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Remembrance Day: Students hear veterans’ stories virtually due to pandemic

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Gulf War veteran Bob Crane has been busy in the weeks leading up to Remembrance Day, adjusting his classroom presentations to an array of online platforms.

Crane, a retired Army major who volunteers as a veteran speaker with Historica Canada’s Memory Project, has booked almost double the number of gigs he would in a typical year. Though some technological adjustment has been necessary, the sessions have offered a virtual escape from the drudgery of pandemic restrictions.

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“It’s almost as good as a walk outdoors,” Crane said in a telephone interview from his home in Cumberland, Ont., near Ottawa.

“The more things you can do to talk to people, make new friends, they’re enjoyable, and that breaks up my COVID routine.”

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Veterans like Crane, accustomed to ceremonies and speaking sessions in the weeks before Nov. 11, are adapting to pandemic-era online classroom visits as they share first-hand experiences with young Canadians.

More than 500 veterans and active Canadian Forces members in the Memory Project’s speaker bureau are offering online talks during COVID-19, according to Bronwyn Graves, director of education and programs at Historica Canada.

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That’s one-third of the project’s total volunteers. Graves said approximately 900 online sessions had been requested by the end of October.

Participants have responded well, Graves said, with increasing interest as people grow used to the online formula. There have been additional benefits, like making sessions available for schools in remote communities.

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“I do anticipate that we will probably see more remote visits … even when veterans are actually cleared to go back into schools,” she said, noting the sessions have offered a chance for the veterans themselves to connect with people in an era when they’re spending more time alone.

“This does provide an invaluable experience to sort of break through that isolation, and to share chapters and moments of their lives that were significant for them,” Graves said.

Crane, 67, is originally from Siksika First Nation in Alberta. He highlights Indigenous participation in Canadian wars when he speaks to students, and the shift to digital gigs has allowed him to bring untold stories of Indigenous military history to more classrooms across the country.

Crane recently shared the story of Inuit Korean War veteran Eddy Weetaltuk during a virtual session with a school in Nunavut, which he said “resonated” with the students.

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“Being able to do that, hopefully, will generate some self-pride in who they are as Inuit,” he said. “And reinforce the fact that every single conflict that Canada has been involved in, Aboriginals were there.”

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Susan Beharriell, an Air Force veteran living in King City, Ont., estimates she’s spoken in front of 80,000 people from elementary classes to university students over the years.

Her Memory Project requests have been more varied this year, with one school asking her to pre-record a segment for a produced, virtual Remembrance Day broadcast.

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One of the biggest changes has been the lack of live reaction from her audience, Beharriell said, but she’s making it work.

“I’m sitting at my laptop, I can see myself, I can talk to myself but ? I have no idea what happening on the other side,” she said. “I just ignore it and I pretend that there’s an audience in front of me.”

Students and teachers are interested in hearing from a woman veteran, said Beharriell, whose barrier-breaking career included being part of the first platoon of women to complete the same basic training as men, as well as a stint as an intelligence officer.

The retired lieutenant-colonel remembers a senior officer in the formerly male-only intelligence branch telling her, “You’d better measure up, or we’ll never let another woman in,” when she was accepted.

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For Beharriell, the odd experience of recounting her personal story to a computer screen is worthwhile, adding her account captures complex historical nuances that amay be lost in other media.

“Knowing that you’re doing something for other people is wonderful,” she said.

Local legion branches have also adapted to the digital world to connect with their communities for Remembrance Day this year.

Legion Branch 77 in Yorkton, Sask., has been working with a local school to produce a recorded Remembrance Day service that will be played for classes and long-term care homes on Nov. 11.

The production will include a ceremony and interviews with local veterans. Legion member Brittany Johnson said the video has value that will outlast the pandemic.

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“We have this recording of (the veterans) telling their story in their own voice,” she said. “I’m really happy that we were able to take the time to document those things.”

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