passing the torch on remembrance day

"If ye break faith with us who die / We shall not sleep, though poppies grow / In Flanders fields.

“If ye break faith with us who die / We shall not sleep, though poppies grow / In Flanders fields.”

The closing lines of Lieutenant Colonel McCrae’s In Flanders Fields remind us every Remembrance Day that we have a duty to keep the memory alive, and to pass it on to those who come after us.

Veterans have worried with each new generation that the torch would be dropped. The First World War ended more than 90 years ago. This year’s Remembrance Day in Britain, for example, was the first without a living veteran of the 1914-18 war to lay a wreath at the cenotaph.

When this columnist grew up in Whitehorse, it was all very real. You actually knew Yukoners who had flown Lancasters over Germany, piloted obsolete fighter planes against Japanese Zeros or protected ships against Nazi submarines on dark, hopeless nights in the North Atlantic.

Many of these veterans are gone now.

But I think they would be pleased to see today’s younger generation learning to remember their sacrifice, even without the personal connection to our collective past that they represented. All across the country, in families, schools and Legion halls, Canadians are talking about remembrance with young people.

And fortunately for those trying to figure out how to pass the torch to the next generation in their house, there are impressive new books, movies and (of course) web pages to capture the young imagination.

First of all, the history book has been transformed since you were a student. Scholastic Canada has published a series by Hugh Brewster that includes the titles OnJuno Beach and At Vimy Ridge. Unlike old-fashioned history books, these are full of photos, maps and engaging personal experiences. Max Clarke, a Whitehorse 11-year-old whose great-grandfather disappeared in action in 1944, read the whole set in two days when his mother brought them home from the library.

Asked if what he had learned was relevant today, he replied that “It’s still important, because there are still wars going on around the world.”

He also gave the series “nine out of 10” and said he would recommend it to others his age. Kudos to Scholastic and the author, who is visiting the Yukon next week. He’ll be at the schools as well as the Whitehorse Public Library on Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m.

The boring, old documentary has also been transformed. We saw the premiere this month of Convoy: War for the Atlantic. This Channel 4/History Television co-production of four episodes provides a gripping account of the submarine war, full of insights about why Winston Churchill said that “The only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril.”

The series has high production values, with computer generated maps and ship displays that dramatically improve the ability of the narrator to get his point across.

Convoy also marks a major milestone for accessible Canadian history. The Battle of the Atlantic was one of Canada’s biggest contributions to the war effort, with hundreds of warships and thousands of casualties, but until now we have mostly seen it on screen through British or American eyes in productions such as The Cruel Sea or the historically lamentable U-571 (starring, believe it or not, Jon Bon Jovi).

Now, in Convoy’s meticulously accurate dramatizations, we hear real Canadian accents on the bridge. There is a particularly powerful segment recreating the Royal Canadian Navy’s dramatic hunt for two enemy submarines during Germany’s deadly 1942 campaign against Allied shipping in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence.

The tension is palpable as the lookouts and sonar operators, Prairie farm boys just a few months before, desperately hunt the enemy as freighters explode and burn around them.

It’s definitely not the National Film Board filmstrip you remember from high school.

Finally, a concerted effort by groups such as the Dominion Institute has put a vast quantity of high-quality material on the web. For parents and classroom teachers, for example, the Dominion Institute has created learning kits to help young people better understand Paul Gross’s film Passchendaele, the Canadian historical drama that came out last year.

So, if you are a parent, aunt, uncle or friend of a young Canadian and were standing at Remembrance Day this year trying to figure out how to bring up Canadian history without sounding like an old fogey, try the titles mentioned above.

You might just find that your young Canadian is more interested than you think. And you might even learn something yourself.

You can watch Convoy online at www.history.ca/video. Visit the Dominion Institute’s website at www.dominion.ca/passchendaele/.

And you can meet Hugh Brewster, author of On Juno Beach, at the Whitehorse Public Library on Tuesday, November 17th at 7:30 p.m., where he is giving a talk on his book about the Titanic.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. His latest book, Game OnYukon! was just launched.