Nightly display remembers WWI dead

The World Remembers projects names of fallen soldiers from 14 countries onto the Government Conference Centre, once a train station through which thousands passed on their way to the battlefields of Europe.

Thousands of names projected on wall of downtown Ottawa landmark

The names of fallen soldiers and other military personnel from the First World War are projected on the side of the Government Conference Centre in Ottawa on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017. (Joe Lofaro/CBC )

Ottawa's Government Conference Centre on Rideau Street is more than a central venue for high-powered meetings — the cavernous, Beaux-Arts-inspired building was once a bustling train station that played a key role during the First World War. 

These stories are buried in families, and we're trying to say, here's a way to bring that story to the surface.- R.H. Thomson

Thousands of Canadian soldiers and other military personnel on their way to the battlefields of Europe passed through the then newly built Union Station. Many of them never came back.

To honour their sacrifice — and the sacrifice of the war dead from more than a dozen other countries, on both sides of the conflict — thousands of names are being projected onto one of the building's towering, pillared walls in the lead-up to Remembrance Day.

The project is called The World Remembers, and it was produced by renowned actor and playwright R. H. Thomson.

"We're trying to pull away the ghosts of so many who went through that Ottawa station," Thomson told Hallie Cotnam, host of CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning

661,800 names projected

The project launched Sept. 24, and it will take 48 days to display the names of 661,800 soldiers, nurses and others killed in 1917, the bloody conflict's penultimate year. The names will also be projected on Toronto's Old City Hall, and at 60 other locations across Canada and around the world.
Actor, director and playwright R.H. Thomson. (Sandy Nicholson/Soulpepper Theatre Co.)

Passersby will notice the names reflect the diverse backgrounds of those who participated in the war. Besides Canada, the countries participating in the project are the United Kingdom, France, Germany, the United States, Turkey, Belgium, Australia, the Czech Republic, Italy, New Zealand, Slovenia and China. Soldiers of the former British Indian Army are also named. 

Thomson said the idea was to make the display relevant to everyone, not just those whose forebears may have passed through the station.

"What about the Italian-Canadian family, the Sikh-Canadian family, the Vietnamese-Canadian family, the French-Canadian family? What about all those families? Shouldn't they be involved in a remembrance event?" Thomson said. 

"It becomes a much more inclusive idea, and we're then actually addressing the country that we are now."

Last name to appear Nov. 11

The project has been running each year since 2014, marking each centenary of the First World War. It will end next in 2018, 100 years after the armistice.

Thomson, the central force behind the initiative, has a personal connection to the former rail station in the heart of the capital: his great uncle Jack travelled through it from Calgary to Halifax before returning from the war in 1919. 

"These stories are buried in families, and we're trying to say, here's a way to bring that story to the surface," he said. 

The federal government and Ontario150 provided funding for the displays in Ottawa and Toronto.

Each name is programmed to appear at a precise time, scheduled to the minute. The displays begin at 8:30 p.m. each night, and will run until the final name is projected at sunrise on Nov. 11. 

With files from CBC Radio