Dr. Brian Osborne, photo courtesy of John Azar

World Heritage Tourism Research Network holds First World War Symposium in Halifax

Posted on centenarynews.com on 10 June 2014
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Dr. Jillian Davidson reports for Centenary News on a symposium held in Halifax, Canada, about how the First World War is remembered in the 21st century. It was organised by the World Heritage Tourism Research Network.

Halifax in Nova Scotia, Canada, was the final resting place for 121 Titanic victims. It was Ground Zero for the largest, pre-nuclear man-made explosion on December 6, 1917 (2,000 were killed, 9,000 injured and 199 were blinded). It was a key port of the British Empire and a departure city for Canadian troops to the Western Front. 

A city rich in history and remembrance, Halifax drew world heritage and tourism industry scholars, historians, museum curators, officers of World War One associations, members of the service and local students on Victoria Day weekend this May. All participants, except for myself, were Canadian. Some came from as far West as Vancouver, in British Columbia, which is a trip four times the distance of my own from New York.

Though coming from many different disciplines, provinces, fields of expertise and perspectives, everyone united in grappling with the relentless question of how to preserve the memory of the First World War and how to commemorate the war’s one hundred year anniversary. The two-day symposium, which was sponsored by Mount Saint Vincent University, was not just an incredible learning experience for all in attendance, it was a tour de force.

No doubt everyone approached the symposium, mindful of Jack Granatstein’s provocative article, published a month earlier with the tell-all title, “Why is Canada botching the Great War Centenary?” Herein, the author of Who Killed Canadian History? (1998) attacked his country’s Conservative government for what he sais was its shameful failure to allocate funding for World War One commemorative programs. “The Great War needs to be marked in Canada, and marked well.” This little adverb of remembering well became a favored catchphrase in Halifax.

The symposium began at a reception atop the Halifax Citadel, at the Army Museum, with opening remarks from the Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia. The Honorable J.J. Grant spoke of Canadians, and in particular, Nova Scotians, who participated in World War One on all fronts, both overseas and at home. He also recognized the part played subsequently by historians, archivists and curators and thanked the symposium’s organizers. “We rarely reflect upon the role that historians play in helping the broader citizenry to understand our collective identity and that of the various elements of the Canadian family. I believe this to be of great importance and something for which we should be grateful.” 

At the Army Museum, there followed a tour of its new exhibit, “The First World War Centennial; The Road to Vimy and Beyond.” Symbolically, at the center of this exhibition, stands a replica model of Canada’s Vimy Memorial. Canada’s Vimy Ridge Memorial in France similarly lay at the heart of the Halifax symposium. 

Photo courtesy of John Azar

The Centennial of the Great War Survey Project

The Halifax symposium began as the brainchild of the World Heritage Tourism Research Network. Founded by Dr. Wanda George and Dr. Mallika Das, both professors at Mount St. Vincent University in Halifax, together with Dr. Myriam Jansen-Verbeke from Leuven University, Belgium and Dr. Brian Osborne of Queen’s University, Ontario, the WHTRN implemented the Centennial of the Great War Survey Project in 2012. This survey sought to investigate how people around the globe, on the eve of the centennial, viewed the meaning of World War One, the significance of its commemoration and the value of its heritage sites. 

At the International Centennial Planning Conference at America’s National World War One Museum in Kansas City, in March of 2013, WHTRN presented an initial and partial review of its survey’s results. A far more detailed and comprehensive analysis of the survey’s data was the premise of the Halifax symposium.

Canadian responses to the survey

Dr. Wanda George detailed the Canadian findings of the survey. Of the 2,490 responses collected worldwide, 197 were Canadian. 64% of Canadian respondents were aged 50 or over. The survey asked participants about their areas of expertise and they were mainly lecturers, professors, academics and museum curators. 95% agreed or strongly agreed that memories of WWI should be kept alive for understanding events that changed world history. Of the possible influences on WWI remembrance, literary, artistic and cultural works were considered more important than, for example, school lessons and battlefield visits and commemorative events.

Courtesy of WHTRN

81% of Canadian respondents agreed that WWI heritage landscapes deserved to be listed as UNESCO World Heritage. 46% indicated that they were likely to visit a WWI heritage site in the near future. When asked to consider which places they were more likely to visit, Vimy Ridge was less prominent than place names like Verdun, France, and Flanders. One of the most surprising statistics was that 42% stated that they had never attended any WWI-related remembrance event or ceremony in Canada.

Canadian differences

Dr. Mallika Das built upon her colleague’s findings by comparing the Canadian responses to those from other countries. She stressed that even though the Canadian responses were highly biased to people with an interest in history, tourism and WWI, the same biases existed in every other national group. The survey did, however, suffer from oversampling in Belgium (683 in all), compared to the size of its population, but due largely to the interest there in World War One and the Network’s connections there (it was co-sponsored by the Flemish Government). The survey, by contrast, under sampled in the U.S. (It wasn’t clear why this was so.) WHTRN should have received around 900 American responses, and not just 250.

Dr. Das asked attendees at the symposium to consider which nationality they expected Canadians to resemble. Most expected Canadians to be closest to Australians, but Dr. Das proved them wrong. “We are closest to New Zealanders, the USA, the UK, Australia, France, Belgium, Switzerland and Germany -- in that order.” Das noted that for Germans, the influence of the Second World War eclipsed that of the First World War.

Compared to the Americans, Das showed that Canadians feel more strongly than any other group that memory should be kept alive to strengthen national identity. Americans are more interested in understanding the warfare of that time. Canadians are less influenced by the Internet, and learn more from schools and movies. The British learn more from literature, the arts, from heritage visits and the inheritance of memorabilia from family members. Canadians are more positive about the impact of visits to WWI sites, understandably so because it is a much bigger deal for Canadians to go to France or Belgium than it is for the British. For Canadian men, much more so than for women, visiting a First World War site was a primary or secondary motive for travel.

Building upon the survey

Much of the rest of the symposium’s first day was spent in breakout sessions, brainstorming ideas on what were key Canadian commemorative issues and how to build upon the WHTRN’s survey project. Much of these discussions were facilitated by Geoffrey Bird, of Royal Roads University in Vancouver, who had just hosted, on April 30th, a similar forum on tourism, heritage and remembrance: “British Columbia Remembers the First World War: 2014-2018.” 

There emerged a consensus among the symposium participants that the survey needed to address Canada’s regional differences. Only 4 Canadians had answered the survey in French. Considering that Quebec teaches WWI less as a nation-building event than the rest of Canada, it was argued that this imbalance needed to be redressed. 

The home front did not feature in the survey. “It is buried in history writing to a large extent,” reflected Brent Wilson of the Gregg Centre for the Study of War and Society at the University of New Brunswick. “Canada’s story” needs to take into account the different experiences of rural and urban communities.

The plurality of Canada’s roles also needs to include the less familiar stories of its ethnic minorities, such as the Canadian Chinese and the Ukrainian Canadian interns. Two keynote addresses during the symposium addressed two aspects of Canada’s multi-layered war experience: Sgt. Philip Safire of the Canadian Armed Forces spoke of “Insights on the contribution of the Black community to WWI” and Dr. Don Julien, Executive Director of The Confederacy of Mainland Mi’kmaq, detailed “The involvement of Mi’kmaq men during the First World War, and the extra sacrifices they endured in volunteering for the Canadian Armed Forces.”

Further recommendations were made that questions, which assess visits to war sites, be broken down into pre-visit and post-visit questions and that questions, which assess educational influences, be more specialized, asking what books, films and documentaries were important and that questions assessing the impact of a book or film such as War Horse also take into account the before and after. 

Dr. Brian Osborne, in his presentation on “Constructing memories of the Great War: Images and Reflections” differentiated between landscapes (the representations of places) and inscapes (the evolution of artistic, literary and personal encounters with places). Playfully, Dr. Osborne tested his Halifax audience, in the manner he is accustomed to do with the students of his classes. He sang the first line of World War One songs, and waited for attendees of the symposium to continue them. “Keep the home…” he sang, and “It’s a long way…” I’m not sure that he was too impressed with his colleagues!

Youth perspectives

The youth session on the second day of the symposium provided the perfect opportunity to see what World War One history and heritage sites meant for Canadian students, as opposed to academics. Fittingly, John Boileau chaired this fascinating panel. Not only is John Boileau a retired colonel of the Canadian Army, a Director of the Royal Nova Scotia International Tattoo and an Honorary Lieutenant Colonel of the Halifax Rifles. He is also a prolific historian and the author of, among his ten books, Old Enough to Fight: Canada’s Boy Soldiers in the First World War.

Photo courtesy of John Azar

The speakers, who presented “Youth Perspectives on Knowing and Remembering,” were Cadet Kaleb Perry, a Vimy Foundation Scholar, Katherine Porter, a participant of the First World War Study Tour, March 2014 and Liam Caswell, a history student at the host Mt. Saint Vincent University and a WWI re-enactor. At opposite ends of the table and spectrum sat Kaleb in his army cadet uniform and Liam in his World War One uniform. Kaleb spoke of national pride, of holding his head up high as a Canadian, determined to keep the memory of Vimy alive. Coincidentally the middle figure, Katherine spoke about the personal stories she researched before her visit about five soldiers from her community. To the left in both senses, Liam -- or, as he introduced himself in character as Edmund Horn, a name he took from the Menin Gate – spoke to educate the public of the stories of those who fought. “Everyone’s story is integral to the remembrance. Our centennial commemoration should stray from nationalism.” Liam was avowedly anti-war – “The First World War was a tragedy and we need to avoid such calamities in the future.” 

Dr. Wanda George asked the panel to address the question of education in schools. Kaleb insisted that he had not learned anything in school, but had pursued his interests on his own. It was not a part of the curriculum, which covered explorers, colonial history and not wars (perhaps because he was from the French part of Halifax.) Katherine explained that she is in grade 11 and only needs to take one Canadian history credit and one global to graduate. “It isn’t enough to understand and respect Remembrance Day.” Liam, who was in the unique position to compare high school with collegiate education, complained that Canadians in high school do not learn anything outside of Canada. “There isn’t enough global education. There should be a class dedicated to the twentieth century. That’s the reform, which needs to be made. Who killed Canadian history in high schools? disposes of World War One in one sentence about not letting women fight in the trenches!”

At the close of this session, each youth panelist was invited to give a one-word reason why we remember. “Sacrifice” Kaleb, from his Canadian national vantage point, proposed; “family” Katherine, from her communal or personal vantage point, proposed and “change” Liam, from his global vantage point, proposed. And what was your favorite place? Kaleb’s was Vimy Ridge, Katherine’s was the Flanders Field Museum and Liam’s was the fact that wherever you go in London, you see WWI plaques. It was remarkable to see how consistent to his or her outlook each student remained.

Beyond the youth panel, the Symposium continued on its second day to present and discuss different WWI centenary commemorative activities and projects. One, which pertained to youth remembrance, was the Youth Poster Exhibit. The Royal Canadian Legion sponsors an annual “Lest We Forget” art and writing contest for four divisions of grades 1 through 12.  Mr Roy Lynk, former president of the Habitant Branch #73, curated an impressive display of winners from his local branch. 

Peter Broznitsky, president of The Western Front Association, Pacific Coast Branch, gave a presentation on “When Their Names are No Longer Spoken, Are They Forgotten?” John Azar, President of the CEF100 in Victoria, Ottawa, addressed the mechanics and problems that face institutions in their endeavor to inspire public participation in centennial commemorative activities. 

Zenon Andrusyszyn, founder of Canadigm, presented the efforts and results of his Souterraine Impressions Project to preserve, document, scan and duplicate the carvings drawn by Canadian soldiers in the caves near Vimy Ridge. From April 2015 on, Canadigm will bring to light reproductions of these carvings and recreate the underground Vimy experience in a Canada-wide exhibit. As Dr. Brian Osborne summed up the achievements of the symposium: “the presentation of the Souterraine project was a wonderful metaphor for what we are doing, for we are digging into our past and discovering insights and facts and interpreting it. It is a wonderful metaphor.”

Returning to Vimy Ridge

Dr. Tim Cook, of the Canadian War Museum, Ottawa, gave a magisterial keynote lecture at the closing dinner of the symposium, entitled “The Return to Vimy: Pilgrims, Veterans and Tourists Visiting the Western Front Battlefields, 1936-2017.” Herein, he posed the vital question: how did Canadians go from a four-day battle, which killed 10,602 of their men in April 1917, to the unveiling ceremony in 2007 of the $20 million refurbished Vimy memorial, with PM Stephen Harper declaring that every nation has a creation story and ours is Vimy, with thousands of young Canadians, clad in hats and t-shirts proclaiming “Vimy – Birth of the Nation” and cheering madly as if they were at a hockey game?

Dr. Cook disentangled truth from myth. Conveniently, the 50,000 British troops at the Battle of Vimy rarely figure in Canada’s recounting. The victory, often attributed to the Canadian Sir Arthur Currie, actually belonged to Englishman Sir Julian Byng. “Wishful thinking is not history,” cautioned Tim Cook. Vimy marked an important beginning to the end of the war, but the war did not end with a bang on April 12, 1917, but more with a whimper nineteen months later.

Starting as early as 1919, it was not the Canadians, but the British and the French who returned to Vimy. The Canadians were too far away. Even in 2007, Canadians comprised only 3% of the annual visitors to Vimy. A recent poll on what Vimy means to Canadians revealed that only 30% of Canadians could identify what Vimy was in a multiple choice form of question. If 70% of Canadians cannot identify to which war Vimy belongs and “If 97% of the visitors to Vimy are other people, what is Vimy to us as a symbol? It may be less about a mirror reflecting back to us; … it may be Canada’s face to Western Europe.”
On a personal note, back in NY, I have barely stopped talking about what was for me an eye-opener at Halifax: the pervasive power of Vimy as an icon to Canadians. My conversations, largely with teachers, journalists and students, have met with, at best, blank expressions or confessions of ignorance: “What’s Vimy?” I have been asked repeatedly. One journalist incredulously scoffed back at me, saying that Canadians in Toronto also claim that the Blue Jays are a baseball team on a par with the likes of the Yankees and Red Sox. The point, of course, being that no one in America would agree! An interesting survey might well ask what, if anything, does Vimy mean to Americans. How, I wonder, might that affect Tim Cook’s argument or does it just prove that however non-global history education in Canada might be, there is one country where it is even less global?

At the close of the Symposium, Canadian country singer, Terry Kelly, educated at the Halifax School for the Blind, moved everyone with a stirring musical tribute to veterans. In particular, his multi-media performance of “A Pittance of Time” touched everyone. I recommend that you look Terry Kelly up on YouTube and watch the video of this song. Trust me that it’s worth it: to quote Kelly, well in the spirit of the Halifax Symposium, “Lest we forget.”

 © Centenary Digital Ltd & Author