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Reflections on Rememberance Day: Words from Juno Beach Centre Guides

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Vincent T  (Picton, Ontario) Juno Beach Centre Guide fall 2011

Today, many Canadians flock to the centre to pay their respects, to show their love, and to remember the ultimate sacrifice made by so many in order to guarantee that today, we could be free and enjoy a life without oppression. Visitors are both young and old, come from all walks of life, and have varying levels of knowledge for the conflict, yet they have all one thing in common: love for their country and strong ties to these brave ancestors. Many are cognizant of other nation’s involvement in D-Day and have a good understanding of the wider scope of the operation. Breathing in the fresh seawater air in Courseulles-sur-Mer while overlooking the English Channel, one has some difficulty imagining that some 67 years ago this gorgeous ocean-side village was once the site of a gruesome battle. Nestled on the beach is the Juno Beach Centre: Canada’s ode to the heroes of our nation who fought for a cause some 5,000 kilometres away from home. I have been honoured to be part of a dynamic team of Canadian guides who work at the Centre and serve as ambassadors for our country.

As a guide, I have the privilege to interpret the surroundings of the Juno Beach sector for our visitors. My most memorable visitor is by far and wide Thomas, a 9 year old boy from Toronto. From the beginning of the visit, Thomas was eager to voice his opinions, answer questions and volunteer for demonstrations. He had a keen eye for detail, was excited to discover the bunker, and seemed to express an innocent enthusiasm towards both D-Day and history as a whole.

Being a child he learned war as a subject but had yet to understood war. When considering how a child views things, this is a subtle yet drastic difference. For Thomas the war became real when I told him that during the occupation the French population was not allowed to have any beach access whatsoever. In a matter of seconds, you saw in his demeanour and his eyes change. Even though this was a small detail of life during the occupation, the denial of something so fun and harmless resounded deeply with Thomas.

The scars of war are etched into the landscape of the Normandy Coast. The remnants of the Atlantikwall, the most visible fortifications along the coast, constantly remind us of that war is a double edged sword. Back in Canada we are lucky that during the last two world conflicts we were not invaded nor were host to major battles. For the most part, our land is devoid of bunkers: there are no hidden landmines or cratered fields that resemble the moon. For this reason many Canadians turn to books to get a better sense of the experience of war. It exists for them on pieces of paper, and for this reason I believe the younger generations are forgetting what our nation has done in the past. This is especially alarming considering the inevitable waning of the veteran population.

We as a people of a free country will forever be in debt to these courageous young men and women.  These soldiers, even though I have never met them, will have had a greater impact on my life than most people in my immediate surroundings. And to think that for most Canadians, only a select few will make the trek out to these historical beaches. And to think that future generations will not have the opportunity we have now to meet the veterans involved in these conflicts. And to think that back home on the 11th of November, only some of us take a moment out of our day to reflect and thank these heroes who gave their lives. I like to think that all of us, unconsciously or consciously, say thank you, from the bottom of our hearts. Lest we forget.

Kathleen, (Ottawa, Ontario) Juno Beach Centre Guide, Fall 2011

I had two great-grandfathers fight at Vimy and four great-uncles fight for
Canada in the Second World War. I have always been taught to respect these sacrifices. It seemed like a natural fit for me to take a semester to go live and work as a student guide at Juno Beach in France. Now half-way through my work term, I can already say that this has been and continues to be an invaluable experience.

My impression of work at the Juno Beach Centre exceeded my expectations. I knew I would have to balance work as a tour guide with work inside the museum. That said, I had not ever imagined myself explaining the contents of the museum to a Dutch couple through charades. As silly as it sounds, this is one of the many realities I have experienced while working at a Canadian museum in France. I learned quickly that there will always be cultural barriers between myself and non-Canadian visitors and I am constantly working to overcome them. For this reason, this position has taught me how to interface with visitors of all ages and nationalities.

My favourite part of the day has to be interpreting the story of D-Day on my guided beach tours. As an Anglophone I found it particularly nerve-wracking at first giving bilingual tours to native French-speakers. As my vocabulary increased, so too did my confidence.

Another challenge has to be dealing with how much the beach has changed in the past 67 years. Often you will be doing tours while neon sailboats drift by and sunbathers tan on the beaches beside you. This makes it difficult to imagine that a member of the Canadian Infantry likely died on that same spot. Although I had no prior experience as a tour guide, I had to learn to be an effective story-teller. I was happy as long as I had managed to convey just how passionate I was about the subject. Every tour presented a new audience; yet as different as they all were they all felt equally rewarding.

I have tremendous respect and admiration for the Canadian veterans and their families who created this Centre on their own initiative. Still, my respect for the JBC was deepened further when I saw what role this Centre plays in the local community of Courseulles-sur-Mer. Courseulles, which made this land available for the construction of the Juno Beach Centre free of charge, is a small seaside village that was one of the first towns liberated on D-Day by the Canadians. The Centre frequently makes its multi-purpose room available for local organizations looking for a meeting space and organizes free activities for children at Halloween and Christmas. Needless to say, there is a reciprocal relationship between the Centre and this community.

On top of that, I really felt adopted by this town during the months I spent living here. Ah, life in Courseulles. I can tell you one thing: people do not come here for the night life. It is a small community of about 5,000 where anyone between the ages of 20-30 has moved to the big city. But I did get to know two 20 year-olds really well: my co-workers. The thing about being three student guides working in France is that you spend every moment of the day together. I am fortunate that they did not turn out to be axe-murderers (at least so far) and even more fortunate that they put up with living with me. This can be challenging, but given the chance I wouldn’t trade them for anyone. Unless that person happens to bring with them 20 cans of Tim Horton’s coffee.

November 11th will take on a new meaning for me this year. Having had the incredible opportunity to meet a number of veterans, I will think of new faces on top of my relatives during the moment of silence we observe at our Remembrance Day Ceremony. Working and living at the Juno Beach Centre has made me that much more proud to be a Canadian. I will go back with a newfound appreciation for Canadian Veterans and the country that I can enjoy today thanks to their sacrifices.

Carolyne Mayo(Saskatoon, Saskatchewan) Juno Beach Centre Head Guide, summer and fall 2011

When Canadian visitors come to the Juno Beach Centre they arrive with varying levels of historical knowledge and many questions. However, they all come to learn and, perhaps especially, to commemorate.

Canadian visitors are, in general, easy to spot. They tend to look quite happy either because this journey to Juno Beach has been a lifelong dream, or maybe they are just happy to have found the museum after a long drive and a lot of roundabouts. Either way, they are friendly and always curious, which means they tend to ask a lot of questions.

They usually begin by asking us how it is that we young Canadian guides made it all the way to Normandy. After telling them the story of how I came to be a guide, and of course, the obligatory Saskatchewan-is-flat jokes, they often want to know who runs the museum and how long it has been around. I find that Canadians are usually happy and quite surprised to find other Canadians in France. On several occasions my initial greeting (“Hello/Bonjour, good morning”) has been answered not by the usual Hello but rather by “Oh my gosh, you’re Canadian! It’s so good to hear a Canadian voice!” I truly do enjoy the little jokes made with Canadians about the numerous stereotypes which make our country so great and so distinctive as a nation. Needless to say, I think, or at least I hope, that Canadians find a little home away from home when they visit the Juno Beach Centre, even if it is only for a short time.

In high season, many of our Canadian visitors join our beach tours and I find that they tend to have done their homework before coming. Their general level of background knowledge of the Canadian contributions on D-Day is usually quite high. They ask detailed and interesting questions which demonstrate their high level of interest in the subject. As with most visitors, there is always a silent awe on the beach as we help them to imagine and remember the events that have happened here.

A good number of our Canadian visitors have relatives who were involved in the War and D-Day. Hearing their stories inspires me to make this history known to all of those who chose the visit the Juno Beach Centre. A large part of my work as a guide involves talking and interpretation; however, I believe that I spend more time listening than I do talking. Sometimes I feel as though I am literally acting as the ears of my generation of young Canadians. Families sometimes come to Juno Beach after the passing of their family member who served in the war in order to commemorate his or her contribution. In these cases, the stories they tell often begin with “Well, Dad didn’t like to talk about the war much but…” followed by touching stories of courage and servitude. For these people, I feel that the Juno Beach Centre is much more than a museum: it is a central place for commemoration and remembrance on Juno Beach.

As we approach Remembrance Day here at the Juno Beach Centre, I am all the more reminded of the importance of commemoration to Canadians. As a guide here, I hope to help those Canadians who chose to join us in remembering these important events.



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