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The Globe and Mail

First World War workshops soon to be history

At Library and Archives Canada on Wednesday, Education officer Debbie Jiang shows Pembroke Fellowes High School student Shaheer Tarar, 14 where Canadian soldier John Tran Steele was killed in action on May 2, 1915.

Pawel Dwulit

The teacher called out the names of First World War soldiers who died in Belgium and France, and one-by-one, students stood up to claim them.

They returned to their seats with a brown envelope stuffed with faded enlistment papers as fine as onion skin that hadn't been touched in more than 90 years.

These Grade 10 students who filled a conference room at the back of Canada's Library and Archives in Ottawa Wednesday may be some of the last participants in the hands-on workshops of the Lest We Forget program.

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The staff who run the workshop at the archives' Learning Centre are being reassigned at the end of the school year.

"They're just swamped with work, that's it," said Richard Provencher, a spokesman for Library and Archives Canada. "The whole project really was the brainchild of a historian and it's exploded basically, it's gotten very popular."

Students who participate in the program pick a First World War veteran from their hometown and then attend a workshop at which archives staff and volunteers help them piece together the person's war experience.

Mr. Provencher said that the files of 200 veterans, 100 from each world war, will be made available online, a format more accessible to students in classrooms in the far reaches of the country. He said that teachers will still be able to bring their students to the archives to handle the records, and that they will be provided with a tool kit to help them and their students work with the files.

Teachers who have participated in the program say toolkits and pdf files are a poor substitute for the experienced volunteers and staff at the Learning Centre.

Many children of the iPod age cannot read cursive writing, would not know that a teamster is a wagon driver or that a GSW is a gunshot wound, and have never done research without first referring to Wikipedia.

"I'm not sure what we're going to do," said history teacher Dan Sloan, who brought Wednesday's group of students to the archives from Fellowes High School in nearby Pembroke, Ont.

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"I'm not sure it would be do-able without her," Mr. Sloan said, nodding toward Debbie Jiang, a former teacher who has been running Lest We Forget for a little over a year.

Ms. Jiang sat at a table near the front of the conference room with Shaheer Tarar, a 14-year-old student who had been handed a relatively thin envelope at the start of the workshop. His soldier, John Steele, had died less than eight months after he enlisted.

Ms. Jiang noticed that Sergeant Steele had been in the 16th Canadian Scottish Battalion, and she had recently noticed a book on that battalion in the reference collection.

Ms. Jiang retrieved the book from the reference collection and she and Shaheer poured over the dusty red tome.

"My guy was gassed!" Shaheer nearly shouted after Ms. Jiang pointed him to a passage.

The book detailed how a yellow and green cloud drifted over the battalion and how several men were left coughing and gasping, and then clawing at their tunics as saliva flowed from their mouths.

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"That's a terrible death," Shaheer said, his eyes wide.

Blake Seward, the historian and teacher who started the program nearly 10 years ago, said he was heartbroken when he heard the workshops were ending.

"How can we remember if we don't know their stories?" he said. "We're running out of time. In five years, we'll only be able to access our WWII guys through a box."

His concerns are all the more real with the recent death of Canada's last First World War veteran, John Babcock.

A spokesperson for Canada Heritage, the ministry that oversees the archives, said the department had nothing to do with changes to the Learning Centre or Lest We Forget.

Ms. Jiang said the cost of the program is minimal, but she could not provide a figure.

She said she and her co-worker at the Learning Centre, another former teacher who is currently on leave, have not been told what their roles will be in the summer when the workshops end.

"I just keep getting told that it won't be the same any more," she said.

Mr. Provencher said that library is focusing on digitizing its considerable collections, of which 660,000 First World War records are only a very small portion.

"The organization's undergoing a complete modernization exercise," he said.

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About the Author
Education reporter

Kate Hammer started her journalism career in New York, chasing crime and breaking news for The New York Times. She came to the Globe and Mail in 2008 to do much of the same and ended up investigating allegations of animal cruelty and mismanagement at the Toronto Humane Society. More

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