Courseulles-sur-Mer, Normandy, France. A young man dressed as a Canadian soldier in the Second World War stands before a group of British schoolchildren. “I was 16 years old when the war broke out,” he begins. “I’m originally from Montreal, Quebec, and I remember that day well…”
The scene takes place at the 10-year-old Juno Beach Centre, in the Canadian sector of the D-Day landing beaches. Here, tourists learn about the 14,000 Canadians who took part in the Allied invasion of June 6, 1944, as well as more than one million other Canadians who served elsewhere in the war. Over the past decade, four U of T students have been hired as guides at the centre, leading fact-studded tours of the museum, a German bunker and part of Juno Beach itself. For groups of schoolchildren, the guides also portray period characters such as the young Canadian soldier.
Ian Beacock (BA 2010 VIC) served as a guide in the summer of 2009. Family history led him to apply for the job. “My grandfather’s brother was killed in the Battle of Normandy,” says Beacock, a PhD candidate in modern European history at Stanford University in California. “I was looking for a more profound engagement with his story, and to learn more about Juno Beach’s landscape and history.” He also found it moving to be there during the summer that he was 21 – the same age as his grand-uncle when he was killed.
Taylor Lew (BA 2013 TRIN), who was a guide in the summer of 2011, had his interest in the Second World War sparked by a U of T course in 19th- and 20th-century European history. Training for the job, he says, went beyond the detailed history of what Canadian forces did on and after D-Day: “We got into the personal aspects: what soldiers felt as they faced battle, how young a lot of them were – our age or younger. That was touching,” says Lew, who is now in the Ontario Legislature Internship Programme.
The student guides took their work seriously. “We felt the responsibility of being good Canadian ambassadors,” says Lew. “We realized we were representing Canada and the Canadian war effort for visitors from around the world.”