By Belle Hatfield
“We lost a lot of men, but we took it and held it and they never tried to come back.”
Philip Downey reaches out through the computer screen and takes the viewer back with him to 1917. He is talking about Vimy Ridge, the piece of land in northern France that was the scene of one of Canada’s greatest military triumphs in the First World War.
The battle has become almost synonymous with Canada’s nationhood. Brigadier-General A. E. Ross, commander of the 6th Canadian Brigade, famously said in describing the battle, “In those few minutes I witnessed the birth of a nation.”
For Downey, there were no thoughts of nation-building on that day and in the days that followed. Instead, he remembers how the bombs were constructed and why they were so deadly. He recalls in the aftermath of the battle, clearing out German positions, separating the dead (of which there were many) from the living. The former to be buried en masse, the latter to be taken as prisoners.
Downey has been dead for more than a decade, but his story – and those of nearly a thousand other Canadian service men and women – has been preserved for eternity. His was recorded in 1996 when he was 105. It was one of hundreds of videotaped interviews conducted by Veterans Affairs Canada. According to the website where excerpts of these interviews are now available, it was an effort to highlight “the events that helped to shape Canada as a nation, events which contributed to the formation of Canadian values …”
It can be found by typing Heroes Remember into a search engine. (Find it at www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/collections/hrp.) The web page has been acknowledged by the federal government with a gold medal for Information Management Excellence in the Public Sector. It contains a cross-connected, easily-searchable archive of videotaped interviews with nearly a thousand Canadian service men and women, the majority of whom saw action in the world wars. There are a variety of search options. You can search by name, by campaign, by geography, by occupation.
Downey, like the rest of Canada’s First World War veterans, is dead, but thanks to this program, which began conducting interviews in 1995, their memories live on.
Yarmouth resident Loran Fevens played a key role. In the 1980s, he was working for the Department of Veterans Affairs as a public relations officer in Charlottetown. The department decided to develop an in-house video unit instead of contracting out for film services. A veteran radio producer and broadcaster, the job fell to him to oversee the new video unit.
The son of a father whose military service had impacted his family, Fevens had from childhood felt a connection to the men and women who had served and were honoured on Remembrance Day every year.
“I would always get very emotional,” he recalled of those moments in front of the cenotaph in Yarmouth. Later, as a broadcaster, he often interviewed veterans for broadcasts around the Remembrance Day observances.
With a full video unit at his disposal, it was perhaps inevitable that the idea would take root to record veterans’ recollections of wartime experiences.