Much of the best-known poetry dealing with themes of war and remembrance has been written by men and women who fought in the battlefields or helped the wounded or dying in makeshift military hospitals. What is also noteworthy is that generations of young Canadians who have never experienced battle have grown up thinking about ways in which to express their thoughts and feelings on those same themes. And they have done this at home and in school.
Each year, The Royal Canadian Legion invites schoolchildren to put their literary and visual arts skills to the test by participating in nationwide contests that in recent years have involved more than 100,000 students. Competitions are set for essays, poetry, colour posters, and black and white posters that best illustrate what Remembrance Day means to them.
The contests began in the 1950s while the Legion was in the midst of a serious self-examination. By then, the Legion had been well-established as a united veterans’ organization concerned for the most part with improving veterans’ benefits and ensuring that wartime service and sacrifices would not be forgotten. As part of that examination process, the Legion realized that it had to look to the future.
In 1955, then-Dominion President John Anderson of Ottawa told Legionnaires, “Today, the Canadian Legion is at the crossroads. It can continue to be a vital force in Canada’s future or it can go into a gradual decline. We have a brilliant record of achievement behind us, but where do we go from here?”
Anderson answered the question by emphasizing that legislation for veterans and the work of the Legion service bureau would remain the prime concern of the organization. However, he also stressed that the Legion was “big enough and mature enough to take on other duties…duties in the field of community service.”
“That challenge was accepted, and more,” wrote Clifford H. Bowering in his 1960 book, Service: The Story of the Canadian Legion. “In accepting it, members of the Legion said in effect that service to the community would represent a living memorial to the memory of their fallen comrades; that this is what the fallen would have wished their comrades to do on their behalf.… Everyone benefits from current Legion activities—veteran and non-veteran, young and old.”
When it came to the young, the most ambitious program was the establishment of a track and field program—a national success story that continues today. The Legion was also very interested in engaging the young intellectually.
In its report to dominion convention in 1958, the National Poppy Advisory Committee—the forerunner of today’s Dominion Command Poppy and Remembrance Committee—stated that “the NPAC heard with interest the report of activities conducted by various provincial committees in their respective commands. Among the most interesting was the school essay contest conducted in New Brunswick. This was arranged through the superintendent of schools in the province and resulted in over 8,000 essays being written, of which 1,000 were passed to Provincial Command.
“Under the general topic, The Significance of Remembrance Day, the essays proved to be of surprising quality. So outstanding were the best that the provincial poppy chairman has offered them to Dominion Command for inclusion in a new pamphlet for use in schools.”
At the 1960 dominion convention, the national poppy committee chairman reported that “Several commands at least are looking into the far future in the conduct of essay contests in their schools on the subject of remembrance and the poppy, thus encouraging the future citizens of Canada to examine more than casually the reason why we observe Remembrance Day.”
It was decided that two prizes of $50 each would be awarded by Dominion Command for the best essay on remembrance. The first prize would be awarded to a high school student (Grades 9 to 12) while the second prize would go to a public school student up to Grade 8.
At the 1962 dominion convention, Dominion Poppy Chairman Ron MacBeath reported that the essay contest was now a national contest and that first prize in the high school division was awarded to Mae Dunham of Filmore, Sask. The runner-up was Dennis Kendel of Langenburg, Sask. In the public school division the winner was Renee Neveu of Campbellton, N.B., while the runner-up was Pamela Kern of Beaconsfield, N.B.
Two years later Dominion Poppy Chairman A.H. Adams announced that the program was receiving more than 15,000 entries from nine provinces. “I am convinced that no amount of newspaper stories, radio or TV programs, posters, pamphlets or booklets could equal this in value,” he told convention delegates.
In 1966, first-place winners of the contests were invited to Ottawa to participate in the Remembrance Day service at the National War Memorial.
During a meeting the following year, members of the NPAC expressed concern at the marked reduction in the quality and quantity of essays submitted that year. An ad hoc committee was established to look into the matter and it consulted members of the teaching community. It was recommended that students be given a choice of writing an essay or a poem. The committee later noted a significant improvement in the quality and quantity of submissions, and it was recommended that students continue to have this choice.
The poster contest was added by 1983, and at the dominion convention the following year delegates agreed to invite the senior poster contest winner to Ottawa for participation in the national Remembrance Day ceremony.
Initially, poster entries could be in colour or black and white, but as the contests grew it was decided to create two categories with a separate black-and-white category added in 1991. As Legion Magazine staff writer Bill Fairbairn noted in his coverage of that year’s contests, “The introduction of a black-and-white poster category came at the right time for Duncan MacDonald of Hartland, N.B. He is colour-blind.” MacDonald was the senior winner of the contest that year.
While the format has been set since, the contests’ level of participation continues to grow with the average number of entries now topping 100,000 a year.
The contests begin each year in September when a pamphlet is sent to schools across the country—part of a package of remembrance material from Veterans Affairs Canada. “We then tell the branches and they try to arrange an opportunity to send members into the schools to talk about the program,” explains Steven Clark, secretary of the Dominion Command Poppy and Remembrance Committee. “A lot of the teachers include the program in their curriculum and discussions leading up to the Remembrance period.”
The contests begin at branch level with each branch setting its own deadline for entries, however this is generally set in the period leading up to Remembrance Day. Branch representatives judge the submissions and then send their first-place winners on to compete in the zone, district and provincial levels.
The provincial commands have to get their entries to Dominion Command by a date near the end of February. “The judging is usually done by the third week of March and then we set our own deadline of March 31 to make the results known to the commands,” adds Clark.
The Dominion President follows up by writing to each first-place, second-place and honourable mention winner to congratulate him or her. The first-place winners also receive a plaque in recognition of their achievement, and the school receives a plaque to hang in the foyer or hall to recognize the student’s achievement.
The first-place winners in the poster contests have their winning entries exhibited in the Parliament Buildings from June until the following May. The first-place essays and poems are also displayed in large format. Second-place entries are displayed throughout government buildings during the Remembrance Day period.
These young people who participate in the contests may live far from the muddy and bloody battlefields of the past or from the oppressive heat of Canada’s current mission in Afghanistan, but they are showing that they can add fresh voices to the message of remembrance.
I stare at my feet in a moment of silence
And strain to cry for those who were lost.
Yet no tears come, and I struggle to understand
Why I do not cry like the veteran next to me.
I try to imagine the young men of our country
Leaving home to fight the unknown.
I try to envision families broken apart
By the terror that is war.
I try to picture someone close to me
Having to kill.
I try to imagine the crushing pain
When a loved one does not return home.
Soon the reveille sounds and I awake from
I am moved but have shed no tears.
I look to the veteran next to me and see the
sorrow in his eyes.
He gives me a teary smile and takes my hand.
Only then do I realize that he has seen
And fought so I could only imagine them.
Nicole Jowett, 2005
Winnipeg – Charleswood Junior High