Unknown Relative Inspires Winning Essay

September 8, 2008 by Sharon Adams

Ninety years can be an insuperable gulf of time: time for doers of great deeds to pass on, their feats forgotten even by descendants. Time for thrilling exploits to become dusty memories in albums and diaries. And, finally, time for facts to be condensed into dry tracts in textbooks, stripped of the visceral individual experiences, the fear and pain and longing and suffering and willingness even to die in the line of duty. John Alexander McLean, a teenager from Cape Breton, was killed in action at Lens in 1917. His body was not recovered from the battlefield. It is likely that he would have joined those unsung heroes 90 years on, whose names are never again said aloud, whose absence causes no ache in the heart of any living soul. But nine decades after his death, his younger brother’s great-granddaughter was given a school assignment that has ensured his memory, and perhaps his name, will live on.

Senior Colour, First Place, Silvia Alvarado, Ottawa, Ont. [Silvia Alvarado]

Senior Colour, First Place, Silvia Alvarado, Ottawa, Ont.
Silvia Alvarado

Although she had grown up with tales of the Second World War related by a grandfather who served, Katrina van Kessel of Elliot Lake, Ont., did not know she had a relative who had died in the First World War.

“Everybody else seems to have forgotten him,” says van Kessel, 19. Her assignment was to do a report on someone who fought at Vimy Ridge, the bloody but successful offensive by the Canadian Corps against the German Sixth Army in April 1917—a battle credited with helping to forge Canada’s national identity. John McLean fought in that battle and survived.

Primary Colour, First Place, Ashton Magotiaux, Carlyle, Sask. [Ashton Magotiaux]

Primary Colour, First Place, Ashton Magotiaux, Carlyle, Sask.
Ashton Magotiaux

Van Kessel was surprised to learn of this great-great-uncle. “My grandmother and great-grandmother knew about him, but never talked about him.” John McLean had gone to war and died before his younger brother, who inherited his medals and letters, was old enough to go to school.

Intermediate Colour, First Place, Delia Yao, Scarborough, Ont. [Delia Yao]

Intermediate Colour, First Place, Delia Yao, Scarborough, Ont.
Delia Yao

The essay she wrote about her long-lost relative, Some Climb A Ridge, placed first in the senior essay division of The Royal Canadian Legion’s 2008 annual Remembrance Contest for posters, essays and poetry. Through information gleaned from official sources such as the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and enlistment documents, van Kessel learned John McLean died shy of his 20th birthday. But it was the personal material—the letters, the medals—that endeared him to his young descendant, roughly the same age now as he was when he died.

“I have his letter written the day before he died,” she says. “He said he would write again if all went well tomorrow, and of course it didn’t.” Those letters allowed van Kessel to cross that gulf of time, to take her never-known uncle into her heart. “I cried at the memorial, when I saw his name. It was absolutely heartbreaking. It’s like you know them after you do that.” To honour him, she would like to name one of her future children after him.

Remembrance, peace and sacrifice were themes that echoed through the winning submissions chosen from 105,932 entries from across the country. Several winning students chose to explore the history of family members who served their country or were killed in battle. Some chose to focus on those who experienced war, whose memories bring alive the sacrifices of an earlier time. And others chose remembrance itself as a theme.

“We should teach the importance of remembrance to younger students,” says Silvia Alvarado, a graduate of St. Patrick’s High School in Ottawa, first-place winner in the senior colour poster division. Her poster shows a cemetery where a veteran has come to pay his respects and is visited by the pale images of comrades who died. Veterans, she says “pretty much bought us our freedom here in Canada; they’ve been through so much.”

Junior Colour, First Place, Anna Gummer, Comox, B.C. [Anna Gummer]

Junior Colour, First Place, Anna Gummer, Comox, B.C.
Anna Gummer

It’s a sentiment shared in Children of Freedom, the first-place junior essay by Lauren Phillips from Condor Elementary School in Leslieville, Alta., about 200 kilometres northwest of Calgary. “If you think that the veterans are just another type of guest speaker, then you are very wrong,” she wrote. And the theme is also woven into Jason Xue Bin Peng’s second-place senior colour poster. Against a background of a group of soldiers from an historic war, a young boy, a serving soldier and a veteran gaze out over a Canadian flag. The title: A Legacy Bridging Generations.

It’s a legacy that brings pride to Ashley Major, 18, who received an honourable mention in the senior national essay contest. She had relatives with direct experience of fighting in, and living through, war. Her grandfather George served in Europe from 1942 to 1945; her grandmother Cornelia is a Dutch war bride who came from a family that hid a young Jewish woman for three years. “They couldn’t tell the neighbours or their best friends or even family members,” says Major who hails from St. Brieux, Sask., a two-and-a-half-hour drive northeast of Saskatoon. “If you told anyone, someone could be tortured for the information, so they had to hide her in the basement and keep her totally out of sight. I was so proud to hear about that.”

Her essay argues that while stone and metal monuments are nice, peace itself is the best monument to those who died for their country. “What they truly fought for was the fact there would be peace in the future. That’s the monument they wanted,” says Major.

A photograph of her great-grand­father, a former soldier who died before she could meet him, inspired Andrea Murray, whose poem placed first in the contest’s senior poetry division.

Senior Black and White, First Place, Monika Stahlstrom, Surrey, B.C. [Monika Stahlstrom]

Senior Black and White, First Place, Monika Stahlstrom, Surrey, B.C.
Monika Stahlstrom

“I’ve had a lot of family members who were in the First World War and the Second World War,” says Murray, 18. “Ideas began to form in my mind,” she adds, after her mother dug out a picture of her great-grandfather, who served in the Second World War.

“I tried to put myself in the place of a soldier,” says Murray, whose hometown is Benalto, Alta., about 180 kilometres north of Calgary. “What would be going through their minds?”

Her poem Wisps of Memory explores the awful experiences of war: common soldiers slogging it out in bad weather, frightened, pushed to the limit physically, unsure whether they would prevail, often dying for their ideals.

Courage! they cried. For Country!
and died.

This repeated chorus reminds the reader of the many who paid the ultimate price for the freedom of generations to come. Thousands of miles and decades of time separate this Alberta teen from the experiences of these young men, but their shared youth gives this talented young writer insight into their emotions.

She writes of young soldiers whose “bravado drains steadily with the sweat,” conscious of death marching among them, who heard cries “like Cain’s cursed first kill.” Who carry out their deadly duty but “wondered whose brother we slew.”

Primary Black and White, First Place, Jennifer Harper, Birch Hills, Sask. [Jennifer Harper]

Primary Black and White, First Place, Jennifer Harper, Birch Hills, Sask.
Jennifer Harper

War is “almost an abstract concept” for the youth of today, she says, so long after the last big war and with current conflicts being fought on soil that seems more foreign, more distant, than that of our European allies.

Murray’s poem casts the abstract in concrete:

It came with a price,
this thing we hold close
Of everything else,
Peace cost us the most.

Remembrance is important, Murray says, quoting the famous remark that those who don’t study the past will repeat it. “Conflicts are repeated over and over and over again, and if we don’t remember, we’re doomed to do it again and again.”

Time and how it’s spent today was on the mind of Monika Stahlstrom, 17, of Sullivan Heights Secondary School in Surrey, B.C., creator of the first-place senior black-and-white poster. “A lot of people say to take the time to remember, but don’t actually do it themselves.”

Her entry, titled Take Time to Remember, features a rapt young reader, backed by two figures from the National War Memorial, one of whom is resting a hand on the youth’s shoulder.

Remembrance is important “especially now that there’s not a lot of people left from the First World War and Second World War,” she says. “We need to take time to remember those who’ve fought for us and made our country the way it is now.” Without remembrance, she says, Canadians could “take everything for granted.” In years past “people didn’t live like this; they had other things to worry about than their high-speed internet and high-definition television.”

Intermediate Black and White, First Place, Derek Wong, Scarborough, Ont. [Derek Wong]

Intermediate Black and White, First Place, Derek Wong, Scarborough, Ont.
Derek Wong

In the summer Stahlstrom teaches English to Korean students, and last year learned about the personal effects of war. “One student talked about how families (during the war in Korea) were split up. A lot of people talk about war deaths and the politics, but these students talked more about families and how they were affected.”

It’s a personal memory that, along with the school lessons of history and war, she will most certainly take time to remember.

Time was also on the mind of the junior poem contest winner. In Dear Canada, nine-year-old Kylie MacNeil of Enfield, N.S.—about 40 kilometres north of Halifax—asks, “What am I remembering on this little day in time?” “So much to think about for a little girl of nine. How do I make this day special, how do I make it mine?”

She begins by counting her blessings, then thanking those who served for their courage and service, but that is still somehow unsatisfying. “Why do we only do this on November 11th morning till night?” she asks in the poem.

Think how the world would be if we
had silence every day,
Time to stop and be thankful each in
our own way.
So my commitment to make this
day special for me,
Is to carry it all year long in my heart, dear Canada, proud and free.

Peace is the overriding theme of remembrance for Delia Yao, the 15-year-old winner of the intermediate colour poster category. Her poster, titled Lest We Forget, features a field of red maple leaves around the outline of a dove. Inside the space two soldiers are drawn. One is carrying an injured man on a stretcher; the other is shooting a rifle into the ruins of a city, over which warplanes fly.

Junior Black and White, First Place, Mallory Lindsay, Arborfield, Sask. [Mallory Lindsay]

Junior Black and White, First Place, Mallory Lindsay, Arborfield, Sask.
Mallory Lindsay

“The dove is a significant symbol,” says Yao, who’s entering Grade 10 at W.A. Porter Collegiate Institute in Scarborough, Ont. “I thought it would be good to have the pictures of the soldiers within the dove, because it stands for fighting for peace.”

Yao, who produced her poster during regular Saturday art lessons at the Ivy Yin Yuk Leung Art Studio in Scarborough, hopes to pursue a career in design.

Major begins studies this fall at Concordia University College of Alberta in Edmonton. She plans to continue writing, honing her skills at poetry and one day, she hopes, writing a novel. Stahlstrom is entering Simon Fraser University, aiming ultimately to teach high school. Alvarado is headed to Algonquin College in Ottawa to study fine arts. Van Kessel is off to Trent University in Peterborough to study anthropology and specialize in archeology, with an eye to a career in academe.

But wherever these young Canadians go, they carry the spark of remembrance. Quoting John McCrae’s In Flanders Fields, “the torch be ours to hold high,” says Major. “That’s the duty now passed on to us, as the future generation. To maintain the peace they sacrificed themselves for.”

2008 National Winners

Senior
Colour Poster—
First: Silvia Alvarado, Ottawa; Second: Jason Xue Bin Peng, Vancouver; Honourable Mention: Brandon Olsen, Emo, Ont.
Black and White Poster—First: Monika Stahlstrom, Surrey, B.C.; Second: Viviana Astudillo, Toronto; Honourable Mention: Brittney Hymanyk, Spruce Grove, Alta.
Essay—First: Katrina Elissa van Kessel, Elliot Lake, Ont.; Second: Kayla Feragen, Banff, Alta.; Honourable Mention: Ashley Major, St. Brieux, Sask.
Poem—First: Andrea Murray, Benalto, Alta.; Second: Lauren Lavoie, Regina; Honourable Mention: Joseph MacNeil, Antigonish, N.S.

Intermediate
Colour Poster—
First: Delia Yao, Scarborough, Ont.; Second: Bobbi Farion, Vegreville, Alta.; Honourable Mention: Katlyn Gregory, Bridgetown, N.S.
Black and White Poster—First: Derek Wong, Scarborough, Ont.; Second: Rebecca Clark, Wolseley, Sask; Honourable Mention: Jocelyn Hendricks, Nanoose Bay, B.C.
Essay—First: Chelsea Kuik, Winnipeg; Second: Silken Handford-Perronnet, Tisdale, Sask.; Honourable Mention: Bernadette Weaver, South River, Ont.
Poem—First: Natasha Hofer, Gladstone, Man.; Second: Cali Hicks, Sackville, N.B.; Honourable Mention: Meg Irving, Sundre, Alta.

Junior
Colour Poster—
First: Anna Gummer, Comox, B.C; Second: Taylor Wheeler, Estevan, Sask.; Honourable Mention: Kelsey Henry, South Tetagouche, N.B.
Black and White Poster—First: Mallory Lindsay, Arborfield, Sask.; Second: Colby Shell, Debolt, Alta.; Honourable Mention: Johnathon Butler, Stirling, Ont.
Essay—First: Lauren Phillips, Leslieville, Alta.; Second: Amanda Burling, Emerson, Man.; Honourable Mention: Selma Kusturica, Kelowna, B.C.
Poem—First: Kylie MacNeil, Enfield, N.S.; Second: Macaulay Scott, Calgary; Honourable Mention: Jessica McCarthy, Spaniards Bay, Nfld.

Primary
Colour Poster—
First: Ashton Magotiaux, Carlyle, Sask., Second: Ellen Shore, Halifax; Honourable Mention: Marco Ramirez, Surrey, B.C.
Black and White Poster—First: Jennifer Harper, Birch Hills, Sask.; Second: Noah Fortnum, Chilliwack, B.C.; Honourable Mention: Alexia Russell, Whitby, Ont.

Some Climb A Ridge

by Katrina Elissa van Kessel

Some climb a ridge into glory. Others are meant to slip away into the annals of history: a number; a rank; a unit; a date.

1075159 to the army and Private to the command, but to those who knew and loved you, you were John Alexander McLean.

Born on that most holy of days, December 25, in an unremarkable year, 1897, you were the first son born to Hugh and Jesse McLean of Long Point, Inverness Co., a small village located in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. You would grow up there. At the time of your attestment, you weren’t much older than me and not so far away from those carefree days by the ocean: you were only 18 years, five months old. You were living at 167 Pleasant St., Halifax, (did you leave Inverness Co. to find work or to find yourself a place in the world?), and had taken a job as a labourer for Ry Construction.

You stood just over 5’9” and weighed a slim 157 pounds. The girls must have found you exceedingly handsome, with your dark hair and blue eyes, yet it’s possible you didn’t leave behind someone to ache for you; Sergeant Walsh wrote ‘no’ beside ‘married’. On the 26th of April you pledged your life in the defence of King George V and his successors. Then it was the doctor’s turn. He noted scars on the back of your left hand and shin (in case you had to be identified), and then quickly declared you fit for deployment.

Less than a year later, you would find yourself across the ocean with the 7th Battalion at Vimy. Despite the amazing odds against you and your fellow Canadians, you were both victorious; Canada won the battle and you kept your life. It wasn’t to stay that way. On a “quiet and dull” morning at Lens, as a field Sergeant noted in his journal, you were killed in action. You were declared a Commonwealth casualty, your body never having been recovered. You were not yet 20. And that, a saddest of truths, is all I know of you, John.

You were left forever in France, never to see Canada again…never to see the results of your (and so many others’) efforts. The Allies won, John. Germany signed an armistice on November 11th, 1918. It was called ‘the War to End All Wars’, but sadly enough only two decades later the world came together again to fight an all-too familiar enemy.

Because of your great sacrifice, John, you missed so much good, so much bad: The Great Depression and World War II; the opening night of Gone With The Wind, sweetheart in hand. You missed the rise of rock ’n’ roll and Elvis Presley. Neil Armstrong landed on the moon and you weren’t watching.

More important than all of that, though, you missed out on your family. The baby brother you left behind went on to marry a beautiful woman named Helen and with her had seven children. I’m sure Rod has regaled you with tales since he joined you in 1991, but I’m one of their many great-grandchildren and your great-great niece. I didn’t know anything about you until so recently but already you have endeared yourself to my heart.

The other day, John, I received a package from The sergeant-of-arms at the House of Commons and in that package was your page in the Book of Remembrance. Yes, every year on June 24th Canadians from across the country can see your name displayed in Parliament. Did you ever think you would receive such an honour? Or that over 32 million citizens would stand for you and your comrades on November 11th every year?

A Mr. Boivin included in that same package a message, and part of it read: “A grateful nation recognizes his sacrifice each year…In the same sense of gratitude, this page is sent to you with the sincere hope it will remain a source of pride for your family.”

John, you will always remain to me and my family a great source of honour and knowing that your memory will never fade, I hope you can rest in peace with the knowledge that you contributed to the freedom of so many nations.

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