Anyone visiting the Beny-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery this week to honour Canadian soldiers who died in the Second World War will notice 75 handmade cards on 75 Canadian gravestones.
Those cards feature messages of thanks and remembrance written by students at Wells-Bakerville Elementary School in Wells and Red Bluff Lhtako Elementary in Quesnel.
Local students made 75 cards for 75 Canadian soldiers in mid-May, and those cards were to be placed on the graves in Beny-sur-Mer Cemetery by students from a town called Colombe-Anguerny.
Julia Mackey of Wells, who wrote the award-winning play Jake’s Gift after touring Normandy 15 years ago to mark the 60th anniversary of D-Day, brought the cards with her this week as she returned to Normandy to perform the play for the 75th anniversary of D-Day.
For the past 13 years, Mackey has been performing Jake’s Gift across Canada and in Normandy, and a couple of years ago, she did a show in the town that was then called Anguerny. She got to know the mayor, Jean Luc Guillouard, quite well, and he told her that about a month earlier, he had been in the Beny-sur-Mer Cemetery and seen cards from students in Ontario that had been written to specific soldiers and left there as a thank you. This inspired the project that brought cards from Mackey’s community to Beny-sur-Mer. The project also ties in well with the play itself.
“There is a storyline in the play because when I was there 15 years ago, I came across a little maple leaf-shaped card that had been written by a student and had been placed on a grave,” said Mackey. “The mayor wrote to us and said ‘it’s the 75th anniversary, we have 75 students at our school, do you think you can find 75 students at your school to make cards like this one, and our kids will then place them on the specific graves?’”
Immediately, Mackey thought of her friend Danette Boucher, a teacher at Wells-Barkerville Elementary School, and of the students in her community, and she contacted Boucher about a month ago and also contacted Red Bluff Lhtako Elementary teachers Teresa McCart and Linda Rummell.
Mackey sent Boucher a few links with the names of soldiers who are buried in the Beny-sur-Mer Cemetery, and students began to learn about the Canadians buried there.
Boucher is excited that her students were able to be part of this project, which fits so well with what they do around Remembrance Day and became a big part of their Social Studies learning.
“For Remembrance Day, we always get invited to do In Flanders Field at the Legion, and after we did that, because I’m a teacher here but I’m also an actor and Jules is also a really good friend of mine, I thought the kids have to see this play,” she said. “I asked Jules and Dirk if the kids could come and see the play, and they offered to do a rehearsal for us, so the kids got to see it. The Second World War became a Social Studies theme for us, and then I wrote a Christmas play for them that was set in Wells during the Second World War so the kids could continue learning about this. I did kind of have a feeling that we weren’t quite done with this unit, and then I got this message from Jules. I thought ‘won’t that be a beautiful button to put on the Social Studies unit,’ so I said ‘of course, we can.’”
In Wells, Boucher’s students chose the name of a soldier buried at Beny-sur-Mer out of a bowl and began getting to know that soldier. The students searched for their soldier on the website canadianfallenheroes.com, and they all had a brainstorming session on what they would say if they could speak to this soldier.
“Our students are from Grade 1 to Grade 7, so they came up with some really beautiful and really kind of out-there ideas,” said Boucher, smiling.
Students wrote a rough copy and then a good copy of their card, and Mackey laminated them to protect them from the weather.
At Red Bluff Lhtako Elementary, teachers made copies of the students’ poppy artwork and mounted the art on construction paper, and students wrote messages in French on the other side.
Mackey was bringing the cards to the school in Colombe-Anguerny on June 4 and meeting the 75 students who will place the card on the soldiers’ graves. The Red Bluff students wrote 19 cards for unknown soldiers, so 19 of those 75 cards will be placed on the graves of unknown soldiers.
“I’m so excited to be able to take photographs, and we’re asking the school to specifically take photographs of each student placing the card on the grave so the kids here will be able to see which student placed their card on the grave,” said Mackey, adding they are hoping the students can stay connected by becoming pen pals after this.
Boucher was impressed with how well her students connected with the play and with the project.
“The little girl who is the main character in the play takes care of a soldier’s grave in the cemetery, some of these kids are as young as six years old, so for them to have that story really means that it’s not just writing a letter and sending it off to someplace they’ve never been; they actually have this through-line,” she said.
“They have that connection, and the cemetery gets talked about a lot in the play, so they understand where their cards are going,” added Mackey.
When Mackey first went to Normandy for the 60th anniversary of D-Day, she came across a card written by a student named Danny Brown that had been left on Chester Hebner’s grave in the Beny-sur-Mer Cemetery. Hebner becomes a character in her play, as visiting his grave is the reason the main character, Jake, returns to Normandy 60 years after the war.
“It’s crazy for me to think I’m going back there again 15 years later, and the fact I can include the children from the community I live in too is so special to me – that they were all kind of come full circle with that means a lot to me,” said Mackey, tearing up a bit. “This is such a really meaningful project, and I’m so grateful to Jean Luc for even thinking about it. It’s so exciting. We’re excited to pair up the students so they know who placed their letter on the grave. They’re going to be distributing those cards on either June 6 or 7. That will be so exciting for me to come back and hopefully give them those photographs and at the very least, photographs of the graves where their cards ended up.”
In the play, Jake is a fictional character, but his brother Chester is a real person, and Mackey and Boucher say the Wells-Barkerville students really understood that and had some great discussions after seeing Jake’s Gift.
“Because of Chester, the character in Jules’s play, these soldiers [they are writing to] are not abstract,” said Boucher. “They really bonded with the characters that Jules plays in a profound way.”