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Discovering lost Digby County lives; preserving forgotten histories

Sheri MacNeil is discovering local history and a passion for history inside herself by researching and documenting some of the more than 250 former Royal Canadian Legion members of Branch 20 in Digby, whose photos line an entire wall inside the building.
Sheri MacNeil is discovering local history and a passion for history inside herself by researching and documenting some of the more than 250 former Royal Canadian Legion members of Branch 20 in Digby, whose photos line an entire wall inside the building. - Laura Redman

Researcher discovers newfound passion for local history

DIGBY, N.S. – A Digby woman is working hard to catalogue the military history of more than 250 former Digby Legion members, and along the way, has discovered a passion for local history in herself.

In the last year, Sheri MacNeil found her longtime career was also history, and her job skills required updating. She was on a bit of a work rollercoaster – unemployed, then underemployed, and then unemployed again.

Thats when, after working with an employment counselor at Employment Nova Scotia, MacNeil discovered she was eligible for a position through a Job Creation Partnership (JCP). The positions are funded through federal Employment Insurance and the provincial JCP and charitable organizations can apply for workers through the program.

Invited to discuss a potential position with the Royal Canadian Legion, Branch 20 in Digby, Sheri was able to help design the JCP agreement, including outlining the outcomes the Legion wanted, and matching them with some of the skills she required.

However, due to unforeseen circumstances, the initial job didnt pan out as theyd predicted, and soon MacNeil was looking for other ways to help when she showed up to work at the Legion each day.

I kept looking up at this wall, and I realized I wanted to document all of these former Legion members. Many of them served in either the First or Second World War, and I decided it would be great to put them all into a database, MacNeil said.

However, she soon found that the Legion didnt have a lot of information on their former war heroes, and she wasnt sure where to begin finding descendants of the soldiers on the wall. MacNeil began researching where to research, and discovered the Library and Archives of Canada, and its online records of soldiers from the First and Second World Wars.

She opened a page on the archives website to demonstrate the sort of information shes discovering.

We have a guy named Harry Adams on the wall, but as you can see, there were lots of Harry Adams in the First World War. So which one was it? MacNeil says as she clicks on a random link. This one was from Manitoba, but there are more than 25 pages attached here offering details about him. Some soldiers Ive found have more than 80 PDF pages attached to their link.

The details include everything from war service records, to medical history, and often death records – at least for First World War soldiers. MacNeil has discovered that the soldiers histories from the Second World War are not detailed on the site and she figures its because of privacy laws. But shes clearly excited about the details shes discovering about those from the First World War and shes convinced there must be other ways to find out more.

One of these guys really struck me, MacNeil said. Private Charlie Johnson. He signed up for service on Dec. 15, 1915 and was shipped out to Liverpool through Halifax on July 31, 1916. When he arrived in England he had to go for another medical and it was discovered by a doctor that he had a deformed toe Charlie Johnson had to satisfy the doctor that he could march with his company and that his toe had never bothered him before.

Those are the kind of details the aspiring historian is eating up.

Its really made these faces on the wall come alive for me, MacNeil said. I no longer see them as just a collection of photographs. Now theyre all real people.

MacNeil has become so passionate about the project, shes reaching out to other organizations to help educate others about their local history, and to see if there might be others who are interested in getting involved with the research.

I really want this database to become a local history tool, MacNeil said, adding shes already connected with the NSCC adult school, Level Four class and will be reaching out to Digby high schools Canadian history class for the second semester.

Im hoping the students, as a class or as individuals, would like to adopt one of these photographs and see what they can dig up about these people, MacNeil said.

Donna Flaherty, Branch 20 president, said shes really proud of the project and the fact that the Legion is now working to preserve its own history.
With the Cornwallis Museum closing, the Legion will be the last place that can research and present this history for the region, Flaherty said.

MacNeil has started posting some of the stories to the Legions Facebook page and beyond the creation of a comprehensive database, is considering building a PowerPoint presentation to publish some of her findings. MacNeil also stumbled upon the The Maple Leaf Legacy Project website, a site where people from all over the world post photographs and information about the graves of Canadian soldiers.

Charlie Johnson was killed August 9, 1918, at the age of 26. It says hes buried in Pas de Calais in France. Such a handsome young fellow, MacNeil said, looking at his photograph again. I posted his story to Facebook on December 15, the anniversary of the date he signed up for service. That really hit my heartstrings. I cried when I posted it and I cried when I was going through his papers. Its so emotional. All of these young men, and the sacrifices they made.

I figured their stories deserve more than one day of remembrance each year.

To connect with Shari MacNeil about this project, please call the Digby Legion at 902-245-4070. The Branchs Facebook page is located at: https://www.facebook.com/RCLDigby/

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