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Nova Scotia university students pay their respects to little-known Canadian veterans in West Africa

One of the students in Catherine Conrad's geography courses kneels at Warrant Officer Basil Ralph Yorke at the Fajara War Cemetery in the city of Banjul on Nov. 11, 2018.
One of the students in Catherine Conrad's geography courses kneels at Warrant Officer Basil Ralph Yorke at the Fajara War Cemetery in the city of Banjul on Nov. 11, 2018. Courtesy of Saint Mary's University

A group of students from a Nova Scotia university spent their Remembrance Day paying their respects at a group of little-known graves for Canadian soldiers in the West African country of The Gambia.

The students from Saint Mary’s University (SMU) did not know that Canadians were buried in The Gambia until a few weeks ago but the discovery led to flurry of activity, allowing them to lay poppies and several wreaths provided by Veterans Affairs and the Canadian Legion on the graves — an act that Canadians have not done for some time.

Catherine Conrad, a professor of geography at SMU, told Global News last week that for the past decade she has taken a class to The Gambia every other year to have them learn about the Gambian culture and gain a better understanding of West African culture.

READ MORE: Nova Scotia students to mark Remembrance Day honouring graves of Canadian soldiers in The Gambia

This year, she realized that the group would be there on Nov. 11 and contacted people in The Gambia to ask whether there were any Remembrance Day ceremonies they could attend.

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The Gambia, which is part of the British Commonwealth and marks Remembrance Day, told Conrad about a ceremony for Gambian war veterans at the Fajara War Cemetery in the city of Banjul  — and that Canadian soldiers were also buried there.

“I know the exact war cemetery they were talking about because I’ve driven past it a thousand times,” Conrad told Global News.

“I was really taken aback and to be honest I thought they were just saying that to intrigue me … I really did not believe it.”

The grave of Warrant Officer Basil Ralph Yorke who was born in Wharton, N.S., and died on Nov. 3, 1942, in The Gambia as the result of an accident involving an airplane propeller.
The grave of Warrant Officer Basil Ralph Yorke who was born in Wharton, N.S., and died on Nov. 3, 1942, in The Gambia as the result of an accident involving an airplane propeller. Courtesy of Saint Mary's University
A class of Halifax university students made history,, marking Remembrance Day at a group of little-known graves for Canadian soldiers in the West African country of The Gambia.
A class of Halifax university students made history,, marking Remembrance Day at a group of little-known graves for Canadian soldiers in the West African country of The Gambia. Courtesy of Saint Mary's University
Students lay a wreath on the graves of Canadian soldiers who are buried in the Fajara War Cemetery in The Gambia.
Students lay a wreath on the graves of Canadian soldiers who are buried in the Fajara War Cemetery in The Gambia. Courtesy of Saint Mary's University
Wreaths on the graves of Canadian soldiers who are buried in the Fajara War Cemetery in The Gambia.
Wreaths on the graves of Canadian soldiers who are buried in the Fajara War Cemetery in The Gambia. Courtesy of Saint Mary's University

Conrad said once she shared the revelation, the response from the class took on a life of its own. In a few hours, one of the students emailed her about the Canadians who were buried there.

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“I was blown away. I shared that with the whole class and over the course of the weekend, half a dozen in the class, including myself, were digging into archives trying to figure out why on earth Canadians would be there,” she said.

So far Conrad and her class have been able to confirm that 10 servicemen were in the region with the Royal Canadian Air Force and died during the Second World War.

The men served there as part of an effort to supply troops in Northern Africa as well as combat German U-boats in the Atlantic Ocean.

WATCH: Large crowd packs Halifax’s Grand Parade for Remembrance Day

Click to play video 'Large crowd packs Halifax’s Grand Parade for Remembrance Day' Large crowd packs Halifax’s Grand Parade for Remembrance Day
Large crowd packs Halifax’s Grand Parade for Remembrance Day – Nov 11, 2018

One of the dead hails from Nova Scotia.

Warrant Officer Basil Ralph Yorke was born in Wharton, N.S., and died on Nov. 3, 1942, as the result of an accident involving an airplane propeller.

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“It’s a piece of our history that had possibly been lost or at least not very well known until now,” said Conrad.

“The more we look into it, it’s like pulling a thread from a sweater and we keep unraveling it to find out more.”

The class was unable to do an interview on Monday but are set to return to Canada on Nov. 20.