Professor captures war memories in new documentary

The Class of 1941 at Royal Roads Military College in Colwood included young Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve Russell McConnell, who died in a German U-Boat attack in 1942 in the St. Lawrence River.

The Class of 1941 at Royal Roads Military College in Colwood included young Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve Russell McConnell, who died in a German U-Boat attack in 1942 in the St. Lawrence River.

Peter Mallett, Staff Writer ~

A new documentary created by Royal Roads University professor Geoffrey Bird explores the stories of those places across Canada related to the the Second World War.

The newly released film, his second of a two-part series, War Memories across Canada: Sites of the Second World War made its debut in a one-time engagement at the Vic Theatre on Oct. 11.

Funded by Heritage Canada, Parks Canada and Royal Roads University, the documentary comprises 27 short stories that explores both soldiers’ and civilians’ personal attachments to war monuments and historical sites across the nation.

“We are at a point in time where the witnesses to the Second World War are passing on and we are trying to get their stories now,” says Bird. “Otherwise, we rely on others to recount the story of what happened, what we can call ‘guardians of remembrance’.”

Raised in Victoria, the former naval reservist started his service with HMCS Malahat, and worked as a reservist between 1984 and 1992.

He now heads Royal Roads’ Tourism Management graduate program as an Associate Professor. Bird first realized the power of standing in the footsteps of those who fought while he worked at Vimy Ridge in France as a tour guide in 1990.

“Later in life, as a doctoral student working at battlefields in Normandy, I was interested in the relationship between tourism, remembrance, and the landscapes of war,” says Bird. “The experience people have when they stand at Vimy Ridge, Juno Beach, or the many sites of memory across our nation and the world trigger a strong connection to the past.”

His latest war memories documentary embodies this connection with places, and personal and historical accounts of the world wars.

“Travelling to places and exploring monuments and memorials becomes one of the most powerful ways we connect the past and learn about it,” says Bird. “In this case tourism isn’t about entertainment it’s about education.”

One story is that of a Royal Canadian Navy Volunteer Reservist, Russell McConnell whose name is engraved on the Naval College war memorial located on the university grounds. McConnell did his training at the former military college before his deployment aboard HMCS Raccoon in 1942. The vessel, an armed yacht, was sunk by German U-boat 165 in the St. Lawrence River as it made its way from Quebec to Sydney, N.S. Everyone on board was killed.

“There is a lot of information we tell in the documentary that you don’t see when you look at the inscription on the monument,” says Bird. “This guy went to McGill University and was MVP on the school’s hockey team before his death, but this kind of information is soon forgotten when we don’t know the story behind the name.”

Another vignette expands on gravestone inscriptions in Victoria’s Jewish Cemetery located near the Cedar Hill Rd. and Hillside Ave intersection. Graves of Holocaust survivors who settled in Victoria and their tombstones paint a vivid picture of their experiences.

“Some of the markers tell of the survivor’s horrific times in concentration camps such as Auschwitz,” says Bird. “This period was a significant time in their lives, they survived it, and they wanted people to know they lived their lives and ultimately defeated their captors.”

Bird is travelling to Ottawa for a Nov. 10 screening of his latest work at the War Museum. Both of his films can be viewed free of charge on the university’s web page:

Filed Under: Top Stories

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