The Vimy Foundation is a Canadian charity which was founded in 2006 and focuses on the preservation of Canada’s involvement with the First World War, with a specific emphasis on its victory at the Battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917. A frequent visitor to the memorial at Vimy, I was fortunate enough to sit down and chat (via email, of course) with the lovely Jennifer, the charity’s communications coordinator, to learn a little bit more about what they do and what they have planned for next year’s centenary.
Can you talk me through a typical day of yours working for the Vimy Foundation?
The neat thing about working for a small charity (we’re only a staff of four!) is that there are very few typical days! As the communications coordinator, I generally start off each day with checking in with our social media channels. Sometimes, with people all around the world interested in Vimy Ridge and the First World War, we’ll have had some great comments and messages come in overnight. I check out the news from the past 24 hours to see if there are any interesting articles that might be useful for sharing through our social media networks, and I schedule our posts for the day.
What my day looks like really depends on the time of year. Right now, in September, we’re in the middle of outreach for our student programs. The Vimy Foundation has two student scholarship programs that send high school aged students to Europe to visit in person some of these important sites of the First and Second World War. We start taking applications for our April program in September, so we spend a lot of time trying to get the word out to students, teachers, parents, etc, about this pretty amazing opportunity: the Vimy Pilgrimage Award. I develop digital and print ads as part of our program outreach for newspapers, magazines, and social media.
Another major part of my day throughout September has been working to commemorate other important battles for Canadians during the First World War. Even though we have a major focus specifically on the Battle of Vimy Ridge, we try to raise awareness about all aspects of the First World War. There were a number of important campaigns for Canadians and Newfoundlanders (who weren’t part of Canada at the time of the First World War) during the Battle of the Somme. We run newspaper ads and have a special section on our website where we highlight some of these lesser known First World War battles.
And of course, a portion of my day is always devoted to putting together our future plans! Sometimes this means having meetings with news outlets and media groups about their coverage for the Vimy centennial anniversary next year, sometimes it’s working with my Vimy Foundation team here in the office on developing new programs for our students and our alumni, sometimes it involves meetings with government and other non-profit institutions about potential collaboration.
Every day is a little bit different—which means coming to work here at the Vimy Foundation is never boring!
What, for you, is the most rewarding part of working for the Vimy Foundation?
For me, experiencing firsthand the real connections that people make with First World War is so powerful. When our students travel overseas through our Beaverbrook Vimy Prize and Vimy Pilgrimage Award programs, I work hard to ensure that local media in their communities covers their stories. Those who participate in our programs are all amazing young people who are going to change the world someday, and in many cases are already doing so. But it’s one thing to know that these individual students have had a life-changing experience—it’s even more special to know that they’re working to voice what they’ve learned within their schools, communities, and provinces.
It’s also so rewarding to get a message out of the blue from someone who wants to share their personal connection to the First World War. I know it’s meaningful for those people that we are commemorating these dates that are so important in their own family history, and so for them to reach out to thank us, and to share the name and more details about the family member who fought, it really puts my work into perspective. Sometimes the numbers of casualties can be overwhelming, so to connect with individuals makes what we do at the Foundation feel valuable.
I also love opportunities to tell lesser-known parts of Canada’s First World War history. The Battle of Vimy Ridge can be seen as a reflection of our modern diversity as a nation, as many French Canadian, First Nation, Métis, Asian, Sikh, Slavic, and Black soldiers all made important contributions to Canada’s war effort and served with distinction. But these stories aren’t always as well-known, so again, it’s really rewarding to be able to bring some spotlight to people and places that aren’t normally as recognized in the typical telling of Canada’s First World War history.
Next year obviously marks a significant anniversary for the charity. How do you plan to commemorate the centenary and can you share any important upcoming events?
One of the Foundation’s biggest projects to mark the centennial anniversary of the Battle of the Vimy Ridge has been working with the Government of Canada to build a new Visitor Education Centre on site at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial. For those who are familiar with the site, it will be located adjacent to the current visitor centre, which was never intended to be a permanent structure. The Visitor Education Centre will be a symbolic passing of “the torch of remembrance” from our generation to the next, helping to ensure that Vimy and what it means for Canada are never forgotten.
We’re also working to build the Vimy Foundation Centennial Park on land adjacent to the Vimy Memorial. Planted in this park will be 100 oak trees—descendants of oak trees that had been destroyed during the battle 100 years earlier. One soldier collected some acorns to bring back to Canada, where they have been growing near Toronto for the past 99 years and we will be ‘repatriating’ these trees back to Vimy. The Centennial Park will be a reflective area for those that visit, with paths, benches, and a view of the monument.
Our Vimy Pilgrimage Award program is always really amazing—it is awarded to high school students who demonstrate outstanding community service or bravery or leadership within their schools or communities. As the program occurs in April, the students always have the opportunity to be at Vimy on the anniversary of the battle. For such a special anniversary in 2017, however, we’ve developed a really amazing addition to this program. Our Canadian students winners will be joined by 2 students from each of the following countries: Belgium, France, Germany, and Great Britain! These five countries’ histories in the First World War are obviously closely linked and so, 100 years after this really important date in Canadian history, we’ll be bringing together young people to learn more about the legacy of this war on their own countries and in each other’s countries. We think it will be a very powerful program for all the participants and we’re really excited by the learning we hope will come out of it.
I’ve been following the progress of the Vimy Visitor Education Centre via the website. How is the development of it going and can you tell us something about its purpose upon its completion?
The Visitor Education Centre, being located at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial, is a project overseen by Canada’s federal government, through Veterans Affairs Canada, which manages the site. The Vimy Foundation, as the chief fundraising partner, was very pleased to announce in July 2016 that we had met our $5 million fundraising goal, thanks to the generosity of Canadian individuals, corporations, and organizations. We were thrilled by the response from the public across Canada in support of this very important project. The construction is progressing well and the centre will open for the centennial anniversary next April. Photos of the construction are being posted each month on our website, for those who’d like to see its progress.
The Vimy monument itself is, of course, stunningly beautiful, but visitors are given little context at the existing information area as to why Canadians fought and died there; why Vimy remains special to the Canadian soul; and how Vimy, and other First World War battles at which Canadians fought, forever altered Canada’s status on the world stage. The Vimy Visitor Education Centre will help answer these questions. With room for both permanent and temporary exhibits to help tell the story both of the Battle of Vimy Ridge and of the design and construction of the Vimy memorial itself, we are sure it will further enhance all visitors’ experiences on the site.
In what ways can people get involved with the Vimy Foundation, should they want to?
So much of our work is focused on building awareness and getting the word out, that we always can use help there! Follow us through our social media networks and share important dates and messages with your own networks; share information about our student programs with any high school aged people you know; research your own family or community connections to the First World War and let us know what you find out.
Another great way to mark the coming centennial is by wearing a Vimy pin. We would love all Canadians—and anyone else—to wear one next April, to show their support for Canada’s history.
The Vimy Foundation works tirelessly to educate, engage, and raise awareness of its country’s past, ensuring that its legacy is never forgotten, and there are many ways in which you can get involved and offer support. Make a donation, purchase a pin, connect with their Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook pages, share their news and events, engage in the history—engage in our history. In 1917, my great-great-grandfather fought (and survived) at the Battle of Vimy Ridge; I am honoured to connect with the charity, grateful for all of their hard work, and look forward to wearing my Vimy pin with pride.