Canadian War Museum a moving reminder

Commissionaires Way in the Canadian War Museum takes visitors back to the first half of the 20th century, when the world was engulfed in atrocious conflict. (Photo by Marie-Louise Deruaz)

Karan Smith Writer

OTTAWA, ONTARIO — “It looks like a snow fort but…,” says my eight-year-old, her voice trailing off, looking at a miniature diorama depicting the trenches of the First World War.

“But it’s not as fun,” says Jennifer Balasevicius, our tour guide, finishing her sentence.

I’m at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa with my mother and daughter. Minutes earlier we’d walked through a recreation of one the infamous tunnels that snaked through the fields of Europe almost a hundred years ago. Rats. Rain. No place to sleep but on the ground.

“It’s about ordinary Canadians in extraordinary times,” says Balasevicius, an archeologist-by-training whose own father recently served a year in Afghanistan.

The national military institution, and the city’s most visited museum last year, is a fascinating place.

On Remembrance Day, at exactly 11 am EST, sunlight shines through a single window in Memorial Hall to frame the headstone representing Canada’s Unknown Soldier. (Photo by Harry Foster)

Its architecture alone — designed by Raymond Moriyama — warrants its own tour and every inch is purposefully conceived from the poppies that bloom on the grass roof in the spring to the “morse code” windows that spell out “lest we forget” in French and English. On Remembrance Day, when admission is free and programming includes choirs and hands-on activities, the sun shines through the single window in Memorial Hall to illuminate, at exactly 11 am, the smooth headstone of the Unknown Soldier, an experience that is also webcast.

And the museum is surprisingly good for kids. I had been apprehensive about bringing my daughter. She has long favoured knights and warriors over princess brides, but still inhabits that innocent bubble that causes me to click off the nightly news. Sure she had copied out In Flanders Fields just like I had long ago, but had it really sunk in?

We roam throughout the galleries in the bunker-like building. If you get lost, that’s the architecture again; it’s designed to be a bit disorientating with sounds from one room carrying over to the next. Exhibits start with First Nations histories and extend through the World Wars, the Cold War and more recent conflicts. One moodily-lit space presents the plaster figures created by Canadian sculptor Walter Allward for the Vimy War Memorial in France. The LeBreton Gallery houses an impressive collection including a German midget submarine, Canadian-made Valentine tank and a Voodoo Inceptor fighter jet.

Despite the dramatic context, the exhibits seem to tell the story in quiet, manageable pieces. Beside a display of gas masks, I hoist my daughter up to peer into a window to see gas clouds fill the air. We stand chillingly close to Hitler’s bullet-proof Mercedes-Benz limo. And we look up at a collection of rare “nose art” painted on Halifax bombers – pictures of “Willie Wolf” and bomb tallies — that convey the bravado of the pilots.

A Place for Adults — and Children — to Learn

Balasevicius, who tries to tailor each tour to the group’s interests, asks my daughter as many questions as she answers. What is this First World War German airplane made of? (Wood). Want to know what kids your age would be doing? (Collecting recycling, knitting socks and helping fill Red Cross packages.) Do you want to see how a musket fires? (Yes!) Her facts help explain events in terms kids understand without being too frightening.

It’s an hour in — at the Passchendaele room — where my daughter seems to notice a casualty of this most costly battle, a metal sculpture of a sunken body in a desolate landscape. (And it’s true that on this visit I don’t make a point of lingering in front of the photos of the atomic bomb or gaunt prisoners of war.)

Instead it’s a hefty cannon from Louisburg, trench grenades and the uniform of the Canadian Women’s Army Corp. that draw my daughter’s attention. My mother, whose father-in-law was in the Royal Navy and survived the torpedoing of his ship, stops at a tiny cork life raft that would have once bobbed in the cold Atlantic. Her own father was a US marine who fought in the Pacific. The family lost two uncles, “the twins,” at age 23 in the Second World War. My great-grandmother’s hair is said to have turned white overnight at the news.

For me, another poignant moment comes from a teddy bear, legless with frayed ears. A 10-year-old girl from Quebec sent it to her father as a reminder of home and a good-luck charm. He was killed at Passchendaele, an offensive that claimed almost 16,000 Canadian lives;  the teddy was found in his pocket. (The story is told in the children’s book A Bear in War.)

And what moved my eight-year-old the most? Her review is quickly delivered to her younger brother when we return home: “You know what? I got to try on an army suit. And see trenches. And a real musket. And Billy Bishop’s medals…”

I don’t think the true horror of war — the more than 100,000 Canadians who have died in military service, the father who died with a teddy bear in his pocket, the bomber pilots whose life span was less than a week — all these ordinary Canadians, really sinks in. That time will come.

Karan Smith is a freelance writer and editor based in Ottawa.

More about The Canadian War Museum

Location: 1 Vimy Place, Ottawa, ON (see map below)
Contact: 1-800-555-5621 – TTY for people with hearing disabilities: 819-776-7003
Hours: Until March 31, 2014
Monday to Wednesday: 9:30 am to 5 pm
Thursday: 9:30 am to 8 pm
Friday to Sunday: 9:30 am to 5 pm
Admission for Canadian War Museum and Canadian Museum of Civilization:
One museum: Adult $13, Senior $11, Child (3-12) $10, Family (5 persons, maximum 2 adults) $8
Two museums: Adult $20, Senior $17, Child (3-12) $15, Family (5 persons, maximum 2 adults) $12


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