OTTAWA â€” Thousands of Canadians have started what some are calling a “pilgrimage” to France this week, as the country prepares to commemorate the 100th anniversary of one of its most iconic battles: Vimy Ridge.
Among them are 12,000 students who have studied and saved for months to stand in the shadows of the Canadian National Vimy Memorial when the country stops to reflect and remember this weekend.
Coming from schools and communities across the country, the students are expected to make up nearly half of the 25,000 Canadians that the government believes will be at Vimy for Sunday’s ceremony.
Among those who will be in attendance are 28 students from Bishop Strachan School, a private all-girls boarding school in Toronto, led by history teacher James Stewart.
“Vimy will always take your breath when you see it,” said Stewart, who has visited twice before. “It has a big impact on people when they see it. And that’s going to be one of the great things for the students.”
The level of student interest and participation has been noted and welcomed by many, particularly those who have made a living out of trying to bring Canadian history to life.
“We’re seeing something change significantly here,” said military historian Tim Cook, who recently wrote a book entitled, “Vimy: The Battle and the Legend.”
“Vimy is a multi-generational symbol that has been passed on from generation to generation. I suppose this is a passing on to a new generation.”
Cook and others were hard-pressed to attribute the interest of young Canadians to any one reason, offering instead a variety of possible factors.
Like many teachers, Stewart had his students research the stories of individual soldiers who fought and died at the battle, which has been credited with making the battle more relatable to young Canadians.
There has also been a great deal of advocacy by the federal government and history groups, such as the Vimy Foundation and Historica Canada, which have provided lesson material for teachers.
But Matt Noble, president of EF Tours Canada, an educational tour company that is bringing 9,000 students to Vimy on Sunday, credited teachers with picking up the ball and running with it.
“There’s really a movement that’s emerged,” Noble said. “And educators were leading the way.”
Jeremy Diamond, the executive director of the Vimy Foundation, the mission of which is to promote and preserve Canada’s First World War legacy, called the presence of so many students “encouraging.”
“What we need to be doing now that we don’t have any veterans of the First World War left is ensuring our younger generations appreciate and remember these important stories,” Diamond said.
About 700,000 people visit Vimy Ridge every year, but Diamond said only a fraction are Canadian and many more come from other countries such as the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.
He would also like to see more Canadians make what he called the “pilgrimage” to Vimy, which is about two hours north of Paris by car.
Aside from the ceremony, this weekend will see the unveiling of a new visitors centre at the memorial, which will replace a temporary centre that was put in place about a decade ago.
Diamond hopes the new $10-million centre â€” half came from the federal government and half from donations to the Vimy Foundation â€” will help draw Canadians to the site.
As for his 28 students, Stewart hopes they come away from Vimy with the memories of a lifetime and a better sense of their country and what it means to be Canadian.
“I hope they get a sense of awe from being in a particular moment in time with thousands of other Canadians celebrating one particular moment in Canadian history,” he said.
“I hope they get a sense of that, a sense of unity from that experience. I hope they see the value of history by being in a place that is such a big part of Canadian history.”
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Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press