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The vigil at Bishop Strachan School in Toronto. (Edwin D. Burnett)
The vigil at Bishop Strachan School in Toronto. (Edwin D. Burnett)

J.D.M. Stewart

A Remembrance Day union in light between the living and the dead Add to ...

More than 150 schools across Canada have been participating in the National Schools Vigil, which culminates on Remembrance Day. For the past week, students have witnessed the names of Canada's First World War dead projected in light. The vigil has been taking place simultaneously with one in Ypres, Belgium, near Cloth Hall, the famous cathedral nearly destroyed in the Great War.

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There are lessons in the very existence of this memorial in light. For one, participating in a national exercise validates what students are learning in the classroom. This kind of collective engagement turns students into citizens of history and will pay dividends down the road for a country that struggles to place history in the spotlight.

What is also noteworthy about the vigil is that its genesis comes from outside educational institutions. It originated in 2008 from actor and director R.H. Thomson and lighting designer Martin Conboy. Through funds provided by Veterans Affairs Canada and support from the International Churchill Society Canada and the Churchill Society for the Advancement of Parliamentary Democracy, the idea of a school vigil moved forward.

So, while schools deserve credit for joining in impressive numbers, it seems the effort to preserve and promote the important stories of our past is increasingly coming from diverse sources.

Another great example is the Historica-Dominion Institute, which runs its highly successful Memory Project, dedicated to telling the story of Canada in the Second World War and subsequent conflicts.

To some degree, this is alarming because it means these organizations are moving into a vacuum created by anemic history requirements at the provincial level. Sooner or later, those governments will have to take a stand: They either favour teaching kids about Canadian history, or they don't. Only four provinces currently require high-school students to take a history course before graduating.

History teachers ought to take note of the dynamic learning opportunities that can be created by involving kids in an exciting project. Parents, equally, might ask themselves this: How is my child being taught Canadian history? Creative and meaningful ways are needed to educate our students effectively, and this school vigil is a wonderful example.

Even beyond the classroom, the existence of the vigil is instructive. Ninety-two years after the end of the First World War, these names are coming back to life as they are projected on screens, walls, bricks and stone. This memorial in light tells us that part of our identity is tied to those who fell at Passchendaele, the Somme, Vimy or Ypres.

And the irony of casting their names in light is cause for reflection. Our traditional way of preserving names in memory is by carving them in stone. But as I've told my students, one of the best ways to forget about something is to build a monument to it - a "stonecutter's irony, 'Their Name Liveth For Evermore,' " in the words of Toronto poet Don Coles.

In this particular act of remembrance, however, there is a lasting spirit in its ephemeral nature. As the thousands of names scrolled by this week, they were remarked on, gazed on, spoken aloud, written down, shared and photographed. They caused sighs, tears, giggles, awe and pursed lips.

There has been a union in light between the living and the dead, a special one for Canada as it observes Remembrance Day in 2010. Somewhere down the line, we'll need those students to keep the memory alive for another generation.

J.D.M. Stewart teaches Canadian history at Bishop Strachan School in Toronto.

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