Remembrance: Canadian stars lend voices to letters

NANAIMO – Sheila McCarthy one of famous people to read for Canadian Letters and Images Project.

By Jenn McGarrigle

“My Dearest Flo, Just a line to tell you Poor old Bert is killed.”

So begins one of the letters that Sheila McCarthy, an acclaimed Canadian stage, film and television actress, reads out for Vancouver Island University’s Canadian Letters and Images Project – an online archive of letters and images telling the personal side of the Canadian war experience.

The project recently added an audio component to the website, and a growing list of well-known Canadian celebrities have lent their voices to the endeavour. Besides McCarthy, other celebrity readers include Chris Hadfield, Alex Trebek, Cynthia Dale, Georgina Reilly, Wayne Gretzky, his Excellency the Right Honorable David Johnston, R.H. Thomson and James Moore.

McCarthy, who invited Stephen Davies, a VIU history professor and coordinator of the Canadian Letters and Images Project, into her Ontario home this summer to record her reading two First World War-era letters, says the readings add another layer of authenticity to the project.

“It gives a human voice to our past,” she says. “It brings these stories to life and that’s a wonderful, organic progression for the project. I’m really proud to be part of projects like this in Canada. I feel like it’s my duty to partake in projects like this when I can.”

In the letter about “Poor old Bert,” the writer talks about staring at the casualty list for several minutes in disbelief, before telling her daughter about the reactions of other loved ones to the news and how her husband played cards with Teddy when he came by after hearing the news.

For McCarthy, who was moved by the letter-reading experience, the challenge was not to inject too much emotion into the reading because the letter wasn’t written that way.

“You want to give a kind of staunchness to them because they were private,” she says. “They were so practical. What’s most moving about the letters I got to read was the sort of day-to-day ordinariness of them. They weren’t big stories, they weren’t monumental events; it was the ritual day-to-day everydayness of them. Those are the best letters, when you just go, ‘Oh, they did that too.’”

Started 16 years ago by Davies as a class project to help his students explore the personal side of war in a First World War course, the Canadian Letters and Images Project now includes more than 25,000 letters painstakingly transcribed and digitized by Davies and work experience students, as well as about 15,000 images. The letters and images are divided into different collections, including Pre-1914, First World War, Second World War, Korea, and Post-Korea.

The new audio component is intended to draw more people to the website and improve accessibility for the visually impaired. Davies went through the collections and chose letters he thought were particularly powerful and meaningful for the celebrities to read.

“When the letters are read aloud, the impact is so different than simply reading the letter on your computer screen – I think it has much greater power,” says Davies. “If you close your eyes and listen, you can picture the person writing the letter. This project is all about making the past accessible to the present and preserving it for the future. Hearing the letters read out is the latest part of that bridge between a university research project and the general public.”

Families from across Canada send in letters to add to the online database. The unique thing about the Canadian Letters and Images Project is that unlike a museum, Davies and undergraduate students from various departments at VIU digitize the letters and images, and then return them to the families afterwards.

The project is completely funded by donations and grants. VIU also pays four work experience students to help Davies transcribe and digitize the letters and images, but even so, he says there are more letters coming in all the time than his work crew can keep up with. Thanks to a number of grants and individual donations, he’s been able to hire an additional four students this year to help out.

To learn more or donate to the Canadian Letters and Images Project, please visit www.canadianletters.ca.

Jenn McGarrigle is a writer with VIU’s communications department.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Incentivize safer driving

We are effectively just socializing the cost of road accidents here, says letter writer

Lantzville opts against forming social media committee

Committee would have helped district council develop policy on social media behaviour

Nanaimo Hospital Auxiliary has been fundraising for 120 years

Hospital auxiliary president says group pioneered Wi-Fi at hospitals on Island

Gabriola Island community bus sees 100,000th rider

Gabriola Environmentally Responsible Trans-Island Express celebrated milestone Jan. 25

LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Mayor and council aren’t necessary

Instead of candidates, put municipal priorities on the ballot, says letter writer

VIDEO: As 106 reported dead from the coronavirus outbreak, countries look to evacuate citizens

Canada is warning its residents to not go to Hubei province at all

Pregnant B.C. woman stuck in Wuhan, the epicentre of coronavirus outbreak

Woman is due to give birth in Wuhan, China unless she can get out

Taxi association asks B.C. Supreme Court to stop Uber, Lyft from operating

Petition alleges Passenger Transportation Board did not take taxis into account

Majority of Canadian boards had no female members in 2016 and 2017: StatCan

Statistics Canada says 18.1 per cent of director seats were held by women in 2017

Swapping grape varieties can help winemakers adapt to climate change: UBC study

Report says 56% of wine-grape-growing regions would be lost if global climate warms by 2 C

Alberta premier wants feds to approve Teck mine for benefit of First Nations

Kenney: ‘Surely [reconciliation] means saying yes to economic development for First Nations people’

Filming for Resident Alien begins in Ladysmith

Aliens and excitement take over the streets of Ladysmith during new TV series

The Three Bears are down to two after baby bear carving stolen from his perch in Island community

Thief repeatedly kicked it and dislodged it from cement and rebar

Most Read