sacrifice for us. For this I am eternally grateful, and I will remember them always.

Thank you to the Canadian Forces Artists Program for giving me this amazing opportunity and to all the personnel who toured and kept me safe.

Iksukapi (Blackfoot for “very good”). Our common experience brings us closer.

— Adrian Stimson

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