Family Stories Inspire Young Writers and Artists

September 5, 2011 by Sharon Adams

The winning senior black and white poster in the 2011 Royal Canadian Legion Remembrance Contests features a close-up of an older person’s eye, shedding tears. Reflected in the eye, a soldier in battle garb is outlined against an explosion. A poem embellishes the image:  ‘In the field of battle, where they once tread, come these tears of Remembrance that we should all shed.’

“It was intentional not to give a specific war or conflict,” says Grade 12 artist Tim MacDonald, 18, from Malagash, N.S., the artist, whose entry came through Pugwash Branch. Sacrifice and service—and grief—are not the province of any one war or one generation. But, he adds, “One could say that along generations, memories aren’t kept; either stories aren’t told or no one’s listening.”

Several of the winners of the 2011 contests, which drew more than 100,000 entries, chose to tell personal stories about service and sacrifice of a member of their own family, others honoured those who paid—and pay—the price of freedom for us all.

Captivated by television, computers and text messages, “today’s youth listen less to elders who witnessed and went through all this,” MacDonald says. “I’m trying to encourage people to stop and think about it, and at least shed a tear with or for people who went through this.”

MacDonald had two great-uncles who made the supreme sacrifice at a young age, brothers Beldon and Burton Treen. Beldon, 28, a lance sergeant with the First Canadian Mounted Rifles, Saskatchewan Regiment, was killed in action at the Battle of Vimy Ridge April 9, 1917, and is buried in Canadian Cemetery No. 2 at Neuville-St. Vasst in France. Four months later during the fierce fighting for Hill 70 near Lens, a mustard gas canister explosion blinded and wounded Burton, who was sent back home to Nova Scotia, where he died from the effects of the gas two years later, at 21, and was buried in the Malagash Cemetery.

Laura Howells, the 16-year-old Grade 11 student at St. Bonaventure’s College in St. John’s, Nfld., who placed first in the senior poetry category, also drew on the experiences of a family member—her grandfather David Stinson, who served in Vietnam. Her entry came through Pleasantville Branch in St. John’s.

Stinson lost his best friend the day Laura’s mother was born. “He never talks about his war experience,” says Howells. “That one moment is all…his best friend was shot in the face and was bleeding all over him. He won’t say anything else.” But Howells captures the deep feelings in the lines of her poem about the “lone tribute to his dark and taboo past,” in a room where “centered ‘midst the medals and the pride, Beloved flag is hanging at half mast.”

She was surprised and gratified to hear from one of her grandfather’s friends, a veteran who told her it was meaningful for him, too. “I found it very touching that this poem could mean something to other veterans, that it could move them.”

Her own views on the importance of remembrance have been shaped by her grandfather’s experience. “It doesn’t matter if you believe in war or not or you’re for or against what people are fighting for,” she says. “Just the fact people are risking their lives and making such a sacrifice so selflessly…. If we forget about it, we forget about a huge part of our history and culture. All those lives…it’s really not acceptable.”

Grade 12 student Katelyn Major, 17, of St. Brieux, Sask., winner of the senior essay competition, whose entry came through Pathlow Branch, writes about her grandfather, who served as an engineer. “And like many of the soldiers who survived, war scarred him.”  Although told about the hardships and sadness he went through, “I saw no hardships in his eyes. I saw pride…I could hear honour,” in the jingle of his medals as he took part in Remembrance Day services.

A grandfather was the inspiration for several other young artists and writers.

Both the first- and second-place winners in the intermediate essay division wrote about grandfathers. Katrina Laing, first-place winner from Unity, Sask., writes “I can never truly know what you have been through, Grandpa, but I will always be thankful.” He was wounded and lost a good friend coming ashore on Juno Beach. Jayna Butler’s letter to her great-grandfather garnered her second-place honours in the intermediate essay competition. The student from Gilbert Plains, Man., thanked him for his wartime stories that “were few but…helped me understand your past life experiences and what wartime was like…I know you wished that people would have learned from the first two world wars so…our Canadian troops didn’t have to fight in Afghanistan.”

“My family painted me a picture of a gentle man involved in a war he could never understand,” Céline Dubeau, of Penetanguishene, Ont. wrote of her grandfather Marcel DeVillers, who joined up in 1942. He described the daily menu as “lamb, ram or mutton,” not appreciated by the soldiers, who gave it to starving children who were “so famished they would shove the meat in their mouths forgetting to chew and breathe.”  Her grandfather’s war stories always paid particular attention to the children, “never the battles.” Although he fought through Italy, Holland and Germany, DeVillers did not talk about his dangerous experiences, so the family will always wonder about a story a local veteran shared with them about being the only one of his regiment to return alive following a particular battle. “The story will never be proven, since the topic of the matter would’ve never crossed Marcel’s lips and, following his passing in 1990, there are no methods to retrieve the truth,” she wrote in her entry, which placed second in the senior essay category.

“I’ve never had any personal experiences with war,” says Atalanta Shi, 15, of Burnaby, B.C., first-place winner in the senior colour poster competition, “however, wars have affected all of us, whether we were a part of it or not. It is because of the brave soldiers who sacrificed their lives for us that we are able to live peacefully in Canada today, and I think sometimes it’s easy for people to take that for granted.” Centred in her poster, titled Remember the Sacrifice, are a mother and child walking hand-in-hand with the memory of a husband and father, represented by a figure whose body is made up of poppies. At the top of the painting are the eyes of an aged veteran, and at the bottom, two people clasping hands “as if to say that we are all part of this and we’re all together,” says Shi.

This is the fourth year the talented Shi has entered the competition. In 2010 she placed second provincially for intermediate colour poster, one of half a dozen awards she garnered that year, including first places in her age group in the Peace Pals International Art Awards and Exhibition and the Canadian Naval Centennial children’s art competition. Shi, now a Grade 11 student at Burnaby North Secondary School, plans to pursue an art career.

Selfless sacrifice is the theme in the first-place intermediate colour poster by Mu Qing Kuang, of Surrey, B.C. The Elgin Park Secondary School student’s work shows a soldier carrying a colleague, blood dripping from his fingertips. The red drops turn into poppies, befitting the poster’s words ‘Blood to memories, Lest we forget…’

Lin Han, of Gordon A. Brown Middle School in Toronto and Bruce Gifford David Marpole, from Banff, Alta., focused on the two minutes of silence during Remembrance Day services. “They gave up their entire lives, while we give up only two minutes,” wrote Han in the poem that garnered second place in the intermediate category. “Taking time to honour the soldiers who have fought and died in battle is something we can do to make sure their sacrifices are never forgotten,” wrote Marpole in his first-place junior essay reflecting on the 11 years he has attended ceremonies and stood in silence for two minutes. “This Remembrance Day, I thought about the many other people affected by war including civilians, prisoners of war and children like me…. It is my hope that peace will be achieved for all countries during my life, and taking time to respect our war veterans is a small step in this direction.”

The Royal Canadian Legion has been offering its essay contest since the 1950s. Gradually the program grew to include annual competitions for the best essays, poems, colour posters and black and white posters. The competitions are broken into age categories—junior (Grades 4 through 6), intermediate (Grades 7 through 9) and senior (Grades 10 through 12). There is also a primary category (kindergarten through Grade 3) for posters only.

Entries are judged at the community level by volunteers at local Legion branches, and winning entries progress to the provincial level. Winning entries from this level are forwarded to Ottawa where the national winners are chosen. The competition is stiff, but even so, this year two students from École secondaire De Mortagne in Boucherville, Que., won honourable mentions for their entries in the senior competitions: Philippe Desjardins for an essay and Laurie Desmarais for a black and white poster. Both entries came through Pierre Boucher Branch in Boucherville.

Works of the national first-place winners of the poster, essay and poetry competitions are displayed at the Canadian War Museum from June to May of the following year. Works garnering second place or honourable mention are displayed in the foyer of the Parliament Buildings during the annual remembrance period in November.

The Legion sponsors a trip to Ottawa for the senior winners in the four competitions. They attend the National Remembrance Day ceremonies where they place a wreath on behalf of the Youth of Canada, and tour the Canadian War Museum and Parliament Hill.

2011 National Results

Senior

Senior Colour 1st place - Atalanta Shi, Burnaby, B.C.

Senior Colour 1st place – Atalanta Shi, Burnaby, B.C.

Colour Poster—First: Atalanta Shi, Burnaby, B.C.; Second: Hermina Paull, Summerberry, Sask.; Honourable Mention: Brett Halland, Ponoka, Alta.

Black and White Poster—First: Tim MacDonald, Malagash, N.S.; Second: Sienna Cho, Surrey, B.C.; Honourable Mention: Laurie Desmarais, Varennes, Que.

Essay—First: Katelyn Major, St. Brieux, Sask.; Second: Céline Dubeau, Penetanguishene, Ont.; Honourable Mention: Philippe Desjardins, Varennes, Que.

Poem—First: Laura Rhiannon Howells, St. John’s, Nfld.; Second: Kelsey Lee Adler, Lacombe, Alta.; Honourable Mention: Serena Ambler, Clinton, B.C.

Intermediate

Colour Poster—First: Mu Qing Kuang, Surrey, B.C.; Second: Lauren McCracken, Kingsville, Ont.; Honourable Mention: Aadyn Oleksyn, Prince Albert, Sask.

Black and White Poster—First: Iris Shen, Markham, Ont.; Second: Joy Penpenia, Surrey, B.C.; Honourable Mention: Erika Stonehouse, Baddeck, N.S.

Essay—First: Katrina Laing, Unity, Sask.; Second: Jayna Butler, Gilbert Plains, Man.; Honourable Mention: Shanna Réhel, St. Georges de Malbay, Que.

Poem—First: Madison Boon, Maryfield, Sask.; Second: Lin Han, Toronto; Honourable Mention: Ryan Michael O’Connor, Gaspé, Que.

Junior

Colour Poster—First: Kelaiah Quinn Guiel, Bailieboro, Ont.; Second: Torri Jamel Person, Marwayne, Alta.; Honourable Mention: Katya Winters, Oak Lake, Man.

Black and White Poster—First: Colleen Hallett, Boissevain, Man.; Second: Melody Chen, Richmond, B.C.; Honourable Mention: Cassandra Stubbington, Nine Mile River, N.S.

Essay—First: Bruce Gifford David Marpole, Banff, Alta.; Second: David “Bailey” Clark, Indian River, P.E.I.; Honourable Mention: Chloe Mailloux, Sturgeon Falls, Ont.

Poem—First: Madeleine Crawford, Cornwall, P.E.I.; Second: Cole Stephenson, Wakefield, N.B.; Honourable Mention: Marissa Hope Mueller, Petrolia, Ont.

Primary

Colour Poster—First: Madison Bolyea, Shanty Bay, Ont.; Second: Ruby Kinash, Wishart, Sask.; Honourable Mention: Lillie Lax, Keewatin, Ont.

Black and White Poster—First: Terrence Chase G. Hill, Clairmont, Alta.; Second: Daniel Rust, Petrolia, Ont.; Honourable Mention: Dylan Anderson, Surrey, B.C.

Senior Essay – 1st place

The Price of Freedom

By Katelyn Major

Yes, there’s a voice that begs us listen,
And lo! The text is plain.
“We have paid the price of  freedom,
Let it not have been in vain!”

-An excerpt from the poem The Man We Never Knew by Don Crawford.

What is the price of freedom? What could possibly be exchanged for the right to live? On Nov. 11, every year, we honour those who have paid the price of our freedom. These people are the brave men and women who fought in the trenches, in the hospitals and on the blood-stained battlefields. These are the people who left their homes, families and familiarity, for the foreign, war-ravaged, and frightening places of Europe, Asia and Africa. These people gave up their lives and their innocence, so that we could live in a world of peace.

Many of these heroic men and women are passing on after a long life of serving their country. It is their memories that keep the flame of remembrance alive. Without these memories, however, the flame is beginning to flicker. How can we let it die, this fire that bonded a world so broken and tired after years of war? How can we let it smoulder, and let war happen again? We cannot.

We cannot forget. We must keep these memories alive, in all of us, in every Canadian. We must remember the sounds of bullets cutting the silent air, and the shrill ring of the bomb siren in the dark night. We must remember what it was like to face the enemy, so cold in a prejudiced hate, and what it was like to see a best friend fall. Even if we were not there, we cannot let the memories of those who were, fade like whispers in the wind.

We must also remember the shouts of joy when surrender was declared, and the millions of thanks, and tears, and praise that the soldiers received when they finally came home. We must remember the looks on war prisoners’ faces when they were rescued, and the cries of exultation when whole countries were liberated.

It is on Remembrance Day that I think of my grandfather. My grandfather served as an engineer in the Second World War. And like many of the soldiers who survived, war scarred him. I do not remember the sadness or the hardships my grandfather went through after the war. Even as I was told about them, when I saw my grandfather at the Remembrance Day services, I saw no hardships in his eyes. I saw pride as he walked up the church aisle in his navy blue suit. I could hear honour with every jingling step of his medals, and in every note of the Last Post. I did not see scars.

We have to honour these men and women, and the most profound way to do that is to never forget what they did for us. Remember their sacrifice or risk losing a major part of our history, and national pride. Remembering is not just reading about the battles in history books. It is wearing the poppy on your heart, and bowing your head in a moment of silence. Remembering is visiting the war memorials scattered around the world. Remembering is never letting young men and women give their lives for such a cause ever again.

Remembrance Day is not only about remembering those who paid the ultimate price; it is about fighting for what they gave their lives for, fighting for their cause. To forget this, to forget the reason but to remember the fight, to forget the casualties but to remember the glory, is to forget them. Lest we forget those who paid the price for our freedom.

Senior Poem – 1st place

Poppy

By Laura Rhiannon Howells

Poppy always smiles with jet black eyes,

Through sealed red lips he filters careful thought,

He’s forced into the present from the pain

Of drifting back to days when young men fought.

He will not soil clean sleeves with his own heart,

But I saw his shirt one day the staunch wall fell

It’s stained with ruby handprints—his best friend

Who clung to him while slipping out of hell.

My mother’s life replaced his friend’s that day

But Poppy did not hear her firstborn cries,

The gunshots were too loud, the smoke too thick

And joy is hard to see through bloodstained eyes.

But Poppy’s walls are strong and rarely fall

(Perhaps his weakness is his lock and key)

No words he speaks can make us understand

The tragedy of what he had to be.

I go to Poppy’s house, I see his room—

Lone tribute to his dark and taboo past—

Where centered ’midst the medals and the pride

Beloved flag is hanging at half mast.

Now standing on a cold November morn

I watch him march—a shadow of the days

Where men were men and brandished willing hearts

To hold a nation in their jet black gaze.

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