Toronto’s Great War Attic

Have you heard of the City of Toronto’s Great War Attic? I hadn’t until just this week. To commemorate the centenary of World War I, the City of Toronto in 2014 undertook to document how ordinary citizens experienced the First World War and how their ancestors continue their connection with it.

In what was conceived as a type of Antiques Roadshow, the City invited citizens to identify any World War One artefacts they might have in their possession and bring them with their stories to a series of twelve “pop-up museum” events. There, curators and historians photographed these keepsakes and recorded the oral history stories for permanent display in the Canadian Encyclopedia. The stories have been passed down through several generations. The artefacts were sometimes found unexpectedly in attics, chests, closets and basements. You can see the virtual museum of these personal experiences of the war on the internet

Ten short documentary films were also produced to feature some of the stories and artefacts. Among others, the films tell of a poetry book that came back home after the poet died at Ypres in 1915, a small suitcase of medical equipment used by a wartime field nurse, letters long left unopened describing the last thoughts of a young soldier who died just before his 19th birthday. The ten videos can be seen on The Great War Attic webpage

Monday night, I was privileged to see three of these videos, meet the storytellers and learn about their artefacts. Marylyn Perringer, a professional storyteller and my friend, told the story of her father’s autograph book from the Verdala Prisoner of War camp in Malta. The Salter Album:Encounters in Malta’s Prisoner of War Camps 1914-1920 is now available at the Toronto Public Library. I have described Marylyn’s odyssey to share and preserve her parent’s experience in a previous post, Reconnecting with Roots. It’s a wonderful story of how prisoners from countries in conflict experienced their common humanity in a detention centre.

John Metcalfe, formerly in the Toronto theatre scene and now a teacher of special needs children, told of how he inherited his grandfather’s World War One trench coat and what it meant to him when he wore it growing up. Funny isn’t it? Until Monday night, I had never thought of what we commonly call “a trench coat” as originating in World War One.

Kanwar Singh, whose paintings have been exhibited across North America, Europe and India, was born in the Punjab and grew up in Toronto. He described how his study of history at York University formed the basis for the development of his artistic style. He was approached by a small museum in Malta to do a painting of a Sikh soldier in World War One. Over 200,000 Sikhs fought in World War One, primarily in the British forces, and a few with Canada. Now that India is independent, the loss of thousands of Sikh lives in military campaigns on behalf of Britain and the Empire at the time is ignored. He discovered that one such Sikh who fought for Canada was Buckam Singh who is buried in Kitchener. With no photo of his subject available, he re-imagined him as a symbol of all those Sikhs whom the artist sought to honour.

The Great War Attic project is a joint venture of the City of Toronto Museums and Heritage Services department, Historica Canada (the proprietor of the Canadian Encyclopedia), the York University History Department and the Multicultural History Society of Ontario. I commend it to you. The stories are fascinating, the artefacts moving, and the venture a most worthy memorial of those who gave all they had in war that we might have peace.

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