Teaching Juno Beach

High school history teacher Neil Orford imparts his passion for Juno Beach to his students in Shelburne, Ont. (Havard Gould/CBC)

Neil Orford is one of those high school teachers you don't forget. But it is Juno Beach he wants students to remember.

He is deeply committed to that place and that moment when Canadian troops landed on what will always be remembered as D-Day.

"I think Juno Beach is a sacred piece of Canadian territory in another land," says the teacher at a Shelburne, Ont., high school. "It was a defining moment in Canadian history and a defining moment for the identity of the nation."

'Picture what it must have been like, coming ashore, knowing those guns were trained on you," he tells his students in class as he engages them with maps, questions, videos and artifacts.'- Neil Orford to his students about Juno Beach

Canada, he tells his students, took on an important role in a crucial moment. Canadian troops proved themselves both courageous and reliable in horrific conditions, earning respect for themselves and a young nation.

"Picture what it must have been like, coming ashore, knowing those guns were trained on you," he tells his students in class as he engages them with maps, questions, videos and artifacts.

On June 6, 1944, the allied forces invaded the Normandy coast of Nazi-occupied France. The Canadians' entry point was a stretch of sand code-named Juno Beach

Orford tries to make the first step towards the liberation of Europe feel real and close to the students, who were almost 6,000 kilometres and 70 years removed from that day on Juno Beach.

'Things just came together'

Orford teaches history at Centre Dufferin District High School.

His passion comes from a single moment on Juno Beach, during a family vacation.

"The first time I was there, I was with my children and they were quite young. That was a moment when I looked at where I was, and I looked at my children and I looked at my own profession and what I do for a living, and things just came together," he says.

'We are committed to remembering the veterans and he is kind of leading the way.'- Rebecca Janke, student at Centre Dufferin District High School, says of Orford

He has been to Juno at least 10 times now. He regularly takes students to walk the beach where Canadians fell.

Orford's commitment to honouring and remembering soldiers and their sacrifices has earned him the Governor General's History Award for Excellence in Teaching. He has inspired students to support the Dufferin County Museum, where staff and students have put together an impressive database chronicling the stories of thousands of veterans from the area. 

Wayne Townsend, curator at the museum, say the students' contributions are substantial.

"They have done research on veterans, living veterans, veterans' families, they have assisted us with our computer program, come over and volunteered," he says.

Two students from the school have been given important roles in the D-Day ceremonies on June 6. They have been chosen as "youth ambassadors" and will recite the Commitment to Remember before thousands of people.

Students involved in commemorating D-Day

Students credit Orford with making it all possible.

"He's given me the opportunity to read at the Juno Beach presentation," says 16-year-old Jeff Allen, "which not many other kids will ever get. The overall experience of it will be one that I will never forget."

Rebecca Janke says Orford's teachings are having a lasting effect on her and other students.

"We are committed to remembering the veterans and he is kind of leading the way," she says.

Orford downplays his role, crediting the students, other staff at the school and the community at large. What he seeks, however, is moments when his students, particularly on the battlefield tours, gain a deep appreciation for the enormity of the events they are studying.

On tours, he watches his students' faces carefully for signs history is sinking in.

"Where you get it most evocatively are in the small quiet moments," he says. "You don't get it in a big wallop. You get it in the small quiet moments."

That deep appreciation for the dramatic story of courage and sacrifice keeps him going back to Juno Beach. He will be there on June 6 with another group of students from Centre Dufferin.

"Juno is just the right thing to give them," he says quietly.