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A local history buff’s annual Walk to Remember project brings dead soldiers’ stories to life

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A piper plays in front of a cenotaph showing the names of fallen Second World War soldiers prior to a Remembrance Day ceremony in Montreal West, Quebec, on Nov. 6, 2022.CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/The Globe and Mail

As strains of Vera Lynn singing The White Cliffs of Dover play over a loudspeaker, people gather at the cenotaph for an early Remembrance Day ceremony in Montreal West. A few of them walk over to read the names of the 50 men who died in action during the Second World War: young men who played in these streets, went to local schools, and attended church in the community of 3,500. In that war, Montreal West saw 549 local men volunteer for active service.

Now a tight-knit community of 5,000, the Montreal suburb has found a way to pay tribute to the men who gave their lives, putting faces and stories to names otherwise just etched in stone.

Each year, Dr. Robert Drummond leads a guided tour to visit some of these men – to see their homes and tell their stories. At the home where veteran Lloyd George Higginson once lived, Jack St. Laurent sits on the driveway with his five-year-old daughter, Annika. They listen as Mr. Drummond tells stories of a man whose name is engraved in the basement of their home. Mr. St. Laurent says he knew the man’s name but not his history. He calls Mr. Drummond’s Walk to Remember event “a beautiful piece of history kept together through oral tradition.”

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To research the local men who lost their lives, Mr. Drummond made monthly trips to Ottawa to visit the National Veteran’s archives. His findings have been put into a tour booklet along with a map of the area.

Of the 50 men named on the cenotaph for the Second World War, Mr. Drummond has found and confirmed the whereabouts and history of 47. (The last three have eluded him, but he keeps looking.) He’s discovered where they lived, what their hobbies were, when they enlisted and how they died.

Community members have placed placards with their faces and names at the homes they once lived in, and created a booklet with their photos and short bios. Some have placards on the school fence or churchyard instead. No street seems to be left untouched.

Mr. Drummond’s goal is to personalize these men. “When you hear the stories, hopefully you will find something you can identify with,” he says.

“These men continue to be part of our community. They played hockey at the same outdoor rink that I do,” he says. “It gives pause for thought.”

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Jack St. Laurent and his five-year-old daughter, Annika, listen during a guided tour describing the life of Lloyd George Higginson, who lived in their home before the Second World War.

Higgie, as Mr. Higginson was known, played rugby for Montreal West High School. He was an accomplished equestrian and enjoyed hockey, track and field, tennis and shooting. He was engaged. Details from his enlistment are added to his story. So are requests for canned sausages, ham, cheese and Ritz crackers.

William Bolland, a friend of Mr. Higginson’s from London, wrote to the soldier’s parents on Aug. 19, 1942:

“Although we had known ‘Higgie’ for only a year, he had become a very real friend indeed and the times when he was with us on leave were some of our most happy days. His cheerfulness, unselfishness and abounding high spirits are things that we will never forget. He was one of those grand people who at once fitted into a household and whom one did not regard so much as a guest as one of the family. ... Higgie taught us more about Canada and gave us an impression of the character of its people than we should ever have got from books or speeches.”

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Dr. Robert Drummond leads the Montreal West Walk to Remember tour to a home on Strathearn Avenue N. where Hugh Stanley Brydges lived before his death in the Second World War.

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In front of a home on Percival Avenue, a man opens a booklet to learn more about former resident Francis Bernard Croke, the third-oldest of six children who died at age 23 during an RCAF anti-submarine patrol in the summer of 1942.

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Displayed on the fence of what is now Royal West Academy is a placard of Frederick Arthur Horning, one of the soldiers who lived outside the area but attended what was then called Montreal West High School.

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Olesia Lewyckyj and her two-year-old daughter Douniya sit on the front porch listening to details of the life of Thomas “Tom” Melville Pethick on Strathearn Avenue N. The Lewyckyj family is new to the neighbourhood and was hearing about the project for the first time.

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Along Westminster Avenue, posters of local veterans who never returned home serve as reminders of the sacrifice of the Second World War.

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The tour stops at the former home of Charles Peter Rodger Stevens on Strathearn Avenue N. The Stevens family lived in the home from the time it was built in 1895 until 2011.

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