Listening to the Voices from the Past: An invitation for a private, nuanced, remote Remembrance Day

By Samantha Cutrara

What do we mark for remembrance and how do we understand service to this country? These questions may seem straightforward on a day like Remembrance Day, but this day can also invite us to critically examine the concepts of commemoration and service, and provide nuance to the stories of military glory and heroics often featured on this day.

Histories of war are difficult. Taking time to remember those who have died in service and those who survived but came home forever altered, is a deep and thoughtful endeavor that forces us to confront the intertwined relationship of nationality and sacrifice. Or, that can force us to confront this relationship, although it often does not. To invite criticality to national Remembrance harks of treasonous anti-patriotism and lack of support for the troops. But to support the troops and to wish for the demilitarization of how we understand the past and the present are two different things, and perhaps we develop more ways to explore this.

Remembrance Day is often a day to put aside nuance and perform patriotism in a way that might feel foreign on any other day. Remembrance Day is a public show of remembering – a public show of bringing being brought to mind – that doesn’t want the difficultness of war, death, and change to be foregrounded. Honour, justice, sacrifice for home and country are the themes put forward instead. In this way, as a state sanctioned public moment of commemoration that sets the narrative of what is remembered and how, Remembrance Day can be as performative as it is thoughtful, and can signal an all-of-nothing nationalism that may not align with our political or moral beliefs. As the late Roger Simon wrote:

State-oriented commemorations… enact the reiteration of iconic images and narratives that serve to reinforce established frameworks of social cohesiveness and strengthen corporate commitments via the dynamics of recognition, identification, and affirmation. When loss is referenced, as in remembrance of those who died in military service, this loss is typically rendered as a necessary sacrifice for the collective good (e.g., “to preserve our way of life”).[1]

Remembrance Day asks us to say that we are here now because of what happened then and we honour and appreciate that. And so, we perform this honour and appreciation on this day through our public displays of national cohesion and respect.

Now, this performance of honour and appreciation is important, especially for veterans and their families. I know that for a close family friend who was a World War II veteran, Remembrance Day was an important day for him to feel seen and valued for his service.

But I do want to suggest that the ritual of this day, and the narrow nationalist narratives associated with it, lessen how we come to understand the difficult knowledge of what military sacrifice has meant to individuals, families, communities, and nations. And, by failing to grasp the difficultness of war and sacrifice, we can fail to be thoughtful and critical about other violent state-sponsored endeavours. In other words, we may fail to advocate for peace because we have failed to grasp the difficulties of war.

And so, with COVID restrictions in place, and many public Remembrance Day events cancelled or moved online, we can Remember away from the public, away from performance and ritual, and perhaps when doing so, we might privately bring greater nuance to how and what we remember.

For me, the lack of performative remembrance activities has meant I have been more thoughtful about war and service for a longer period of time than I would in previous years. It won’t just be today that I will Remember. For the past week, I’ve been Remembering, and Remembering deeply and thoughtfully about a full range of experiences tied to war. I’ve been able to think about (and Remember) Indigenous service people and what it meant to lose status when enlisting (note that Indigenous Veterans Day is on November 8th). I’ve been thinking about LGBTQ service people and the hardships and freedoms military service meant in the first half of the 20th century. I’ve been thinking about Black veterans who seem lost in public archives but found in private ones. And – thanks to the videos I did for the #SourceSaturday series – I’ve also been thinking more deeply about the themes of care, community, and communication during World Wars I and II.

Because of these conversations, I’ve been able to think about the ways we get bound to our stories and don’t allow other stories to get through. Like the stories about the hard split between field and home that archived letters or a piece of ephemera can challenge. Or the stories a solider may tell their family even when that isn’t the entirety of their experience. Or the stories about the war being good or bad for certain people, or that people did or did not participate. All of these stories can be challenged through archival evidence and oral histories and – and this is the key – listening to, or bearing witness to, these stories can invite us to learn more about self, nation, service, and what and how we remember, than we can solely through the public rituals of Remembrance.

I was able to have five conversations for my Source Saturday video and podcast series related to Remembrance Day and, like every conversation I’ve had for this series, I was surprised and delighted by the insights I gained by listening to these historians talk about the sources they brought to our conversation. Through these talks, I was able to gain a critical nuance that invited me to Remember deeper and more thoughtfully than I have done previous years.

What follows is a short description of each video followed by the embedded video of our conversation. 

I first spoke to Dr. Stephen Davies, Director of The Canadian Letters and Images Project. As they write on their website, “The Canadian Letters and Images Project is an online archive of the Canadian war experience, from any war, as told through the letters and images of Canadians themselves.” For 20 years, the Project has digitized families’ letters and made the scans and transcripts available online. For our conversation, Dr. Davies chose two letters from World War I – one, a man to his wife and the other, her response. Through contrasting the content and tone of the letters, Dr. Davies stressed how the line between field and home front is not as strict as we make it.

I also connected with American historian Dr. Matt Luckett about his “Grandpa’s Letters” project.  Although Dr. Luckett is a historian of the 19th century American West, the gift of his grandfather’s letters from World War II has sparked his interest in his grandfather’s experience at Pearl Harbour, being stationed in Guam during this time, and his relationship with Matt’s grandmother, who Matt never got a chance to meet. We talked about the deeper knowing that comes from reading letters left behind, but Dr. Luckett also identifies the federal sources people can access to learn more about their family members’ service to their country.

I also had the pleasure of featuring the edited collection Making the Best of It: Women and Girls of Canada and Newfoundland during the Second World War,” edited by Sarah Glassford and Amy Shaw and published by UBC Press, in three separate videos.

I speak with Dr. Amy Shaw about the collection as a whole and how the chapters challenge the idea that the war was either all-good or all-bad for women. By talking about chapters related to girls and the war, women at home, women in humanitarian work, and women in formal service, Dr. Shaw underscores that by listening to the women themselves – the archival sources and oral histories that are available – we can complicate the ways we understand wartime for women in Canada and Newfoundland. We also talk about a photograph from the Royal Canadian Navy and how camaraderie and safety was presented to young women and their parents as being aspects of military service.

Dr. Sarah Glassford was the co-editor of the collection, but she also contributed a chapter on women in the Red Cross that we talked about in a separate video. By looking at a letter sent home from London in 1943, Dr. Glassford wanted to demonstrate how prominent emotional labour and creating networks of home was for many women in the Red Cross. We talk about gender, and gendered expectations of care and service during the war, and how women’s experiences and expectations may have grated against these. In our talk, we echoed many of Sarah thoughts expressed in our May 12thPandemic Pedagogy” conversation related to how women were able to simultaneously experience both joy and pain during wartime.

Finally, I spoke to Jennifer Shaw (no relation to Amy) about her chapter on Jewish Canadian women during World War II. Jennifer used oral histories to refute the dominant historiographical notion that Jews did not participate in home front war activities. In our conversation, she showed quotes from her oral history participants and paired them with photographs with little information attached, to demonstrate how the histories of Jewish women’s experiences during the war can be lost without speaking to the women themselves.

All the videos can be found in this YouTube playlist.

It is through these stories I will Remember and, while not standing around a cenotaph, I will Remember deeply about what war and service has meant to the people involved.

As always, I thank the historians who participated in these conversations and the others who have talked with me for the series off-camera.

Source Saturday is a video and podcast series featuring a historian, archivist, or creator talking about a primary or secondary source that can challenge how we normally teaching a historical period. If you’re interested in talking for the series, please contact me through my website or twitter at the links below. 

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Dr. Samantha Cutrara is a History Education Strategist and currently works in the Office of the Vice Provost Academic at York University as a Program Innovation and Curriculum Specialist. Her first book Transforming the Canadian History Classroom: Imagining a New ‘We’ was recently published by UBC Press. Find more information on her work, visit: Find her on Twitter at @DrSCutrara.


The author would like to acknowledge that this work was created on land that is the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee, the Métis, and most recently, the territory of the Mississaugas of the Credit River. The territory was the subject of the Dish With One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant, an agreement between the Iroquois Confederacy and the Ojibwe and allied nations to peaceably share and care for the resources around the Great Lakes. This territory is also covered by the Upper Canada Treaties. Today, the meeting place of Toronto (from the Haudenosaunee word Tkaronto) is still the home to many Indigenous people from across Turtle Island and the author is grateful to have the opportunity to write, study, teach, and learn in the community, on this territory.

[1] Roger Simon. A Pedagogy of Witnessing: Curatorial practice and the pursuit of social justice. SUNY Press: Pg. 3.

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