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The Lest We Forget Project
March 28, 2012

In this episode we'll examine the Lest We Forget project. Since 2001, Library and Archives Canada has been supporting the initiative to connect youth to Canada's history by making military service files available in person and online. Each year, on Remembrance Day, we reflect on the sacrifices made by our veterans in order to preserve our values and freedoms. What better way to acknowledge the sacrifices of these men and women than to bring their stories to life. In this episode we speak with Project Manager Kyle Browness about the project, its expansion across the country and how teachers, students and Canadians alike can participate.

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Podcast Transcript

The Lest We Forget Project

Angèle Alain: Welcome to Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage. I'm your host, Angèle Alain. Join us as we showcase treasures from our vaults; guide you through our many services; and introduce you to the people who acquire, safeguard and make known Canada's documentary heritage.

Most Canadians are familiar with Canada's involvement in the First and Second World Wars, but did you know that many of these Canadian military personnel files are available to the public? Each year on Remembrance Day, Canadians reflect on the sacrifices made by our veterans in order to preserve our values and freedoms. What better way to acknowledge the sacrifices of these men and women than to breathe life into the stories of those who have long since passed. Military files provide Canadians with an intimate account of the war experience from the perspective of one individual, reminding us of the human cost of war.

Since 2001, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has been working in cooperation with Lest We Forget project founder Blake Seward. This project provides youth with the opportunity to examine Canada's military files from both the First and Second World Wars. The Lest We Forget project connects youth to Canada's military history, allowing them to revive and bring to life the long-forgotten stories of our veterans.

Today we are talking with Project Manager Kyle Browness. He will talk to us about the project, its pan-Canadian expansion and how teachers, students and Canadians can participate. Hi Kyle.

Kyle Browness: Hi.

AA: Thanks so much for joining us today.

KB: Oh, no problem.

AA: Can you tell us what the Lest We Forget project is all about?

KB: Well you know the Lest We Forget project is definitely a unique experience. Basically, I mean, high school students and their teachers are looking at primary-source documents, and what we're talking about here are military service records at LAC. And they're basically exploring the lives of Canadian soldiers and nurses who were involved in either the First World War, or killed in action in the Second World War. And these workshops are, of course, open to all ages, but usually grades 10 to 12, and you know it's really great because we have workshops that are across the country right now and we have a national network of partners. So there are a lot of options for teachers.

AA: And, what has been your involvement in the project?

KB: Well, when I started I was working on developing the collaborations with some of our partners, so we have collaborations with the Canadian War Museum and with public libraries across Canada.

AA: So you've really seen how the project has expanded over the years?

KB: Yeah, it's been really quite amazing. I know the project started back in 2001 and at the time we were doing a lot of the workshops here at LAC, but you know there was a lot of Canadians who just couldn't make the trek to Ottawa. We found that also those that did come to Ottawa, a lot of them were joining their workshops here with a visit to the Canadian War Museum, and we said why don't we combine our workshop with what they were doing at the war museum and have the workshops there. So that's what we did. We set up collaboration with the Canadian War Museum. We can have the workshops there and they can experience the soldier files with the artifacts from those wars.

AA: That sounds like a great idea, and you also mentioned working with public libraries?

KB: So we also set up collaborations with public libraries and we started with four, and we really wanted to go national. We had collaborations with public libraries in British Columbia, Ontario, and Manitoba. And in the second year of our collaboration and expansion I guess, we went to Nova Scotia and Alberta and some more in Ontario and British Columbia. And it was really exciting because you could have teachers coming to the public libraries to experience the lives of soldiers in their local communities, so they could really make a connection with those members.

AA: So the project has really taken a pan-Canadian approach, it has spread out hasn't it?

KB: Yeah exactly. It's really exciting, because I mean, the project is really about experiencing the lives of the soldiers, and to be able to experience that first hand, for somebody you know, living in your own community, it's really touching for a lot of people. And the other interesting thing is that, a lot of the soldiers, I mean they were only 18 years old, some of them snuck in when they were 16 and 17, and they made major sacrifices. And they are about the same age as the students who are researching them.

AA: Here's Blake Seward, founder of the Lest We Forget project and recipient of numerous awards, including the Governor General's Award for Excellence in Teaching Canadian History. Blake speaks to us about the conception of the project and its effect on those who participate.

Blake Seward: I was actually at a family reunion and my relative had asked me about my great-uncle, and what I thought about him because he knew that I was a history teacher, and I didn't know anything about my great-uncle. And, so I was a little bit miffed at the idea that I didn't know anything about one of my relatives and I decided to do something about it. And as I was pouring through the military file of my great-uncle I came to the slow discovery that this would be something that would be a fascinating endeavour for students to do, going through primary documents to unravel the mystery of soldiers who could be found on cenotaphs. As I started to do more and more research on my great-uncle, I just went down to my cenotaph and took the names off of the cenotaph and then I gave each one of the students in my Grade 10 history class a name off of the cenotaph. And we ordered the files, and at that time, back in 2001, we actually had to come in to Library and Archives [Canada] here on Wellington and we had the conference room booked, and we were the first high school class to actually come in and look at the military files of these soldiers that were from the cenotaph in Smiths Falls. And, the result was one that, the students enjoyed the whole exercise of trying to unravel the mystery, and trying to make sense of what they were seeing inside these files and from that experience there was more and more interest from Library and Archives [Canada] in trying to create something that could be used by schools across the country. That's one of the great secrets of Library and Archives [Canada], I've always been a believer that all roads lead to the archives, in the sense that there are such a vast number of collections that are here that have such tremendous educational value. To allow young people to actually come in and play around with these files, in a respectful manner, but to try to piece everything together. Take a soldier who has been committed to history, their memory is gone, so they've moved from memory to history. And it's to bring them back from history, to bring them back to life. Let young people explore, create, develop the biography so that the person, the soldier becomes again, a part of our living memory.

AA: So students have the opportunity to write these soldiers' biographies, like an essay?

BS: For myself, I like the idea of students writing the essay, making sure that everything was to a standard where the essays could be used for publication. And you are writing a chapter of history that, for the most part, has probably been long forgotten by the community, and for that matter, by the country.

AA: Kyle, can you tell us what Library and Archives Canada is doing to make these military files more accessible?

KB: Well you know, LAC has a great initiative underway right now called digitization on demand, and I think this is really fantastic. Basically if someone orders a file that is not already available online, this digitized file then becomes a part of the national collection on the website. And of course, digitization helps with both preservation and access. So a big push was digitizing a lot of the files for the First World War and the Second World War, and right now we have, it's quite amazing actually, we have over 5,000 files for the First World War and over 500 for the Second World War, for those killed in action. I should also mention that we are in the process of digitizing all 44,000 service files for soldiers killed in action in the Second World War, and that is pretty amazing because, for example, some of these files are hundreds and hundreds of pages. So it's a really great resource for the students and for the teachers.

AA: Here's Kaitlin Normandin a personnel records clerk at Library and Archives Canada. She speaks to us about the wealth of information to be found in these files and why it is important to us today.

Kaitlin Normandin: The scope is astounding, because in school you learn about the casualties that Canada suffered in the Second World War, and it's one thing to hear those numbers, but it's an entirely different matter because you realize there is a person behind those numbers, who had a home and a family and hobbies, and a distinct personality. When you're reading these files you feel a very deep connection with these people, it feels as if you almost know them, they could be somebody that you know, or people that you like or would hang out with. And it's different for each of my co-workers, what sort of gets to us, and we sort of built up a thick-skin to some of it otherwise you'd just go crazy. For instance, one of my co-workers has a little boy and so the letters from mothers really hit hard, and for me its mothers and fathers who never knew what happened to their sons, they just went missing, and no bodies were recovered. And the parents just don't accept that their sons are gone, and they still believe they are alive. And that always upsets me.

AA: I see that you brought a letter with you; can you tell us a bit about that letter?

KN: Sure, it's from a German fighter pilot, written to the family of a man that was shot down by his [the German's] wing-mate. And it was written to the family after the war in 1947.

[Begins reading letter] 26th of March, 1947

To the Assistant Editor,

Wing Commander, R.A.F.V.R

I must first apologize for writing in German, but my school days English is not good enough to tell you all I want to say. This letter comes from my heart and I can see no other way of sending you some information which will certainly be of interest to you and will also perhaps bring a little pleasure to the people whom it concerns. Please be so kind therefore to have this letter translated and read it. I should naturally be glad of an answer.

Tom Thompson: [Fades to male voice reading from letter] On 20th March, 1943, between 15:23 and 15:45 hours I was engaged in air combat with an R.A.F. fighter off the South coast of Sicily and I have never been able to forget it. My opponent was a remarkably brave man and I experienced no feeling of triumph afterwards, but as though I had slain a friend. I will tell you how it happened. At the time I was stationed with my squadron at San Pietro, Sicily. I was a young lieutenant and had carried out my first operational flight in the autumn of 1942 in Africa. I was reckoned as an "old hand" after I had taken part in the Africa Campaign and I always flew in a ME 109 G, with a friend of my boyhood whom I had encountered in Africa. He too was a lieutenant and was 21 and I was 22. On the day in question the alert was given. The weather was very bad. We both took off at 15:23 hours and soon reached the coast and were glad to be out of the bad weather. We climbed higher and after five minutes flying time we saw below us, at a height of about 500 to 300 metres a single Spitfire, who paid no attention to us. We saw at once that the pilot was circling above an air-sea rescue post, two to three kilometres from the enemy coast at this low altitude. Apparently one of his formations had crashed in the sea. Bernd attacked at once but the Spitfire got away so quickly that the attack was fruitless. I should explain that Bernd had already twenty-seven confirmed "kills" to his credit and was on the way to become a great "Ace". The engagement went on like this for some time. I did not fire at the Spitfire, but covered my friend from the rear. The renowned manoeuvreability of the Spitfire stood our unknown enemy in good stead. He dodged every attack cleverly, constantly remaining fifty to one hundred metres below us, following all our twists and dodges, and we put up a fine show. He did not think of drawing away and hiding himself in the clouds which hung like a thick curtain before the coast, only one to two kilometres away. Fifteen minutes passed and we had received a few hits, but we could not catch up with him. The cockpit was hot for we were flying with engines all out, and the pitiless sun hurt our eyes and we were tired. We were ready to break off the engagement as our fuel was getting short and we were wondering how we should get back to base; just at this moment however, the Spitfire managed to get behind us and we realized what we were up against. This was no novice but a first-rate man who meant to settle this fight one way or the other. In the meantime we had gradually drawn closer to the clouds. The Spitfire was at the same altitude and had a lead of 500 to 600 metres. Now we thought something will happen. The Spitfire could have vanished in the cloud, but he did not!! Suddenly he came towards us, with the evident intention of shooting one of us down. A clever dodge, I was so surprised that I forgot to fire, but Bernd fired a fraction of a second before the Spitfire pilot who flew clean into the hail of fire and was almost certainly hit at once. The Spitfire passed fifty metres away from me and I saw it breaking up, out of control it plunged into the sea without catching fire. The waves rose high, like a memorial which the unknown man himself erected as a token of parting with life, then they swirled together and closed the gap made by the aircraft. Just afterwards we flew over the point of crash at the height of only a few metres, but no trace could be seen. Quiet and exhausted we flew back to base after an unforgettable experience. Who could this man have been? How old was he? What did he look like? When Bernd climbed out of his aircraft he was very quiet and said little, only "Come Heinz, get ready quickly, they will try to recover him, we shall have to take off again very soon". At the end of ten minutes we were in the air again and had to deal with our enemy's comrades (eight to ten Spitfires). It was clear that they were missing their outstanding leader. We were under heavy fire, but we shot two down. War had its will and we lived only from day to day. Years have passed and I have never forgotten this man. Who mourned for him? What has become of Bernd? On the second of May of the same year, after thirty-five air victories he was shot down into the Mediterranean and his body lies in the same grave as that of his most valiant opponent. That was his hardest and greatest fight. I was shot down four days before Bernd and was four days in the Mediterranean. I had to continue the fight on different fronts and was shot down more than once and shot others down. I was one of the few who returned home; we two, Bernd and I were Austrians, but we were soldiers and did our duty. We should so much have liked to be friends with you and flown with you. Now to my request, will you try to find out who this man was and will you drop this belated wreath from his former opponent on his watery grave? I suppose that the R.A.F. presumes that this airman is missing, for I am the only witness of this combat who is still alive. Will you be so kind as to send on this letter to his parents or relations and friends; perhaps one of the men of the R.A.F. who was in this unit is still alive? I should be so glad if my wish could be fulfilled. I should not mind if my letter was published.

I hope you will understand me as an airman and not take this letter amiss. I am not trying to curry favour and make myself important; my wish is prompted by my feelings.

In conclusion, I should be glad of an answer and I hope that those who loved this outstanding pilot have, by my letter, been freed from a painful uncertainty. He was vanquished by no unworthy foe, for Bernd too was a wonderful person, there are few of his equals in the world. This however is poor comfort. The grief for our opponent will be none the less bitter.

Signed, Heinz

KN: For a lot of people they are trying to figure out a way to reconcile the person they were during the war with the person that they were going to be for the rest of their life, and how they were going to deal with those experiences.

AA: And I'm guessing writing a letter like this is probably something that would help.

KN: And, I think it would bring closure to that person and maybe to that person's family.

BS: I think many historians would agree that there are few events that have shaped a nation as much as the Second World War and the Great War. So these events that have shaped our nation need to be constantly pushed out into the public, so that the public understands how that shaping occurred. And again it takes shape in different ways across the country, and I think the more that the students are actually exposed to the Second World War files, the more they actually develop the significance, an understanding of historical significance and historical perspective—more from a national perspective which I would argue would make it from a citizenship point of view a fairly essential piece to our Canadian history—and we want active citizenship and active citizenship comes from understanding our root system, and our root system is based on things that shape our nation. Developing an idea of value systems and being able to compare and contrast value systems from generations past to current value systems and understanding why some values are the same and why some values are different. And I think it is about the perspective piece, I think that that is probably the most important thing that comes out of all of this, and that is you only have a perspective if you can compare and contrast. And perspective actually allows us to, from a Canadian history point of view, reach to the past and apply it to the present, or apply what is in the present and reach to the past to create an understanding for that. And I think that sifting through those Second World War files is one of the ways in which we can do it, we can also do it with many other of the collections that are held here.

So one of the interesting things that have happened along the whole Lest We Forget journey has been that we were being interviewed by Mary Lou Findley on As It Happens [the CBC radio program], and the student Sierra was talking to Mary-Lou about the soldier she was researching, Stephen Arthur Mansfield, and how she was having a difficult time finding any information, couldn't seem to find any relatives and things like that. And the only thing we really had to go by was a really awkwardly shaped photograph. It was four inches wide by eleven inches long, and it was the only thing we really had as our starting point. The day after we had been interviewed on As It Happens, I got a phone call in my classroom, and the office secretary said there was some guy on the phone who called, so I took the call, and he was on the road using his cell phone, back in the early days of cell phones, and he said, "I was listening to As It Happens, I'm on my way from Montreal, that's my great-uncle, I know nothing about him, I need to talk to the student". So we made an arrangement at the high school for a room to be set aside, and the man arrived and all he brought in was a little file folder and sat down, and for an hour and a half this gentlemen and Sierra(the student) had a very emotional interview, lots of tears. They were trying to piece things together, and inside the folder at the end of it he opened it up and it was the other half of the photograph. It was their wedding photo. That's why the photo was so awkward. When he had died seven days before the end of the war, November 4, 1918, as a newlywed, she had ripped the photo, and she moves to Montreal, and leaves his half in Smiths Falls, and the reason why the photo was so awkward was that he was actually showcasing his wedding ring. And so, it was one of those moments—when we pieced the two halves together, and they fit perfectly. So all that we did, we took a scan of the two pieces, now put together, and gave him the other half of the photograph. And he was so thankful that a grade ten, 15-year-old student had done this. And for him, it just opened up all kinds of doors.

KN: I think it's important that these things be made available to the public, because we say every year on Remembrance Day that we need to remember the sacrifice that was made and that we should be eternally grateful for it but I think that people don't really know what that means. And you don't really know until you read about these individuals and realize there was a very human cost to the Second World War and Canada's involvement in that. And I think that, it should be required reading for people, especially if we are in a time of conflict, because you realize that, it wasn't just with their death, it may have been the death of their own hopes and dreams and what they planned to do with their lives, but I mean to a certain extent there was a fallout that continues today, I mean their families still live on, people grew up without fathers, husbands never came home, they lost their older brother or sister. The Second World War, its impact still continues today, there is a hole there that is never going to be filled.

AA: So Kyle, I'm curious, if I'm a teacher in Winnipeg and I have a high school class and I want to participate in this project, what do I do? Where do I go? How do I start?

KB: That's a good question, and you know there are a lot of options out there for teachers, but I think the easiest thing to do is first check out our website. So go to our Lest We Forget website at Library and Archives Canada, and from there, there are a lot of resources to choose from. For example, there are a lot of digital files available for free so if they just want to start out, check out the files and see what is there, they can do that right away. If they want to participate in a workshop with one of our partners such as the Canadian War Museum, or a public library then we can direct them to one of our partners. And if they just want to do the workshop themselves independently in their own classroom, they can do that as well.

AA: This project can really be done independently?

KB: There are a number of digital files that they can download right away; there is also a whole trainer package that you can download for free which includes how-to videos on how to understand the files, there is a trainer guide and a number of student handbooks, so it's fantastic.

AA: That's a lot of great resources if I'm a teacher.

KB: Yeah, and it's all free.

AA: That's great, well thanks a lot Kyle for being here today and talking to us about the Lest We Forget project.

KB: Well, thank you.

AA: For people who are interested in the Lest We Forget project or consulting military files from both the First and Second World Wars, please visit our website at www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/cenotaph.

Thank you for joining us. I'm your host, Angèle Alain, and you've been listening to Discover Library and Archives Canada-where Canadian history, literature and culture await you. A special thanks to our guests today, Kyle Browness, Blake Seward, and Kaitlin Normandin.

For more information about our podcast, or if you have questions, comments or suggestions, please visit us at www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/podcasts.

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Related Links:

Lest We Forget Project
Second World War Service Files
Soldiers of the First World War
Canada at War

Email questions and feedback to: podcast@bac-lac.gc.ca