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Remembrance Day project connects Canadian high schools, Belgian town

Wendy McGee holds up a photo of her Uncle, Robert Henry Rose, who died on Nov. 2, 1944 during WWII in Belgium. Wendy teaches at West Point Grey Academy in Vancouver, BC, where the students are projecting 9,700 names a day. Each name will appear simultaneously in every vigil location in Canada and Europe. More than 150 schools are participating in this remembrance project.

Laura Leyshon for The Globe and Mail/laura leyshon The Globe and Mail

In a picturesque town amid evergreen forests on the coast of Vancouver Island, Kwalikum Secondary School is a long, long way from the Western Front battlefields of the First World War.

But a nationwide Remembrance Day project is bridging the distance and decades that separate the school from the conflict that helped forge the Canadian identity, with simultaneous vigils in Ypres - the Belgian town around which so many soldiers on both sides are buried - and some 150 schools across Canada, including Kwalikum.

The schools are projecting, two-by-two, the names of all 68,000 Canadians killed in the Great War, at the same time as they are displayed above a war memorial in Ypres. The endeavour lasts for 13 hours at a time (roughly from dusk until dawn in Belgium), for seven days, culminating late Wednesday or early Thursday, depending on the time zone.

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In Kwalikum's case, the names are projected on the wall of a multipurpose room from 8:15 a.m. to 9:15 p.m., framed with black curtains. Students' Remembrance Day poetry and short stories sit on a nearby table; couches accommodate staff, children and passersby who stop in to watch the names flash on for a few seconds, before dropping off the screen.

"It kind of makes the people you hear about in social studies class more real," said Samantha Rintoul, a 16-year-old, Grade 11 student who helped organize the vigil at Kwalikum. "It makes them people, not just numbers any more."

The memorial was started by lighting designer Martin Conboy and actor R.H. Thomson. The pair organized two similar memorials in previous years, projecting the names on Ottawa's National War Memorial, on Canada House in London's Trafalgar Square and on public buildings across the country.

The death earlier this year of John Babcock, the last living Canadian to serve during the First World War, prompted them to create the school vigil.

"I wanted students to understand they went through a turning point in history with Mr. Babcock dying," Mr. Thomson said. "The way to get students connected is to remember [the soldiers]not just as a collective but as individuals."

Each school was free to organize its own iteration of the vigil. At Central Memorial, a Calgary high school whose name honours the country's war dead, the names are shown on an LCD screen in the front foyer, over a commemorative plaque. The fact that the school's principal is a Canadian Forces reservist now training Palestinian police officers in Ramallah adds to its significance.

"It's certainly one of the things that I was discussing with the staff, that each passing year the importance of Remembrance Day becomes greater," said acting principal Ken Chee. "These kids might not be aware of anyone who has served."

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The projections in Ypres, meanwhile, are filmed and broadcast live over the Internet, the tall white letters standing brightly over the darkened town square.

"It looked like the names were emerging from the stone," Mr. Conboy said. "That's when it becomes really powerful, when you don't know where it comes from, when you're not aware of the projector."

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About the Author
Washington correspondent

Adrian Morrow covers U.S. politics from Washington, D.C. Previously he was The Globe's Ontario politics reporter. He's covered news, crime and sports for The Globe since 2010. He won the National Newspaper Award for politics reporting in 2016. More

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