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Using the Vimy Centenary to interest Students in Canadian History
2007 was the 90th Anniversary Commemoration of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, and thousands of Canadian high school students and their teachers went to France to take part in the commemorative ceremonies there. Frontier's Scott Miller of Gillam had already engaged his students in Visual Memorials connected with community Remembrance Day services. To mark the 90th anniversary, he took a number of his students to Vimy Ridge itself, a trip that literally transformed their understanding of how that battle and other conflicts contributed to the development of Canadian identity. See below, for a detailed report on that and other projects as well as for ideas on tour planning.
2017 will be the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, and Canadians from all over the country will again cross the ocean to participate in memorial services. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Frontier students and teachers can prepare to represent World War I soldiers, including those from Northern Manitoba, at that important event in France. For ideas on how we can get this project underway, see below.
David Robinson, a Canadian history teacher, saw the rededication of the Vimy Memorial in France as an opportunity to engage his students in what he called “experiential education.” Get each student to research and record the life of a soldier, wherever possible a relative, who died in that battle and place the resulting student projects at Vimy’s education centre. In addition to the projects, students would go to Europe to attend the commemorative ceremonies on April 9 and visit other historic military sites. The idea caught on, and more schools became involved from across the country. As a result, thousands of students from the Atlantic to the Pacific now have a greater appreciation and respect for our soldiers, including those who are involved in present battles around the world.
See the following websites for more information on Robinson’s Vimy Ridge Tour 2007, his 2008 tour to Ortona, Italy, and upcoming tours. The sites also contain ideas on how to go about planning a similar tour.
David Robinson became well known right across Canada for his exciting Vimy project, but there were others less well publicized, like Scott Miller of Gillam, who developed their own imaginative ideas for honouring our soldiers’ sacrifices. Scott knew nothing about David Robinson’s project until he and his students were in the middle of their own Vimy preparations. When Scott learned that 2007 was the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, he decided that he and his students were going to go. The first step was to involve his class in local Remembrance Day ceremonies. His students collected pictures from the Internet pertaining to the Canadian Assault on Vimy Ridge and arranged them in a Power Point presentation of about five minutes for the Gillam Remembrance Day Service in November 2006. As the pictures rolled by, a student read a speech written by the class about Vimy Ridge. This was a good start for two reasons. First, it helped students become familiar with the landscape of Vimy. At the Vimy Memorial Service in April 2007, they were sitting on a piece of ground overlooking the Arras Valley. In Scott’s words, “With the two pyramided slag hills in the distance, we all remembered the picture of two Canadian soldiers in a slit trench looking over the same land from almost the same angle.” Wow! Can you imagine the impact that must have had on Scott and his students? Secondly, the contrast between those stark black and white pictures of a treeless, pock-marked landscape contrasted with the colour, the trees, and evident life at the memorial service. That’s an important lesson in itself. In spite of sorrow and devastation, life and with it hope brings renewal.
The preparation for the 2006 Remembrance Day service was just the beginning. Scott’s class did not focus on individual soldiers, although two or three students had an interest in a particular ancestor who had served. Instead they researched Manitoba regiments from both World War I and II, with particular emphasis on those that landed on Juno Beach during the D-Day Invasion of Europe in World War II. There were three regiments: The Royal Winnipeg Rifles, Company D, (Little Black Devils) The Fort Garry Horse (10th Canadian Armoured Regiment), and The 12th Manitoba Dragoons (18th Armoured Car Regiment). The goal was to locate the graves of the Manitobans killed in the D-Day Invasion at Juno and leave a Canadian flag for each of them at the Canadian War Cemetery at Beny-sur-Mer in Normandy, France. It took some sleuthing, but eventually they were able to find information through the Commonwealth War Graves Commission where Joanne (613-992-3224) was “a wealth of information.”
Class members also contacted Tina Keeper, the MP representing Gillam in Ottawa, and she provided Canadian flags. The Office of the Manitoba Minister of Education and Citizenship supplied Manitoba pins. A student found the GPS (Global Positioning System) coordinates for the landing of the Winnipeg Rifles on D-Day, which helped Scott and his students to find the spot as they walked Juno Beach on their trip to Normandy. Scott and his son also found where the North Nova Scotia Highlanders landed as well.
As planned, Scott and his students were able to leave flags and pins at Beny-sur-Mer on the graves of the Manitobans who died at Juno Beach. They did the same at the British Cemetery outside of Vimy for the fallen Manitobans of the 44th Regiment, an act that was especially memorable to two of the students because they had family members who fought with the 44th and died at Vimy. The Gillam students also walked the trenches at Vimy Ridge, and a few, including Scott’s son, went down into the bomb craters. Even after ninety years, some of these holes are still deep enough to hide a person standing inside.
Scott Miller is to be commended for a job well done! Through the experience of researching the Manitoba regiments and visiting the actual sites where battles took place, as well as participating in the solemn memorial services at Vimy, his students have obtained a much better understanding of the meaning of Remembrance Day than most their age. At the memorial services held at the school and in the community of Gillam in November 2007, they proudly wore the commemorative medal each had received at Vimy in April. Hopefully, they will continue to attend Remembrance Day services every year in the future, and teach their children its importance, so that future generations will never forget the sacrifices their forebears made on the battlefields of Europe.
On 9 April 2007, Sierra Noble, a fifteen-year old Manitoban fiddler, had the honour of travelling to France and playing The Warrier’s Lament at the 90th Anniversary Memorial of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. Read Sierra’s inspiring account of her experiences at Vimy and gain insights concerning the potential impact of future anniversaries on the Canadian youth fortunate to be able to attend them.
Many brave soldiers from Manitoba, some of them aboriginal, have served in Canada’s armed forces. Most of them were lucky enough to return home safely, others were severely wounded, still others lost their lives. How can we honour our veterans in future memorial services? Here are a few suggestions:
2017 marks the one hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, Passchendaele, and a number of other well-known battles of World War I as well. Again, Canadians from all over the country will travel to France and Belgium to mark the occasion. Why not include among them a contingent of Frontier students to honour our soldiers, particularly those from Northern Manitoba locations, who were involved and in some instances lost their lives in those battles?
We have a number of years in which to get ready. Here are some suggestions on how we can prepare.
This is going to be an exciting and life changing adventure for our students! Let’s get started this year!
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 “Robinson believed the key to engaging students was to offer them authentic experiences that have consequences. He discovered this years ago when he helped design a program in which students at risk ran a storefront classroom. He charged the students with organizing Port Perry’s Santa Claus parade.” As Robinson explained it, “’They had to raise sponsors, book marching bands and get community floats – or face the very real consequence of disappointing thousands of children along an empty parade route. It was those consequences and the students’ efforts that reinforced their textbook learning.’ The parade was a great success and Robinson and his students – in academic and applied programs, including those at risk – have never looked back.” For more information, see Leanne Miller, “Vimy Revisited".
 Scott and his son researched the North Nova Scotia Highlanders, who also landed at June Beach, because they had an uncle who served with that regiment.
 This could entail a considerable amount of research. The personnel records of the Canadian Expeditionary Forces (CEF) that served in World War I are available to the public at Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa. They can be searched online at: Collectionscanada.ca.
Last updated: April 18, 2011