New points of view keep Remembrance Day fresh and vital

As Canadians pin poppies to their coats for Nov. 11, Geoffrey Hayes, a University of Waterloo history professor, sees questions and fresh perspective as the fuel that sustains Remembrance Day.

By Christian Aagaard

Communications & Public Affairs

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Geoffrey Hayes in front of cenotaph

Every time Geoffrey Hayes heads to Europe with a group of students to visit battlefields, he comes back with a souvenir.

Another angle on Canada at war.

Battles, military campaigns and the politics behind them form a special area of study for Hayes, a professor in the University of Waterloo’s history department. He is among the faculty involved with the Tri-University graduate program in history (a joint program of the University of Waterloo, Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Guelph) and he sits on the board of the Canadian Battlefield Foundation.

“You end up looking at things in new ways, and getting different perspectives because the students are asking new questions,’’ Hayes says.

As Canadians pin poppies to their coats for Nov. 11, Hayes sees questions and fresh perspective as the fuel that sustains Remembrance Day, even as the number of Second World War and Korean War veterans declines.

Three generations removed from the end of the Second World War — and nearly 100 years from the start of the First World War — students walking among the colossal monuments of France are reminded that people their own age suffered and died on both sides of battle.

Students also come home with a better idea of the scope of war, Hayes says. Often underplayed in western recollections, South Asian soldiers fought and died by the thousands in both world wars.

Battles and wars remain fixed in history. Hayes says it isn’t events that change as Remembrance Day moves through time; it’s the way people choose to remember. Short decades ago, remembrance on Nov. 11 was all about valour, victory and Allied sacrifice for a just world.

Now the Canadian conversation during the remembrance period tolerates a tribute to German prisoners who died here, and at least some acknowledgement that conscientious objectors, most of them Mennonite, contributed to the war effort through alternative service.

Veterans from Canadian service in more recent conflicts, such as Afghanistan, also add to how Remembrance Day is observed, as do newcomers from other countries.

“What’s fascinating to me is that Remembrance Day keeps changing,” says Hayes. “It seems to adapt.’’