This preteen interviewed 8 centenarians and saw Canadian history in a whole new way

Twelve-year-old Nikolai Meijer wanted to learn about Canada’s history from the source — the people.

'There is a kid inside every centenarian.'

Nikolai Meijer and one of his subjects Margaret LeBas Howe.

Twelve-year-old Nikolai Meijer was assigned to learn about Canada. He decided to go to the source — the people.

The London, Ont. preteen interviewed eight centenarians to learn the personal and political histories of the country.  What he found: a fabric made of tragedy, comedy and everything in between. We had the pleasure of interviewing the budding historian about his experience. Here's what Meijer had to say. 

Why did you decide to do this project? What was the inspiration behind the idea?

I did the project  as a school assignment. Our teacher gave us the choice of any topic, under the condition that our topics somehow related to Canada. Straight away I knew I had to write something special for Canada 150. There's a lot of information about Canada but I wanted it to be unique. One night my mom started reading me and my sister a book, The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative by Dr. Thomas King. She read a paragraph that started like this: "The truth about stories is, that's all we are."  Immediately, I  got an idea. I wanted to write about the spoken history of Canada through the stories of people who live here.

There is a kid inside every centenarian.- Nikolai Meijer

I started looking for the oldest people I could find. I did some research and found out that there are over 8,200 centenarians in Canada and over 2,000 centenarians in Ontario. That was more than I thought! I reached out to some retirement homes and was able to connect with eight amazing centenarians right here in London: Alma Peters, Allan Hughes, Helen Marsh, Mary Laidlaw, Elizabeth "Woody" Moore, Margaret LeBas Howe, Helen Quinn and Mildred Maclean.

Elizabeth 'Woody' Moore was born in 1917 in London, Ont. Moore's most important memory is exploring nature with her father in Kilworth, Ont. Her love of nature led to the nickname Woody. (Nikolai Meijer)

You interviewed eight centenarians, what's the most interesting thing you learned?   

Personal stories, historical facts — everything I heard taught a lesson of its own.  After my first interview I couldn't believe I just met someone who is 100-years-old! The person I just spoke to lived through the time when there was no electricity — when kids still got to school by horse and buggy.

Spoken history is much more interesting than written history. - Nikolai Meijer

The centenarians shared stories of WWI told to them by their family members. I heard about the hardships of the Great Depression and about the life during WWII. I also learned about the Expo '67 in Montreal and about Queen Elizabeth's visit to London, Ont.

Mildred Maclean was born in 1911 in Montreal. She graduated from McGill in 1932. She has fond memories of Expo 67 and seeing the Canadian flag for the first time. (Kristina Stankevich)

Their stories made me feel like I was taking a time machine into the past. I could feel the weight of their knowledge and the weight of history. I learned some of the history of Canada at school through my history lessons, but spoken history is so much more interesting.

Some of the most important memories were personal: getting education, starting a family, building their own houses and being involved with their communities.

Allan Hughes was born in 1916 in Pefferlaw, Ont. His father worked for the railroad, a tradition Hughes would continue for over 30 years as CN Rail's chief of Southwestern Ontario. (Nikolai Meijer)

Did any moments stand out? If so, which ones and why?

One of my favourite moments was a story told to me by Elizabeth Moore.

"When WWII started, I followed my husband and joined the Red Cross. I was having tea with my friend when we heard the sound of the bomb falling. We ran to the closet and hid there — wearing our gas masks and helmets. When the explosion was over, we looked down and realized we were still holding our tea cups, except instead of tea in the cups, there was plaster. We laughed so hard after that, even though we should have been scared."

Oh, I also got to crash a 100th birthday party! That was a very special moment.

Helen Quinn was born in 1914 in Elora, Ont. She grew up on a farm where oil lamps were the norm, not electricity. Quinn was one of only a few women who graduated with a B.Sc. from Ontario Agricultural College, now Guelph University in 1935. (Nikolai Meijer)

That's hilarious. Did you hear a lot of funny stories like the plaster tea cup?

All the centenarians I met have a great sense of humour and kept making jokes during the interview. I was nervous about meeting them at first but they made me feel comfortable right away. I learned that there's a kid inside every centenarian. They've been through so much in their life and they are still happy and curious.

This project was a life-changing experience. I learned about people in Canada. I learned about Canada's history. I learned about Canada.- Nikolai Meijer

What do you think your generation can learn from older generations in Canada?

I actually  asked them what they wish for future generations. Many of them spoke about peace and learning about nature. They want us to get good educations and that it's up to us to look after our beautiful country.

Helen Marsh was born in 1917 in Dorchester, Ont. At just three days old she contracted German measles. The doctor came to see her in a horse and buggy. Now, her doctor comes in a Mercedes Benz. (Nikolai Meijer)

Any secrets about living to 100?

Eat well, exercise, don't smoke, enjoy life, be happy, get busy, do something, be nice to people, and learn something new every day.

Alma Peters was born in 1916 in Zenda, Ont. When she was a girl, a chocolate bar cost a dime. She remembers when her family got their first car, a grey Dort. (Nikolai Meijer)

After talking to so many centenarians about life, is there anything you learned?

One lesson I learned is that spoken history is much more interesting than written history because it teaches in a unique way that can only be done by the person whom you are learning from.

If you get a chance to listen to a person's story, do it! I found you can learn so much about a person if you just open up your ears and listen.

You can learn so much about a person if you just open up your ears and listen.- Nikolai Meijer

It's up to my generation to record the history of Canada. Capturing history is so important because it we don't capture it before it's too late those stories are gone and we can't learn from them anymore.

Margaret LeBas Howe was born in 1915 in Gaspé, Que. She was one of five women selected to serve on a special team for the Canadian Women’s Army Corps. She served for all four years of WWII in the U.K., U.S. and occupied Germany. (Nikolai Meijer)

It sounds like this project had a big impact on you.

This project was a life-changing experience. I learned about people in Canada. I learned about Canada's history. I learned about Canada. I think of my conversations with [the] centenarians often. I quote them often. I learned so much from them. They are very special people.

Mary Laidlaw was born in 1917 in Caradoch Township, Ont. As a young woman, she studied business and worked as an office manager until she married her late husband. (Nikolai Meijer)

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.