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.