When I arrived at Kingston’s Central library branch, Robert Keenan’s name was at the centre of the screen. He was a Canadian soldier, dead in the First World War in 1915. A hundred years ago.
Nothing surprising there. As Remembrance Day looms, Canadians customarily turn back the pages of history, often to the orgy of mechanized killing, 1914 to 1918.
But the exhibit at the library was commemoration with a difference. Robert Keenan remains on the screen for five minutes. Every 23 seconds, a ring of names surrounding the Canadian name fades away to be replaced by another group. Ali Mustafa, Turkey. Charles Parker, Great Britain. Vaclav Cvek, Czechoslovakia. Otto Wiedeke, Germany. Alphonse Leroux, France.
Here is a fresh new approach to commemoration. The World Remembers.
Here in Canada, we most always mark Remembrance Day — and now the rolling Great War centenaries — with a kind of insular, patriotic approach that focuses mainly on the flag, the poppy, and the Canadian dead. It is, as they say, “all about us.”
The World Remembers displays the names of the dead from all countries by projecting them in public over the course of the Great War anniversaries. The ambitious project is the brainchild of eminent Canadian actor, director and playwright R.H. Thomson. He has just received the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for lifetime achievement in theatre.
Thomson had five great uncles killed in the First World War. He based his play, The Lost Boys, on their letters home. The World Remembers/Le Monde se souvient will be projecting as many names as it can find between now and Nov. 11, 1918. It’s a massive task, especially because the list of the dead will grow longer in 2016 and 2017. And because it has so far proven impossible to obtain the names from Russia and several other countries involved in the war.
Still, Thomson will continue to seek partnerships with institutions like the Kingston, Frontenac Public Library. Schools, municipalities, museums and churches are coming on board to mount the name-displays. He thinks there is more than one way of remembering the tragedy.
“The challenge of Remembrance Day is to honour the dead in ways that communicate the immensity of the loss,” Thomson explains. “And surely we must have multiple narratives about the problems of war and the challenges of peace.”
This transnational approach to commemoration reflects the nature of the 1914 to 1918 conflict. We do, after all, regard it as the First World War. So it’s fitting to remember in a way that transcends flags and borders. And emphasizes peace.
The dominant narrative in Canada and England persists in remembering the Great War as a struggle between good and evil. Our side, according to this story, was in the right. And we’re always in the right, whenever the tragedy of war looms. Yet even a historian as conservative as Jack Granatstein has explained that the First World War was, in reality, a “battle of rival imperialisms.”
To commemorate the Great War by claiming it — and all of Canada’s wars since the repression of the Metis uprising in 1885 — was somehow a struggle for freedom is to commit a grave historical error.
R.H. Thomson’s The World Remembers is a hopeful sign. Post-patriotic commemoration — common in Belgium and France where hundreds of thousands perished in the name of king and country — has finally come to Canada with The World Remembers. Archaic, romanticized talk of valour and glory simply masks the horror of industrialized warfare and mass death.
Canada’s most famous war memorial at Vimy Ridge predicts today’s post-patriotic approaches to commemoration. Even before it was inaugurated in 1936, its designer, Walter Allward, said that his expressionist masterwork should be understood as a “sermon against war.” The Vimy Ridge Memorial is all about mourning. One statue portrays the biblical “breaking of the sword.”
Seventy-eight years after Allward’s monument was unveiled in 1936, another striking war memorial opened not far from Vimy. Commissioned in part by the French Ministry of Defence, Paris architect Philippe Prost has designed a contemporary International Memorial at Ablan Saint Nazaire. Like Canada’s Vimy Memorial, it succeeds in being monumental with being sentimental.
The massive elliptical ring of remembrance is 129 metres long and 75 wide. Part of the ring hangs precariously out over the ground, symbolizing the fragile nature of peace. Five hundred panels of bronzed stainless steel invite the visitor to ponder a list of 579,606 names. That many died in northern France in the Great War. The memorial, intended to transcend nationality, was inaugurated by the leaders of both France and Germany on Nov. 11, 2014.
Canadian nurse Katherine Maud McDonald of Brantford was 25 when she was killed by bombs at the 1st Canadian General Hospital in 1918. Her name is on the new ring of remembrance in France. It will most certainly likely appear once more when The World Remembers projects the names of all the dead in 2018.
Kingston writer Jamie Swift works with PeaceQuest.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE – OCTOBER 14, 2015
CROSS-CANADA REMEMBRANCE TOUR STOPS IN AT KFPL
PeaceQuest is honoured to be partnering with Kingston Frontenac Public Library to bring a Canadian-led commemoration exhibit to Kingston.
Over the next four years, millions of names of the WWI dead from Canada and ten other participating nations will be displayed in locations across Canada and in other countries. More than 525,000 names of those killed in 1915 will appear in the 2015 displays. Each name will appear at a designated time and will circle the world through participating nations.
The display of the names from 1915 will appear each day, starting October 5th and completing November 11th. While currently the entire display can be seen at the central branch at 130 Johnson St, on Monday, October 19th the projector and screen will move to the ground floor at the Isabel Turner Branch. The projection runs from 8:30 a.m. until 7:10 pm daily. Additional locations will be announced at www.kfpl.ca.
ARTISTS REMEMBER FOR PEACE
Join PeaceQuest for an evening of commemoration recognizing every life lost in WW I — mourning the tragedy of war, committed to the promise of peace. Featuring readings from letters and diaries, excerpts from R.H. Thomson’s The World Remembers project and readings from local authors Steven Heighton (author of Every Lost Country and Afterlands) and Beth Robinson (author of WWll memoir Please Write). Music by Al Rankin, Andy Rush and friends. Hosted by Lawrence Scanlan.
The challenge of Remembrance Day is to honour the dead in ways that communicate the immensity of the loss. The World Remembers wants the dead to be remembered as people not as numbers. And surely we must have multiple narratives about the problems of war and the challenges of peace.
– R.H. Thomson, Canadian Actor, Playright and Director. Producer of The World Remembers Project (IMDB)
Thursday November 5th – 7pm at Memorial Hall – Kingston City Hall – 216 Ontario St.
Speaker List at Artists Remember for Peace
Wendy Luella Perkins sang “November’s Chill” to open the evening.
Lawrence Scanlan acted as host and Emcee
Beth Robinson, author of “Please Write” read selections from the book.
For more information please contact:
Jolene Cheryl Simko