Backstage: A College tradition of honouring Remembrance Day

Get to know us in our Backstage at CCPA blog. Contributors are students, faculty, and members of our community. 
Public Relations Liaison Michael D. Reid reflects on the history and the future of our Concert of Remembrance with College Co-founder Janis Dunning and current College Directors Caleb Marshall and Heather Burns.


When 60 Canadian College of Performing Arts students take to the stage at the Dave Dunnet Community Theatre tonight for A Concert of Remembrance, and perform an abridged version on a tour that will take them to St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, Berwick House and Trafalgar Pro Patria Legion, they’ll be doing more than paying tribute to those in the military who have sacrificed so much to ensure our freedom.

They will be continuing a tradition that began when College co-founders Jacques Lemay and Janis Dunning suggested that a Remembrance Day performance might be an ideal way to fulfil a desire that had been expressed when they first negotiated the lease at St. Mary’s Church. Church officials said they hoped that St. Mary’s, which has since housed CCPA at 1701 Elgin Rd., would have an opportunity to see something that the College does, and that they would establish some kind of rapport over time.

“I knew we had some very special, new Canadian music that would be great for the students to work on,” recalled Dunning, who had just won an award from the federal government for creating We Will Not Forget, a stage and TV documentary production that honoured war veterans from coast to coast.

Lemay and Dunning wanted students to begin their year with a presentation that was non-competitive in the sense there would be no big ‘lead’ roles for them to compete for. They also sought material that was reverent – i.e. “calm, thoughtful and focused on wonderful harmonies,” says Dunning – and that would introduce them to College performance standards, and the conduct that would be expected.

It also met the criteria for the kind of community contribution the College would come to be known for. Perhaps most important of all, it gave students the time to sit quietly with one or more veterans, and to hear stories from the veterans of what they had endured when they were as young as the students.

“As you can imagine it has always been a very moving experience, a very special way to begin their year together and to give thought to the precious ways theatre can give voice to our people and our history,” says Dunning, whose program started with performances at St. Mary’s and for the Esquimalt Legion and what is now the Trafalgar Pro-Patria Legion.

When Jim Hill joined CCPA and became Music Director, he invited the College to include the first of three churches he played at as part of what would become the College’s annual Remembrance Day tour.

“The response everywhere was magnificent,” said Dunning, recalling the origin of students singing O Canada in perfect harmony each year with “pride in their eyes and their hands on their hearts.”

The College’s new managing artistic director Caleb Marshall has vowed to continue the Remembrance Day concert tradition and the College’s practice of seeking partnerships within the community.

Such partnerships, whether with other arts organizations or municipalities, offer a “diverse and enriching” experience not just to the students, but to the public, says Marshall.

“With those two traditions aligned, what I tried to do this year was have our inaugural partnership with the District of Oak Bay, [so] that we could take this Remembrance Day concert which has traditionally been our gift back to the community through parishes and legions, and be able to offer a fully public performance,” said Marshall, whose partnership went on to include the 5th Field Regiment, Royal Canadian Artillery.

“I think it’s a great way to engage more with our own community here in Oak Bay and make this gift accessible to as many people as possible.”

Marshall, who has long been compelled and fascinated by war, particularly the Great War, echoes concerns that with each passing year Remembrance Day is in danger of fading into memory.

“We’re dealing with a generation that has never had a chance to meet a veteran,” says Marshall, who has performed in Billy Bishop Goes to War and written two plays about the First World War – Passchendaele and Somme Letters Home, based on actual correspondence between a New Brunswick soldier serving in France during the First World War, and his family in St. John, N.B.

“When you think of young Canadians who were their [the students] age during World War One, who endured unbelievable trauma and hardship, and had to come home and build businesses and plow fields and start to carve this country into a nation, their strength of will and character is hard for us to grasp.”

The College’s Director of Education & Programming Heather Burns says the Concert of Remembrance that she created and arranged and is being staged by Matthew Howe was envisioned with the realization the current generation of students don’t actually know what it’s like to be at war.

“This generation hasn’t felt the impact of war in the same way as generations before – what it’s like to live in a bomb shelter,” she said. “This student body only has vague recollections of 9/11. They don’t really know any other war other than the war on terror, or what’s going on in the Middle East.”

Marshall emphasizes that in celebrating military contributions to our country, they’re not glorifying war.

“It’s about service and commitment and sacrifice,” says Marshall, who describes the College’s Remembrance Day contributions to the community as a “hugely important” tradition of storytelling, sharing and honouring he’s committed to continuing.

A Concert of Remembrance begins at 7:30 p.m. at 2121 Cadboro Bay Rd. Admission is by donation.