Students from across Durham Region are preparing for a trip of a lifetime to honour the Canadian men who died for their country in France 100 years ago.
Approximately 1,000 high school students, from the across the region will travel to Vimy Ridge next month to take part in a ‘Pilgrimage of Remembrance,’ which will culminate in a ceremony at the Vimy Ridge Memorial on April 9.
Dave Robinson, national advisor and coordinator for EF Educational Tours, addressed approximately 200 participating students from four of the Durham Catholic District School Board schools at Father Leo J. Austin secondary school March 7.
“The things you are going to experience are going to change your life on this tour,” said Robinson.
The Battle of Vimy Ridge took place on April 9, 1917 during the First World War. It is regarded as the turning point in Canadian history. Four Canadian divisions fought together as a unified force for the first time and defeated the German forces. Though the battle claimed the lives of 3,598 Canadian soldiers, it is often regarded as a defining moment for Canada, according to the Vimy Foundation.
Robinson, who has led tours to Vimy since the 90th anniversary said there will be approximately 9,000 students, teachers and chaperones travelling to Arras, France representing every Canadian province and territory, but the Durham contingent is the largest.
Taylor Chamberlain, a Grade 10 student from Monsignor John Pereyma Catholic Secondary School in Oshawa said she was excited to be travelling on a plane for the first time, and was looking forward to seeing the battlefields and finding out more about the war where her ancestor, Horace Macdonald, fought.
“My great-grandfather was in the Vimy war and he survived it. He was a sniper and he was shot in the back. He was about 22-years-old.”
Topher Malkin, a history teacher at All Saints Secondary School in Whitby, will lead a group of 42 students, adults and chaperones on a trip which will take in Amsterdam, Paris and London. He said the trip will be an emotional experience for the students.
“The trip ties the experiences of Canadian history students and helps create a direct link between their experience in the 21st century with the experiences of young Canadian boys who, 100-years ago, were living in trenches and fighting for their lives and making the ultimate sacrifice to fight for king and country,” said Malkin in a telephone interview.
Malkin has led trips to Vimy on previous anniversaries and said it is hard to evaluate the life experience for the students.
“Every student who has gone has told me after it was an experience they will never forget,” said Malkin. “I don’t think anyone who has been on this trip comes back without a positive experience.”
Malkin said the students from All Saints have each researched a soldier who died at Vimy Ridge and a member of the armed forces who died in the Second World War during the Invasion of Normandy. They will lay a small poppy cross and memorial maple leaf at the headstone of their assigned soldier at the cemeteries which will symbolically fulfil their pledge to remember the fallen Canadians.
The students will travel in different groups and experience various parts of Europe from April 6 – 14. But, they will all converge at the Vimy Memorial on April 9 for the memorial celebration which will be attended by members of the British Royal Family, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Governor General David Johnston, and the leaders of France, Belgium, and the U.K.
Security will be tight and all students have been vetted by Veterans Affairs Canada to obtain their ticket to the event.
Also accompanying the Durham delegation will be Oshawa City Councilor Bob Chapman and the Durham Regional Police Pipes and Drums Band.
Robinson said the town of Arras has been planning the celebrations for April 9 for at least 10 years and they have some spectacular things planned. He told the students they will have the opportunity to experience virtual life in the trenches through 3D goggles in an indoor exhibition hall. Additionally, there will be exhibits from the Hamilton Signal Corp, and the Invictus Games.