Wednesday, May 26, 2010

VE65 - Slideshow

I've embedded a slideshow with over 100 photos from my Victory in Europe tour at the beginning of this month. I'm still working on photo captions, but they may all be done at some point in time.
Photos taken between May 1-7, 2010

Saturday, May 15, 2010

On hiatus

The blog will be on hiatus until at least May 21.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

VE65 - Changed Canadians

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands — These teenagers are redefined their own impression of what it means to be a Canadian after spending most of the past week commemorating the 65th anniversary of the end of the Second World War.
Over 2,000 students, accompanied by almost 500 teachers and chaperones, have been participating in official events marking the Liberation of the Netherlands and Victory in Europe. They’ve stood at attention in war cemeteries in France, Belgium and the Netherlands, met Dutch youth and lived experiences that are changing the way they see themselves and Canada.
All of them participated in the Liberation Parade held in Wageningen Wednesday, the last such parade on the May 5 Dutch Liberation Day that featured hundreds of Canadian and Allied veterans of the Second World War. Whether walking the parade route or watching it go past them from the side of the road, these high school students’ view on their own nation has changed.
“This has been a gift, an experience to see all the different cultures, places, food and people here,” Lakefield District Secondary School student James Pinn, 17, said Thursday while eating dinner with hundreds of other Canadians in Amsterdam. “It’s been most amazing. I love being a Canadian…
“It means a lot to see this country thank us— we can also thank them for the education we’ve been getting this week. I’m very proud to be a Canadian.”
The students are on several different tours through Europe this week organized by EF Educational Tours and led by retired Port Perry history teacher Dave Robinson.
Pinn referred to the Wageningen parade as the highlight of the tour, as the Canadian youth experienced the love of a Dutch nation that was occupied and starved in the Second World War until liberated by Allied forces. The majority of those Allies fought under a Canadian flag and thousands are buried in war cemeteries here these students have had a chance to visit.
At the ceremony at Bergen Op Zoom Thursday morning, hundreds of Canadian students sat among Dutch youth. While initially shy, by the time the agenda began many had already exchanged pins and realized that despite a language barrier, these youth were not so different with the exception of the Dutch appreciation for Canada’s role in fighting for the freedom they now enjoy.
Edmonton’s Jasper Place High School student Stephanie Palosky told QMI Agency prior to leaving that as a cadet, she wanted to commemorate these soldiers by seeing their final resting place. The last few days have given her the chance to do so and also be surprised by how she as a Canadian has been received.
“It’s slowly sinking in— I’m not completely, fully realizing yet that I’m here and seeing what I’ve seen here,” Palosky said. “Even in the toughest times, we never gave up… it’s made me feel really passionate about being a Canadian.”
She and the other Jasper Place students spent Thursday touring the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam, which also added to their understanding of the impact of liberation on some.
“Everything they went through to ensure their children were safe during the war… I couldn’t imagine doing that as a Canadian,” Danielle Brunelle said. “(On Wednesday), I was shocked a lot of the kids knew the Canadian anthem— they knew the words and how it goes. We heard it coming from the crowd at least twice.”
Written May 6.

VE65 - From plaques to reality

BERGEN OP ZOOM, Netherlands — “When you go back home, you will be so different,” Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Walter Natynczyk told a group of wide-eyed students from Owen Sound, Ont. Thursday.
The students, from Owen Sound Collegiate and Vocational Institute (OSCVI), had gathered at this Canadian war cemetery outside Bergen Op Zoom around the grave of Signalman Hugh Verdon Webber— an alumnus of their high school.
Prior to an official commemorative ceremony featuring the prime ministers and chiefs of defence staff of both Canada and the Netherlands, these students had come to this specific grave to lay flags, pins and poppies at the eternal home of a boy who roamed the same high school halls they now walk.
The school is on a custom-built tour to various war cemeteries where some of OSCVI’s alumni are buried, part of a larger 2,000-student tour organized by EF Educational Tours.
Grade 12 student Emily Bass told QMI Agency that Webber had signed up for war in 1942, arriving overseas in 1943. He would be among the subsequent waves of troops who crossed the English Channel to fight in the Normandy campaign in 1944. As the campaign progressed and Belgian City of Antwerp was taken by the Allies, the Scheldt campaign began as Canadians and other forces pushed the Germans back up the various arms of the Rhine River delta.
It was during this campaign on Oct. 28, 1944 that Webber died, like many of the over 900 Canadians buried at this cemetery that today lies adjacent to a busy highway.
“We left behind a wife and his daughter to mourn his death,” Bass said. “Without his efforts, his daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren wouldn’t have all graduated from our high school.”
Webber’s name is one of many memorialized on a plaque that lies in the hallways of OSCVI – a familiar sight in countless elementary and high schools across Canada whose alumni fought in wars and didn’t return home.
“To us, he was a guy who went to our school— we had to be here to thank him for everything he did for us,” Bass said. “I’ll look at that plaque differently now because we’ve been here and we’ve seen all these graves. I’ll actually look at that plaque now.”
That was a theme picked up on by Natynczyk, who casually walked up to the students with his Dutch counterpart and struck up a conversation to thank them for having made the effort to commemorate their graduate and Canada’s role in the Scheldt campaign.
Dutch Chief of Staff Gen. Peter van Uhm told the students it was important for them to be at Bergen Op Zoom this day so they could share what they experienced with others back home. He called the trip, “more important than an iPod or a cellphone.”
“To come here, on the other side of the world, and see people from Owen Sound, Collingwood, Meaford… is great and so important that you’re here,” Natynczyk said. “Anyone here 15? Sixteen? Seventeen? This really hits home for you when you think these Canadians here were just like you…
“I just wanted to say thank you very much for coming.”
Written May 6.

VE65 - Liberation day

WAGENINGEN, Netherlands — Thousands of Canadian students witnessed a last hurrah for Canadian and Allied forces in the Dutch city where the Netherlands was freed from years of oppressive German occupation.
The approximately 2,000 students came from almost 90 schools across Canada and participated in the Liberation Parade program that ran throughout the day. They were joined by thousands of war veterans – including delegations of Canadian vets – and Dutch citizens in celebrating the 65th anniversary of the date Canadians, other allies, Dutch Prince Bernard and the Germans signed a treaty ending the war in the Netherlands.
They walked, wearing their red EF Educational Tours / 65th Anniversary Canada jackets and holding quilts stitched up from cloth squares decorated by each student on tour. Each square contained handprints depicting the student and the two soldiers they’re representing while on tour.
Justin Heyda, 16, and Jessica Lindsay, 16, from London’s Sir George Ross Secondary School, walked the parade route together with Woodstock’s Huron Park Secondary School. Both spoke exuberantly at the marshalling grounds after completing the hour-long walk of the experience of having thousands of Dutch residents and Canadian travellers applaud their acts of remembrance.
“It was so overwhelming— the joy of making these little kids happy by handing out Canadian flags and pins, it meant the world to them,” Heyda said. “It’s been a great feeling doing something really big by being in the parade and showing them you remember.”
Lindsay said she felt sorry for some of the Dutch children in the latter sections of the parade route as many of the Canadian students had exhausted their supplies of pins and flags to hand out.
“Seeing the kids that didn’t have pins and flags… I even took off a bandana I had around one leg and all the pins on my jacket to give to them,” she said. “They were all sticking their hands out for stuff, or to grab our hands or give us high-fives.”
Both spoke about the feelings that overwhelmed them as they walked the route, soaking in the appreciation for Canadian and allied veterans who liberated the Netherlands after the winter of 1944-45 where many were starved for food and other essentials. Had the Germans not capitulated at a hotel in Wageningen on May 5, 1945, many more would have starved to death as their occupiers kept these vital supplies from reaching them.
“We liberated their country and we helped them out,” Heyda said. “It’s changed me a lot— I didn’t think this many people would come out and I didn’t think about how young they’d are and that they’d remember and honour what the allies did.”
This year’s parade will be the last national Dutch ‘Thank you Canada and Allied Forces’ week of events as the remaining veterans of the Second World War age and will be unable to participate in future events. There are only several events remaining this week, including a commemoration at Bergen Op Zoom Thursday, a military tattoo in Voorthuizen on Friday and Saturday and a final parade in Apeldoorn Sunday.
Written May 5.

VE65 - Holten connections

I'm posting and re-posting some of the articles and photos taken during my tour of the Netherlands for the Victory in Europe tour. Some have been published by Sun Media / QMI Agency papers, some have not.

HOLTEN, Netherlands — Despite being separated by generations, students commemorating the 65th anniversary of the liberation of the Netherlands have been able to make some personal connections.
Each of the students participating in these events through EF Educational Tours has researched two soldiers who they’re representing while on tour. At the Holten Canadian War Cemetery, several students from Eastview Collegiate in Barrie, Ont. were able to connect with the graves of those who they’re representing.
“It makes it a lot more personal to know that you know someone who died and is buried here,” Eastview Grade 11 student Mike Olson said.
“They’re no longer just a number, but they’re people with families who loved them and whose lives they missed— it brings a tear to your eye,” Eastview grad Kristina King said.
Other students made connections through the people who helped bring them across the Atlantic to help commemorate the end of the Second World War and the liberation of the Netherlands.
Students from Thompson, Man.’s R.D. Parker Collegiate got a special treat as they watched a reunion between teacher Katie Maloney and Marc Van Aken behind the gravestone of Maloney’s relative James Joseph Maloney who enlisted with the South Saskatchewan Regiment and shipped to the Netherlands in 1944.
“He was hiding in the farmhouse of my grandfather and he was hit by shrapnel and killed in action,” Van Aken said, with Katie Maloney standing feet away. “My grandfather found the body, then put it to a grave in the local area. The only thing left was a beret and a badge— for over more than 60 years we have this beret and badge in our possession.
“My grandfather gave it to me in 1981 because I was interested in Canadian soldiers and the Second World War. I thought, ‘This beret must have a story, be from a young guy.’”
About four years of research led Van Aken to identify the beret as belonging to James Maloney, and after several attempts to contact the family through official channels the Internet and a phone directory led him to Albert Maloney in Thompson.
“He already knew my story because the Canadian Archives sent letters to the family,” Van Aken said.
A special monument to Maloney now stands on the Van Aken farm, which Albert was able to help unveil in 2005. Van Aken told the R.D. Parker students he plans to visit Canada for the first time in August.
“I hope to see Albert again and see the place where James grew up,” Van Aken said.
Katie Maloney’s students stood quietly in front of the grave as Van Aken spoke, and later Carmen Lambert reflected on what she’d just participated in.
“It was actually very special. It was about one of her own family members that died during the war— she’s been telling us stories all through the year,” Lambert said. “Being here and actually seeing the grave stone is actually quite touching and makes you feel like you’re part of her own family.”
Written May 4.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Reflections on a week I'll not soon forget

What a week.
As I sit here at my home office desk, I'm still scrambling for the adequate words to express what I've seen and experienced since departing for the Netherlands on April 30 for a fast-paced nine-day agenda of events commemorating the liberations of that kingdom by Canadian and other allied forces in May 1945. I was privileged to attend this tour courtesy of EF Educational Tours with several other media from across Ontario. Amazed to be able not only to witness these events with my own eyes and ears, but also able to add to this perception seeing and living it through the eyes of Canadian students.
I've never been prouder to be Canadian.
Our Second World War soldiers -- those still with us to this day and those in the thousands whose final resting place I stood in this past week -- did the heavy lifting during an almost year-long campaign moving northwards and west along the Rhine River delta to push back German forces from the Netherlands. Capitulation came on May 5 in Wageningen, at a hotel that still stands to this day. I stood metres away from that hotel on May 5, watching as a thankful, grateful, exuberant nation acknowledged not only the surviving veterans, but thousands of Canadian students. Canadian flags were everywhere you turned. Canadians of all ages were being serenaded by Dutch singing our national anthem and high-fiving them in the crowds. Children rushed every Canadian student, hands outstretched in thanks and seeking the many flags, pins and mementos Canadians brought with them to share.
This exuberance was powerfully contrasted by moments of sheer sadness and remembrance. Of watching Canadian students in tears, sobbing as they realized the cost to not only the gravestone in front of them but the hundreds (or thousands, depending on the site) of others around them. A generation that has only experienced conflict through random newspaper headlines and is perhaps detached from current wars and Canadian deaths on the other side of the world was overwhelmed by crashing into a nation that will never forget the cost of its liberation from an oppressive regime. Had capitulation not come in May 1945 the number of Dutch people dying from starvation would have skyrocketed and threatened the nation's very existence.
This was an education these students will never forget, one they would never have gotten in a classroom or on Canadian soil. Big, huge kudos to the teachers who signed up their schools -- 84 across Canada -- for this tour.
I was particularly lucky to both follow a local school here in Woodstock as well as encounter numerous Canadian schools overseas whose teachers went far above and beyond when preparing their students for this experience. Schools who deviated off the mass itineraries to visit the graves of those whose names are forever emblazoned on commemorative plaques in the hallways of their schools back home. Schools whose students and teachers had and found personal connections, taking the time to stand in silent remembrance at the feet of those soldiers' final resting places.
When I attempt to contrast these experiences against hearing -- locally and elsewhere -- of school board administrators who attempted or outright succeeded in denying requests from schools to attend these events... it saddens me even more today than it did prior to departure. For example, not one school from Toronto was in attendance. Schools from entire provinces were held back from attending for fear the trip would have a negative academic impact on students.
Though this was the last large-scale event involving veterans of the Second World War -- they're growing older unlike those who remained behind -- it's now up to youth to pick up the torch of remembrance as the younger generations in the Netherlands have unequivocally done.
The students I met were well-prepared and had worked for almost a year to ensure they didn't threaten their academic standing while gathering the knowledge they'd need to squeeze every possible moment out of this commemorative trip.
Our schools should enable this, not unduly stand in the way.