By Natalie Harmsen
As Nov. 11 approaches, the people behind a unique, international commemorative project are asking Canadians: How do we remember?
The Toronto-based non-profit The World Remembers is offering its own answer by projecting the names of the soldiers killed during the First World War around the globe — including a nightly projection of names on the Government Conference Centre leading up to Remembrance Day.
A total of 661,837 names will be seen in libraries, museums, city halls and other locations. The World Remembers was established to commemorate the five centenary years of the conflict.
In Ottawa, the names are being flashed on the side of the former central train station each night for 10 hours. The tribute began on Sept. 24.
Each day, the projection begins with the statement: “The cost of war must not be forgotten.” The screen then fades to black, with the names appearing in white letters. The Canadian names are in the centre of the display, encircled by international names which include their internet country code. The international names dissolve first, while the Canadian names linger before fading away. Every 15 minutes, a photograph showing the dead appears.
The final name will appear at sunrise on Remembrance Day. The display is also running during the day at the Canadian War Museum.
“It’s impossible for us to show all the names in one year, so we show them 100 years afterwards. So the 2017 display is the names of those killed in 1917,” says the well-known Canadian actor R. H. Thomson, the producer of The World Remembers. Thompson is working with Ottawa lighting designer Martin Conboy, whose installations also include the Canadian National War Memorial and the Vimy Memorial in France.
“The project says that the most important thing, when you remember conflict, is to remember those who lost their lives. For 100 years, they’ve been referred to as ‘them.’ And in the 100th year after a war that was very questionable, and killed millions, we believe we should name them,” Thomson said.
By including names from international armies, Thomson says the project is a “large departure from the traditional way to commemorate.”
“Canada is all peoples now. Do you leave out the Italian-Canadians? The Slovenian-Canadians? The Vietnamese-Canadians? The Sikh-Canadians? Do you leave them out of commemoration? The World Remembers says no, because we are now everyone,” he said. “All those people should be included.”
Each name of those killed in 1917 appears at the same time in the participating nations: Britain, Canada, France, Germany, the U.S., Turkey, Belgium, Australia, the Czech Republic, Italy, New Zealand, Slovenia, and China. Names from the former British Indian Army are also included.
In Canada, 21,294 soldiers lost their lives in 1917, including those who died the Battle of Vimy Ridge. Every 90 seconds, on all the displays around the world, a Canadian name appears; with 444 Canadian names appearing each day.
Thomson says seeing the names illuminated on the side of a landmark public building creates an emotional impact.
“We know if a name is scrolling, if you watch TV or a movie and the credits roll at the end it means nothing,” he said. “We know if a name stays still for at least 12 to 15 seconds, it stops being information and starts being a person. And at that moment, in reflecting on that person, that’s the point.”
Families can go to theworldremembers.org to search the names of relatives lost in the First World War.
The Canadian War Museum was involved in the project last year and is “pleased to participate on such a big ambitious project” once again, said Caroline Dromaguet, manager of exhibitions and strategic initiatives.
Throughout the year, a film relating to the various exhibits is projected on the museum’s glass wall. Between the end of September and Nov. 11, regular programming is interrupted to participate in The World Remembers project.
“It makes a really good personal connection, seeing those names. I think it makes an impact on the visitor, and the person experiencing this will realize all the losses during the First World War,” she said.
“It’s all the soldiers combined, so it’s not just the Canadians, because we at the War Museum tend to speak more to the Canadian stories, but this is an occasion to speak more globally — it’s the war that affected everyone.”
Veterans Affairs Canada supplied the data for this country — the names of the dead — but the project was primarily financed by private donors. The Ottawa display was also supported by Commemorate Canada, a program that funds remembrance initiatives.
“Commemorating the service and sacrifices of Canada’s Veterans and those who made the ultimate sacrifice is a key pillar of the Veterans Affairs Canada mandate,” said Marc Lescoutre, a media officer for Veterans Affairs Canada.
Natalie Huneault, a spokesperson for the Department of Canadian Heritage said the project “represents a meaningful way of honouring and understanding the First World War, which has ultimately shaped Canada, and Canadians, in profound ways.”
“(We are) proud to support The World Remembers project, which encourages Canadians throughout the country to remember the people of the First World War,” she said.
Thomson, 70, is an award winning actor and a recipient of the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement in 2015. He was made a member of the Order of Canada in 2010.
For him, the most rewarding part of the commemoration is the reactions viewers have to the projected names.
“People understand that we are cutting through the habit of remembrance, and actually getting to the core of it, because I don’t think it’s about remembering a battle or a flag, or a war, or the fact that we won. I don’t believe that’s what remembrance is,” he said.
“I believe remembrance is remembering the individuals.”
This story was produced in collaboration with the Carleton University journalism program and Centretown News.