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Remembering war a complicated act

Geoffrey Bird, an associate professor at Royal Roads University, stands next to a war memorial near Hatley Castle. Those planning to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War should be mindful of sensitivities of minorities and other groups around wartime actions, he says. - Kyle Wells/News staff
Geoffrey Bird, an associate professor at Royal Roads University, stands next to a war memorial near Hatley Castle. Those planning to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War should be mindful of sensitivities of minorities and other groups around wartime actions, he says.
— image credit: Kyle Wells/News staff

Since the end of the First World War in 1918, debates have been waged on how best to commemorate the “war to end all wars.”

With the 100th anniversary of the start of the war coming up July 28, communities and organizations in Canada and around the world are facing questions of how to mark the occasion.

Wednesday at Royal Roads University, a forum is helping local parties discuss and plan approaches and opportunities for commemorating the war throughout the centenary period of 2014 to 2018.

“The idea is just to talk about some of theses controversies and how they should be handled,” said Geoffrey Bird, an associate professor in tourism and hospitality management at RRU and organizer of the event.

There is much to consider behind every decision. How do you include voices from all the minorities and groups involved in the war? How do you address the complexity of the situation? How do you commemorate death and sacrifice without glorifying war?

They’re all questions those who plan commemoration events need to ask, said Bird, a former guide at Vimy Ridge. “We often talk about remembrance and remembering, but we aren’t witnesses to it. So when we remember, in terms of war, it’s about learning, imagining and reflecting.

“Part of the question with remembrance is to make it relevant for the present generation, (such as) why should we remember?”

Matthew Payne, acting site manager at Fort Rodd Hill, is attending the forum to help the national historic site develop its own approach to the centenary. The fort’s focus will be on education, he said, since most people today know very little about this long since past war.

Staff plan to use social media to put out information on the fort’s role in the war and Victoria at the time. The campaign will centre on written correspondence between two brothers fighting overseas and their sister in Victoria.

“Considering the age of the boys who went overseas and the roles women played at home, it’s a really powerful insight into what life was like 100 years ago,” Payne said. “We’re charged with the telling of Canada’s story, and Canada’s participation in the First World War was a real turning point in this country’s history.”

Bird agrees with the spirit of using commemoration as an opportunity to reflect on how the conflict influenced and changed the home front too, even in controversial ways.

“There’s a lot of effort focused on the battlefields and commemorating Vimy Ridge and Ypres and those kinds of things, which are very important,” he said. “But there’s also this other story, which is how the war affected British Columbia.”

With about 50,000 men from the province going overseas to fight, the makeup of B.C. communities, particularly small towns, changed significantly. Many men died or came home wounded and were no longer able to support the industries these towns were built on.

“Ghost towns resulted from this great exodus,” Bird said. “So B.C. went through quite a hard time economically during the war years.”

The internment of Japanese citizens in camps during the Second World War is common knowledge, but other groups were interned in B.C. (including in Nanaimo) and elsewhere during the First World War, particularly Ukrainian citizens.

William Head in Metchosin was used as a staging point and quarantine for Chinese citizens en route to Europe to work as labourers behind the front lines as members of the Chinese Labour Corps. Those workers, about 50,000 of them, were often mistreated and their service remained forgotten for decades.

These facts can make commemorating the war complicated business.

On the other hand, the war contributed to social advances at home. The departure of so many men led to a greater role for women, who often filled jobs left empty. The scenario partly led to women being granted the right to vote in B.C. in 1917, and federally by the end of the war (the change did not include First Nations, Asians or women of other racial minorities).

Bird’s own advice to municipalities and organizations looking to commemorate the occasion is to make remembering honest, relevant, engaging and meaningful. He likes the idea of creating and dedicating new parks to mark the occasion, or planting “trees of honour” in remembrance of the fallen, creating life from tragedy.

And no matter what ceremonies or commemorations are organized or erected, he said, their importance also always comes down to the individual and how they choose to participate.

“Each of us are responsible for how we remember and what we do to remember; the acts that we engage in. Remembrance isn’t a passive act. It’s an act that involves debate and discussion.”

kwells@goldstreamgazette.com

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