Saturday, April 8, 2017

Matthew Halton High School students on extended field trip to Vimy and other world wars sites in Europe

Chris Davis - 36 Matthew Halton High School students from grades 10-12 embarked on what promises to be a most memorable field trip on Friday April 7. They are on a 14-day educational adventure that will begin in Vimy, France before continuing on to other European sites relevant to Canada's contributions to both world wars, including tours of the Anne Frank House and the Auschwitz concentration/extermination camp. On Sunday April 9 they will join an estimated crowd of 25,000 people at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France for an event commemorating the 100th Anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. More than 12,000 Canadian students will be in attendance.

Matthew Halton High School Assistant Principal and Social Studies teacher Greg Freer will be chaperoning the trip. "We've actually got a very educational program where they will be going to an educational hub there, and learning about Canada's contribution to both world wars." he explained. "We are going to be following Canada's contribution, and really getting into all the world wars." Freer also took students to the 95th anniversary of Vimy 5 years ago. "We started a group in 2012, and now we take students every two years," he explained.

Students on their way to Cenotaph Park
While there will be chaperones for the trip, none of them are parents of the students, said Freer. "Part of the experience as well is the kids grow as sense of independence and maturity. Not having mom or dad over them forces them to be more independent. Every student comes back a different person... for the better." The students will interact with seven tour guides throughout the trip "At every opportunity they are immersed with the history with the significance of every site that we go to. They have experts with every area that we go to, already set up." Written journals and photo journals are encouraged. "It's the trip of a lifetime." said Freer, adding it will be a lot for the students to process. "They are going to be bombarded with so much stuff, that they are not going to be able to keep track of everything.""It's so intense, the time they are there. They will talk about this forever. It's reinforced in the classroom as well. They will become a resource in the classroom for other students and that makes it more powerful."

Student Thomas Scherger in his Vimy 100 jacket
Of the trip to Auschwitz he said the students "are going to see the most awful example humanity has to offer, but the triumph of it is that Auschwitz survives today because of the money it receives from the Jewish community. they want to make sure that it's there for everyone, forever, as a testament of how bad things can get, and so we will always remember."

"We have an obligation to go and see the worst from humanity and then to learn from that. And ensure that we do our part before before we ever get to such a horrific event again, to stop things. That's the true education. This is not just a picture in a book, these are not just statistics." 

Freer said actually visiting Auschwitz helps counter the kind of desensitizing and dehumanizing aspects of the concentration camps that were part of the Nazi's plan. "It brings it alive." He got quite emotional talking about the sorting piles at the camp, suitcases, glasses, clothing, shoes and other items stolen from the Nazi's victims and turned into commerce. He said the pile of little shoes were the hardest thing for him to see as a parent and teacher. "Every one of those shoes represents an individual who was murdered."

"We don't have to soften the message at all. It was a terrible event and we have to acknowledge it, and confront it."

Freer said he has talked with students from Germany who have told him that the Holocaust is part of their curriculum, as a tragic time in Germany's past which the people of that country do not want to see repeated. "There are some scary people in the world today that we have to be mindful of. They are making some decisions and choices that are eerily similar to 1930s Germany. This time around, you are seeing an educated public that is outright terrified, myself of included, and they are alarmed. We speak out. You can't sit idly by any longer. It's tough, but we know what it can lead to." 

"Our kids today are smarter, I do truly believe that."

Gathered at the Cenotaph
The students gathered last Friday March 31, a week before their trip was to commence, and walked to Cenotaph Park for a ceremony that included a recitation of "Battle at Vimy Ridge" by Norman Wilson and "In Flanders Fields" by John McRae. Local historian Gordon Tolton was among those in attendance. He said the one known Pincher Creek connection to the battle was a man by the name of Raymond G. Hall, whose name appears on the cenotaph. A notice of his death was received by a Mrs. Craig of Pincher Creek. "We couldn't find any connection between Mr. Hall and the Craig family, so we are assuming he was a labourer that left Pincher Creek and the Craig family as his forwarding address," explained Tolton. 

Students reading "Battle at Vimy Ridge" by Norman Wilson

Alberta Minister Lori Sigurdson will be part of the Government of Canada delegation at the Battle of Vimy Ridge commemorative ceremony in France. A commemorative event will be held at the National War Memorial in Ottawa as well.

"The message of Vimy Ridge is one of bravery and sacrifice. The battle, which took place on April 9, 1917, is commonly highlighted as a turning point in Canadian history, where the four Canadian divisions fought together as a unified fighting force for the first time. While 3,598 Canadian soldiers were killed during the battle, the impressive victory over German forces is often cited as the beginning of Canada’s evolution from dominion to independent nation. To underscore the sacrifices made by Canada, which suffered 60,000 fatalities during the First World War, France granted Canada 107 hectares of land at Vimy to build and maintain a memorial." -


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