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The Toll of War: tensions at the intersection of remembrance and history

Posted by Katherine Ireland
31 Mars 2016 - 10:08am

The Toll of War project, which received  $488,155 in federal funding in 2015, was a joint venture between The Gregg Centre for the Study of War and Society at the University of New Brunswick (UNB), and the Saint John River society. The aim of the project is to leverage Canadian public and media attention surrounding the First World War centenary and the 75th Anniversary of the Second World War to raise awareness about the nation’s participation in both events. The two-part project consists of a commemorative bannering campaign recognizing Victoria Cross recipients chosen to represent every province and most major Canadian wartime contributions overseas from 1914 to 1945.  The second part involved developing education materials so that VC winners featured on the banners might become gateways for students and teachers to dig deeper into Canadian history.

When the project was launched it created some controversy. The primary question raised was whether an academic organization such as the Gregg Centre ought to be involved in commemorative activities over disciplinary history-oriented ones. UNB historian Nicholas Tracy referred to the project as propaganda in a CBC interview, and stated “I don’t like to see the military history of Canada reduced to the hagiography of a few heroes.” (

Well, Dr, Tracy, neither do I. As a Social Studies educator, I’m concerned by school Remembrance Day ceremonies and corresponding activities where students are encouraged to feel rather than to think, where they are read picture books about fields of poppies and given colouring pages rather than taught to remember something that is meaningful, something that will empower them to understand the world around them and make a difference in their communities. Feeding them iconic imagery without context does not teach them anything about the seriousness of war and its consequences. Fortunately for us, and for the teachers we work with, the educational materials project offers no cause for such concern.

The War and the Canadian Experience Educational Materials project is currently in development on the Gregg Centre’s Teachers’ Network website. The educational materials are a series of modules composed of inquiry-based activities to provide students with some context for the events in which the Victoria Cross winners were involved; the Normandy Campaign, Passchendaele, and Vimy Ridge are examples.  Our intention as curriculum developers was to avoid the traditional content dump; the modules are framed by the Historical Thinking Concepts, and the student activities are based on the tensions and questions that have arisen in the community of historical inquiry around these topics.

Engaging in this type of educational work is not without tension. But using commemorative activities as an entry point for addressing the events of war from an historical thinking perspective is neither propagandistic nor hagiographic. We should not be afraid to use what is most familiar to learners to encourage them to delve deeper into a topic. Teachers with little background in military history often turn to accessible educational resources developed by groups such as the Vimy Ridge Foundation whose mandate is commemorative rather than uniquely historical. Rather than denying their legitimacy, we can use these opportunities to introduce critical questions and issues in the study of war.

My hope for students and teachers who use the educational materials in their classrooms is that they will move beyond the romanticized language and imagery of heroism to consider the questions we pose that are relevant to their civic lives. When, if ever, should a military objective take priority over a humanitarian one? How much is too much to sacrifice, on either side? How much agency does a public have to influence government decision-making? How can we understand the worldviews of others who are more different from us than they are alike? Why is this important?

The study of war is complex, and teaching without glorifying or tokenizing is a constant balancing act. But we need to study war to understand why the world looks the way it looks today. Students need practice in examining socio-political contexts, understanding causes and their consequences, and posing ethically challenging questions in order to navigate the world they are inheriting. As educators we need to be brave enough to risk criticism in order to do what needs doing, doing what is truly meaningful, in the classroom.