War veterans train for school visits

World War II veteran Bill Davis is ready to visit local schools to talk about his experiences as a Canadian soldier in Europe. Based on some experiences in Dutch schools, Davis has one concern:

“In Holland, the first two questions the elementary school children ask you is ‘did you kill any Germans and how many’- and I hope that’s not going to be the same here. You’d have to be some kind of a monster to discuss your killings and how many notches on your gun. I don’t know of anybody who did that. I always say I don’t think that’s an appropriate question, ” says Davis who was an infantryman in the Black Watch battalion in the Canadian Army. He lives outside Bancroft, Ontario. 

He and 340 other vets have volunteered their time for the Memory Project, organized by the Dominion Institute. The four-year-old organization promotes Canadian history by lobbying for history in the schools and creating learning and training materials. Ontario veterans willing to share their stories about their military service and their lives before and after the war are trained for classroom visits.

Pilot project
The Memory Project is supported with an $800,000rant from the Ontario provincial government. The pilot project is tied to a change in Ontario education, which adds more Canadian history to the curriculum. In grade 10, there’s a compulsory 20th century history course. The vets are available to make one of the defining moments of the last century come alive for students.

So far, there have been three training sessions. They took place last spring in Toronto, Burlington and Barrie. The project co-coordinator says more training sessions are planned for the fall in Ottawa, Kingston and North Bay. Participants receive a preparation kit that tells them about typical classrooms today. They also get step-by-step presentation tips.

Living history
Carolyn Sevigny is a high school teacher with an undergraduate degree in history. She’s also the daughter of a British war bride who married a Canadian serviceman. She was the main trainer at the spring workshops. 

“Essentially, what I was trying to do was provide a forum to help them have a clear idea of the kinds of stories they would like to share with students and how they would like to present them. It’s allowing students to see through your own eyes for the 40 to 70 minutes you spend with them in the classroom. If they bring in photographs of themselves as young people entering the war, it allows the students to have an ability to empathize, to understand, wow, the person I’m talking to was my age once. It opens up an emotional spectrum for them that a textbook doesn’t. That’s when they’re really open and receptive to learning more about something-and even more than that, thinking about it. It’s invaluable. It’s living history told by someone who was there who can answer questions that a textbook can’t,” says Sevigny.

Canada’s role
Sid Gladstone attended the Memory Project workshop in Toronto. He’s also a member of the Jewish War Veterans of Canada and in their Speakers’ Bureau. 

“Even though I’ve been doing this for a number of years, I picked up a number of points because the Memory Project is so well orchestrated. They’ve done a great job of putting it together. I put my name down and said I’ll go anywhere in Ontario, and even further, because I feel it’s so important to talk about the role that Canada played during the war,” says Gladstone, who was an air force and army navigator in World War II.

He says he gives a wide ranging half hour presentation.

“I go into what it was like to leave my home, my family, my friends, my dog, the day after my 18th birthday, be living with strange men in the course of training to go to war. And what it was like during that period of time, the loneliness, the different environment, being in the service and being away from home. I bring along a large poster that has 25 pictures of bombers and fighters. I also have access to a model Mosquito bomber that was built in Toronto by DeHavilland. And I bring along a piece of plywood to show the kids that this was the only airplane that was made out of plywood. It was the fastest fighter bomber made,” says Gladstone, 76.

Are fascinated
“I find that the children could keep me there for weeks with their questions and discussions. The teachers are the ones who seem to be just as fascinated. They come over to me, keeping in mind that most of them are in their 20’s, 30’s-and they say they just didn’t realize what it was all about,” he says.

The Dominion Institute has organized a web site for anyone to access ideas and resources related to the Memory Project. Although the Second World War is the main part of the project, the Institute is organizing materials around the Korean War, Peacekeeping, and Women in the War.