As Remembrance Day approaches, a project at Vancouver Island University is giving Canadians a whole new perspective of our wartime history: that of the veterans themselves.
The Canadian Letters and Images Project, an initiative begun by the Nanaimo university’s department of history, started in 2000 with the mission to create an online archive of soldiers’ letters and photographs, from any war, in order to give those brave souls a dimension often lost to the passages of time.
The materials collected also give a humanity to historical events that we all read about in school, but often have trouble grasping.
“You hear about Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele,” said Josh Boutin, a Vancouver Island University student involved with the project. “Here you get to see what the soldiers thought of it and how they experienced the war.”
The materials get sent to the project from across the country, often in shoeboxes that had been at the backs of closets for years, even decades. More than 25,000 letters, photos and diaries have come through the doors in the project’s 16-year history.
It then falls upon students and volunteers to painstakingly scan, transcribe and proofread each document. The materials are then organized into the project’s six different collections, which are separated by major wars.
While the common perception is that every war is different, the project’s collections each tell a very similar story: that war changed these men and women, often bringing heartbreak to families. It also highlights the bravery of all involved, something those working on the project say provides an important lesson to today’s Canadians.
“I think it’s a very, very important educational tool to understand what Canadians in the past have given us, for today,” said project director Stephen Davies, who works for the department of history at the university.
Virginia Fournier, another student involved with the project, agrees.
“The tremendous integrity and bravery and nobility that you can see in the materials…I don’t know where you could find that now,” she said.
The project has done its best to ensure pouring through these materials is not a chore, and has also made it easy for family members, now generations removed, to search for their relatives. Visitors can even hear Canadian celebrities, ranging from the Governor General David Johnston to “Jeopardy” host Alex Trebek, read select letters, further bringing these stories to life.
If you have letters or photographs that could be of use to the Canadian Letters and Images Project, visit the project’s website.