Justin Trudeau plays Talbot Papineau, an officer and son of a prominent political family. ((Pierre Dury/Galafilm Inc.))

About 150 Canadians, including Justin Trudeau, have been reliving the First World War in St. Bruno, Que.

They're on the set of The Great War, a film about Canada's role in the war being made by filmmaker, journalist and historian Brian McKenna.

The film stars Trudeau as Talbot Papineau, an officer and aspiring statesman who was killed in action in the trenches.

Trudeau, son of prime minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau, says he's no actor, but he agreed to play the role because it tells an important story from Canadian history.

"Talbot Papineau was an extraordinary man who had a real vision for Canada and a passion for Canada and was there witnessing the birth of our nation, which really happened in the trenches of World War One. This is where Canada actually came into its own," Trudeau told CBC Radio.


The cast is living as First World War soldiers did, in tents, with parade duty at 6.30 a.m. ((Pierre Dury/Galafilm Inc.))

Historians often say Canada really came into its own as a nation duringthe First World War, specifically with the fighting at Vimy Ridge.

Trudeau's role includesproviding voice-over narrative for letters written by Papineau, a bicultural lawyer and son of a prominent political family who died at Passchendaele.

Passionate about Canada

Trudeau said he identifies with Papineau because he cared so passionately about Canada.

"I realized that this is a character that Canadians should get to know about," he said, explaining why he accepted the role.

Trudeau has grown a mustache to play Papineau and said he now looks like his own grandfather from his mother's side, Jimmy Sinclair, who fought in the Second World War.

Other members of the cast, playing soldiers,officers and nurses, are descendants of First World War veterans.

They sleep in tents — eight men in an 2.4-metre tent — rise at6 a.m., go on parade at6:30 a.m. and are served a breakfast of porridge before they spend their days re-enacting battles.

Like their grandfathers and great-grandfathers, they're wearing the scratchy wool uniforms issued to Canadian soldiers.

Stephen Thompson, an artillery officer from Mont Ste. Hillaire, is re-enacting the experiences of his grandfather, Dana Thompson, a private in theNova Scotia Rifles.

"His shell shock, his (post-traumatic stress) made him a very closed man," Thompson said of a man he only knows by family stories.

"He never spoke about the war to his children, never kept the accoutrements from the war and the family knew very very little about his wartime experience, so there was very little ... first-hand information."

Looking for understanding

Thompson said he's visited the sites of the battles where his father fought, but participating in The Great War seems to be a chance to learn even more about what his grandfather endured.

"So when I found about this opportunity, my motivation for coming was to try and understand my grandfather, whom nobody knows and be able to tell my family what I went through and hopefully be able to understand him a little bit better," he said.

McKenna, who chronicledwar experiences in The Valour and the Horror, The Killing Ground and Korea: the Unfinished War,said he's recreating barracks-like conditions for his cast because he wants the scenes to look as authentic as possible.

Ellen Newbold, of Etobicoke, Ont., said she thinks about her grandfather, James Herbert Gibson, when she's sitting in the trenches.

"I remember in his letters him commenting on … amidst the fire and machine-gun fire … hearing birds singing," she said.

The Great War will be aired on CBC Television next April on the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge.