The Remembrance Day Ceremony: A Curriculum Artifact Essay by Ingrid Boyd

The Remembrance Day Ceremony: A Curriculum Artifact Essay by Ingrid Boyd

My friends and I sit quietly on the floor of the school gym. A group of older men walk in and take their seats on the stage in front of us.  The men are wearing military uniforms, many with medals pinned to their chests.  Their faces wear expressions of grim seriousness. The gym is unusually quiet as a student begins to recite a poem most of us know by heart – In Flanders Fields, by John McRae…our Remembrance Day ceremony has begun.

I clearly remember my efforts to make sense of those ceremonies some forty years ago, and to locate my place in their narratives.  The main story was always the same: we needed to honour and remember the (white) men who made the ultimate sacrifice so that we could enjoy freedom in Canada today.  The problem for me was that my own heritage was split between a father with British ancestry and a mother who was German.  My mother came to Canada only thirteen years after the Second World War ended.  She married my English father three years later; her new husband’s father and grandfather had served as Captains in previous wars against Germany. I was born a few years later and was given the perfect name to reflect my split ancestry: Ingrid Knowlton.  As I sat listening to the stories told at those Remembrance Day ceremonies long ago, I was painfully aware that one half of my ancestry was presented as a former, but very real, enemy – the enemy that those uniformed men sitting in front of me had fought and defeated.  How was I to find a place for myself in that narrative?

The solution, I see now, was the only one available to me – I ignored my German heritage – the “outsider” half – and focused only on my English ancestry.  That way, I could escape the discomfort that I felt, and found a place in the stories I heard every November 11th, as I grew up. My mother’s stories of covering her ears in underground bomb shelters in Germany as a small child had no place in the narratives presented to me on Remembrance Day. I focused, instead, on the heroic and triumphant stories of the British and Canadian soldiers who fought the enemy so that I could live in peace.

Flash forward nearly thirty years to ten years ago, when I worked as a middle school English and drama teacher, and undertook the daunting task of “putting on” the Remembrance Day ceremony for my school.  What did I draw from in my attempts to do so? My memories of Remembrance Day as a student, of course.  I decided to have my drama students focus on the story of the Newfoundland Regiment in the Battle of the Somme during WWI.  I had another student recite “In Flanders Fields,” we sang O Canada, and of course we marked two minutes of silence at 11:00 a.m.  I presented the same Remembrance Day narrative that I had grown up with.

My principal was pleased with the ceremony, but I was left feeling unsettled and conflicted about it.  While my drama students had performed on stage, I had looked out into the multicultural audience in my school auditorium, and I had suddenly wondered what message we were presenting to those young students.  Perhaps I was finally starting to acknowledge the discomfort I had felt as a child, trying to figure out where I fit into the stories presented on Remembrance Day.  Many of my students came from east India, Vietnam, and China.  How did the limited stories we were telling speak to them?  Were we really giving every student an opportunity to connect and feel they truly had a place in Canada?  We were still reminding our students to remember the sacrifices made by young Canadian soldiers so many years ago, so that Canada could be the peaceful country that it is today.  But it felt like something was missing – that other half of the story. Now that I’m older, and a teacher myself, I wonder how many of my own students can find a place in the narrative that we present each year in our school’s Remembrance Day Ceremony.  And what can we do differently, while still collectively “remembering” at this time?  While we collectively remember, what narratives have been forgotten or excluded?

It is time that I employ Pinar’s method of currere to rethink Remembrance Day as part of our school curriculum in Canada.  As Pinar (2011) states, “The present has been historically conceived, and so it is in the past we begin to seek the meaning of the present and our way to the future,” (p. 47). It is time to engage in this messy process and finally come to terms with what has always bothered me about Remembrance Day.  And so, I begin to dig out of the narrative trenches that I have constructed about my ancestry.

I did not know that many of our Canadian soldiers who fought in WWI and WWII were Aboriginal until I read Joseph Boyden’s novel, Three Day Road (2008). The novel is about a Cree soldier who returns from the battlefield of WWI, and relives his memories as his aunt paddles him back to his home in Northern Ontario.  In an interview in Quill and Quire (2005), Boyden said,

Native soldiers are not recognized for their accomplishments. When you look at the number of native soldiers that actually volunteered for World War I and World War II, it is an incredibly high rate. Oftentimes full reserves were cleared of eligible aged men.

It took a Canadian novel to inform me of this piece of Canadian history.  The contribution of these Aboriginal soldiers was not part of the narrative presented at Remembrance Day ceremonies in school as I grew up.  There was never an Aboriginal veteran sitting on the stage at those times.  And of course, I neglected to acknowledge Aboriginal soldiers in the Remembrance Day ceremony that I presented at my school years later.

Hans Smits (2008) writes that “Canadian curriculum theory has…in very problematic ways negated the voices of others in Canada, historically and presently” (p. 109). Clearly, it is time that our Remembrance Day ceremony recognizes the “others” who participated in, or were affected by, Canada’s first and second World Wars.  This might also include the important role played by Black Canadians who fought to be granted permission to enlist in WWI, the thousands of enlisted women overseas for both wars, and also the thousands of Japanese and Italian Canadians who were interned in Canada despite their Canadian citizenship.  The age old curriculum question of “What knowledge is of most worth?” could be interpreted here as “Which narratives should we tell?” every year when we remember together as Canadians in our schools.

Smits’ (2008) concern about the “voices of Canada presently” must also be considered as we examine the Remembrance Day ceremony.  On the second evening of our Curriculum Studies course, as my group discussed Cynthia Chambers’ (1999) important article on “creating and locating a curricular landscape of our own,” each one of us could fully relate to her idea of the “alienated outsider.” (p. 137).  Most of us were second generation Canadians, and yet we still felt, growing up, that we didn’t really belong. How then, do my young students today, many of whom are new Canadians, find meaning and a place as we collectively remember together?  As they watch a Remembrance Day ceremony unfold in front of their eyes, they must surely feel the way Chambers suggests all Canadians feel, “…unsure where we come from, where here is, and whether we belong” (p. 147). Chambers urges us as Canadian curriculum theorists to “search…for the tools we need to see our home, to help us understand how we have come to be “out of place” in this home, and how we can finally come home here” (p. 147). These words strike a chord in me now, and as I consider the Remembrance Day ceremony through this lens, I am concerned.  It is time to engage in what Pinar (2011) calls the progressive phase of currere – to envision a way that we can collectively remember in the future.

Last year’s ceremony looked a little different from the ceremony my students and I presented ten years ago.  The focus had shifted, of course, to the Canadian peacekeepers in Afghanistan. The sacrifice that these soldiers made and are still making was recognized, but there was still an emphasis on the stereotypical Canadian soldier of the first and second World Wars.  Names of former students from our school who died “serving their country” were read out.  There was no mention of the women, the Black Canadians, or the Aboriginals who also served.  We were collectively remembering, but many narratives were missing.

In September, the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) held a conference called “Educating for Peace and Justice: Action for Safe and Equitable Classrooms, Schools and Communities.”  Dr. Jason Kunin presented a workshop called “ReTeaching around Remembrance Day: Challenging War and Imperialism in Schools.”  He encouraged teachers to “think about ways to teach critically about Canada’s imperial/military culture past and present.” He described his own talk at the workshop as “Looking at Remembrance Day as a site of imperial politics that is both local and global, that are embedded not only in curriculum but in schools themselves,” and asked attendees to “look at Remembrance Day and challenge this narrative.” One of the presenters at this workshop, James Campbell (2011), suggests an alternative approach to Remembrance Day on the website for Educators of Peace and Justice. He acknowledges that we must remember all of those who served in the two World Wars, but that the voices of the victims of war must also be heard.

Campbell’s (2011) ideal Remembrance Day reading would include the voices of a mother of a NATO soldier who served in Afghanistan, a Laotian peasant who survived the U.S. bombing raids in Laos during the Vietnam War, and a peacekeeper who deployed to Iraq seven years ago.  I would include the voice of an Aboriginal soldier and a Black Canadian soldier as well.  Campbell’s message would be: “Most of us here have no experience of war, so we may ask ourselves what do we have to remember on Remembrance Day?” I believe that an inclusive collection of stories from around the world, and a collective hope for peace, would resonate with every student, no matter what his or her background, at a Remembrance Day ceremony.  The focus would be on peace and justice, which is something every child and teacher can hope for together.

Cynthia Chambers (1999) believes, “Canadian curriculum theorists must…seek new interpretive tools for understanding what it means to be Canadian and what Canadians might become in the 21st century; and to create curriculum theory that is written at home but works on behalf of everyone” (p. 137). It is time to bring the curriculum of the Remembrance Day ceremony in Canadian schools into the 21st century, and to remember all Canadians who were involved and affected by war.  It is also time to make peace the central theme of that ceremony, and to expand the collection of stories we tell to include victims of war around the globe, so that all students, regardless of their ethnic background, can feel connected and take meaning from this important ritual.  The act of remembering together should continue, but we must present a narrative that is honest and true.  As Smits (2008) writes, “Stories matter, and how we tell them matters even more” (p.107). He goes on to remind us that “…globalization has made us, in very real and everyday terms, part of one world.”  This suggests to me that by making peace the central theme of our Remembrance Day ceremony, and by including stories of war from all over the globe, our students will find honest, hopeful answers to Cynthia Chambers’ (1999) important questions of “where we come from, where here is, and whether we belong” (p. 148).

This year, the teachers and students at my school are preparing for our Remembrance Day ceremony, which is just around the corner.  My own grade four students will present “In Flanders Fields” as a choral reading.  The names of former students from our school who died in the first and second World Wars will be read by several students.  We will sing O Canada and have two minutes of silence.  But this year, because we have had a conversation about “what to remember” as a staff, a student will speak about the estimated seven thousand Aboriginal Canadians who enlisted to fight in both World Wars, and some images of these soldiers will be shown on the screen above the stage.  Students’ art work will be displayed – a varied collection of responses on what war means to them – allowing them to tell their own stories. And this year, I will remember my own mother’s stories of her childhood experiences of war, and understand that these stories do have a place in this ritual. It may not be perfect, but a “complicated conversation” has begun (Pinar 2011). It is my hope that eventually, no matter where we come from, teachers and students will remember together, and hope for peace together, and all will belong.

References

Boyden, J. (2008). Three day road. Toronto, On: Penguin.

Chambers, C. (1999). A topography for canadian curriculum theory. Canadian Journal of Education, 24(2), 137-147.

Kunin, J. (2011). Oise: Educating for peace and justice. Retrieved from  http://www.oise.utoronto.ca/oise/About_OISE/educatingforpeaceandjustice_110926.html

Pinar, W. F. (2011). What is curriculum theory?. (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Smits, H. (2008). Is a canadian curriculum studies possible? (what are the conditions of possibility?): Some preliminary notes for further inquiry. Journal of the Canadian Association for curriculum Studies, 6(2), 107, 109.