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Remembering every fallen soldier

Bob Hilscher is a videojournalist at The National and the producer of Fallen Canadian Soldiers.

On Remembrance Day, The National is again honouring Canada's fallen soldiers in Afghanistan.  And this year, we wanted to do something special, something that would not just pay tribute to the 152 soldiers* who have lost their lives since our country took to the battlefield in 2002.   We also wanted to ensure that each and every one of the men and women who died in battle would be remembered as an individual.

We came up with the idea of working with three different schools, in different parts of Canada - Herman Street Public School in Petawawa, Ontario, General Vanier Elementary School in Montreal, and Toronto's Lord Lansdowne Public School, in order to have a young Canadian introduce each of the fallen in our television presentation.  In all, 152 elementary school children from these schools would take up our request to hold up and state the name of each of this country's 152 fallen soldiers.
But there was more to it than that.  Along with the photographs of the soldiers that we sent to the schools, we also included information about each soldier, who they were, where they were born, and how they died.   As I would learn during my first school visit at Petawawa's Herman Street Public School, these elementary school students would take their task very seriously.  As Herman Street principal Terry Burwell told me, that seriousness was driven by the fact that many of his students had actually known the soldier they would be introducing.

As we began the shoot, I quickly learned how close the connections were.  One young girl told me that the soldier's picture she held was of a master corporal who had been a close friend of her family, and that her mother was also a warrant officer. She knew full well what the pictures represented.  And Principal Burwell himself told me later that he wished that he could turn back time, and have just a few seconds with the many of the fallen with whom he once shared time at his school, at the ice rink, at the baseball field.   At his school, and in his town, theses names and faces will not soon be forgotten.
At General Vanier in Montreal, I was pleased to learn that, under the guidance of Principal Pina Rizzi, the students had been hard at work for over a week prior to my arrival, learning everything they could about the soldier whose picture they'd be holding up for the camera.  Clearly, both the principal and students took this task to heart.  Principal Rizzi said the school was particularly honoured to represent the soldiers who had died fighting with the Royal 22e Regiment, also known as the Van Doos, based in Quebec City.   Her students took great pains to make sure they pronounced the name and rank of each soldier correctly, in English and French.  I told them that the soldiers whose pictures they were holding would be proud.

My last stop was in Toronto, to film at Lord Lansdowne Public School, a downtown school that represents the very multicultural population of the city.  It felt fitting, and very Canadian, to have children from so many nationalities hold the final group of pictures of our fallen soldiers, which includes the most recent combat death, that of Corporal Brian Pinksen, who died on August 30, 2010 as a result of an improvised explosive device in the Panjwai district of Afghanistan.  Principal Beth Mills would later tell me that for her, and for the children, the experience of participating in this project put the notions of war and peace into a new perspective.  And she wanted me to know that, should any more of Canada's soldiers die before Nov 11th, she would welcome me back to the school and arrange for the students to help me complete my project.  "But I sincerely hope that won't be necessary," she added.
The presentation of Fallen Canadian Soldiers on November 11 on The National is the result of dozens of hard-working teachers, principals, students and parents working together to make sure the loss of every Canadian soldier in Afghanistan is acknowledged, in a public way, on Remembrance Day, and honoured, in a personal way, by a young Canadian.  As Principal Burwell said, we owe it to them to remember them.   

*We also chose to include Glyn Berry, a civilian who was killed in Afghanistan in 2006, in this project.  He is introduced by a student from Herman Street Public School in Petawawa, Ont.

Fallen Canadian Soldiers airs on The National on Thursday, November 11, and is available on our website in our Remembrance Day 2010.