An Abbotsford elementary school class was invited as the guests of honour at a recent commemoration to remember the Canadian liberation of the Netherlands at the end of World War Two.
Debbie Mar’s Grade 3/4 class from Upper Sumas Elementary, along with a class from Vancouver’s Shaughnessy Elementary, were recognized for their in-depth class projects about the liberation on March 5.
“This event was life-changing for the children,” Mar said. “They can no longer attend Remembrance Day the same way… They can no longer look at a veteran the same way.”
The two classes were joined by over 20 World War Two veterans, Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay, National Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan Minister, the Ambassador of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, representatives from local veterans associations, liberated European families and their descendants, current serving members of the Canadian Armed Forces and one Auschwitz survivor at the Seaforth Armoury in Vancouver.
The Tulip Project, which was a sprawling months-long education experience for Mar’s class, saw the students dive into the history of the Canadian experience during the war.
The students connected with local veterans, found and placed flowers on the graves of Abbotsford soldiers killed oversees, presented at their school ceremony, made a short film and even learned to sing in Dutch.
The class efforts were noticed by Adriana Zylmans, the president of the Dutch Liberation Canadian Society, who shared the project with Veterans Affairs, leading to their invite to the ceremony.
A bus was chartered by Veterans Affairs to pick up the students from their school at 8 a.m. They were joined by two local veterans they met during the project, Sgt. Kelly Watson and John Molner.
Mar said the class was extremely nervous to be celebrated by the Canadian government. The class had no rehearsals, and had to work together with the Shaughnessy students on the spot. She said they rose to the challenge.
“The feeling of gratitude from the veterans to the students there was incredible. You could just feel it,” Mar said. “It wasn’t just any media event.”
The students, all wearing T-shirts with the flags of the Netherlands or Canada, were allowed a question period with the many veterans in attendance. The last question, asked by one of her students, struck silence into the audience, Mar said.
“One of my students asked, ‘Was there any kindness during the war?’” she said. “They were all taken aback by that… It was beautiful to hear the word repeated throughout the audience.”
One veteran, Sgt. Norm Kirby, responded after a period silence. Mar said he told the audience that, when the Netherlands was liberated by Canadian troops, children were laughing, singing, smiling and playing in the streets.
“His face lit up,” Mar said. “He said he has never forgotten that. It was just a beautiful closing to the ceremony.”
Afterwards, Kirby, along with the other veterans, came with open arms and embraced all of the students, Mar said.
“It was so heartfelt and so emotional and so powerful,” she said. “It just went to the core of one’s being.”
An older woman also came to greet the students, and Mar said she thought she might have been another teacher at first. She soon discovered this woman, Amalia Boe, had been liberated from the Auschwitz concentration camp at just five years old.
“[Boe] just ran towards the children; she wanted to be with them,” Mar said. “She just was so overjoyed to talk to me and to the students, and to thank us for our work and how important it was to her.”
The two elementary classes were each gifted a pair of combat boots worn by Canadian veterans during the war. The boots have been making a journey by train across the country since April – stopping at every province from Vancouver to Halifax – to symbolize the trek Canadians made en route to the battlefields of Europe.
The day after the ceremony, Mar said she worked the boots into a class lesson. She had all the students remove their shoes and imagine they had just arrived in Halifax and were about to cross the Atlantic.
“It took us right back to that time… I said the last person who stepped in these boots probably did not come home,” Mar said. “And then I asked if anybody would want to step inside the boots.”
Two students worked up the courage to do so, and their lead was quietly followed by several others, Mar said. The class then wrote poetry from the perspective of a solider going to war.
Mar says that she will keep the combat boots with her as long as she teaches and this has been the highlight of her 25 years in education. She says she feels her class has made a significant impact on the community.
“I think now a special bond has been developed between the youth and the elderly,” she said. “Just the joy and gratitude in Veteran Molar’s eyes, it has been worth every second.”