On Remembrance Day this year, portraits of Canada’s most highly decorated military personnel will line the streets of capital cities across the country. The portraits are part of the Toll of War street banner campaign commemorating Canadian recipients of the Victoria Cross, the Commonwealth’s highest military honour for bravery in action. The project was organized by the Gregg Centre for the Study of War and Society at the University of New Brunswick.
Each banner features an original portrait by Quebec illustrator Sharif Tarabay of a VC winner from the province in which the banner hangs – 10 recipients in all. (The three territories will fly a more generic banner of remembrance on Nov. 11.) The banners also feature the address of a companion website, canadavc.ca, which includes images and profiles of each of Canada’s VC recipients from the First and Second World War.
To decide who among Canada’s 99 VC recipients would be featured, the project organizers at the Gregg Centre for the Study of War and Society at the University of New Brunswick created a national committee of experts from the Canadian War Museum, the department of national defence and universities across the country. “In some cases it was easy. There’s only one from PEI, so that was a slam dunk. There are only four from New Brunswick [including Milton F. Gregg, the Centre’s namesake]. But by the time we get to Ontario, there’s about 40,” says Gregg Centre director Marc Milner.
The banners are a “high-profile way” to get the public thinking about the impact of war on Canada and Canadians, says Dr. Milner. They’re also part of War and the Canadian Experience, a Gregg Centre project that received $488,155 in funding from Heritage Canada under the previous government. Dr. Milner notes nearly two-thirds of that grant went to the other half of the project: the Canada and the Experience of War website.
The website builds on overseas study tours the Gregg Centre hosts for Canadian high school history teachers in conjunction with UNB’s faculty of education. It contains a set of bilingual inquiry-based lesson plans on events from the First and Second World War in which members of the Canadian armed forces were killed.
“The pushback that we get on this is that we’re glorifying war and sacrifice,” says Dr. Milner. The reality, he counters, is that personal stories from these wars are rich mines of research material.
“If you can get the personnel folders of Canadian war dead, you get a lot of basic personal data – age, height, trade or profession, next of kin – which you can then stitch together with census data, local newspapers. In some cases, students are even able to contact soldiers’ family members who have diaries and letters and photo albums,” Dr. Milner says. “It opens up a world of opportunities for students to develop as historians and learn the skills. … It changes the whole classroom experience.”