Rethinking Remembrance: A new book calls for more inclusive observance

Actor R.H. Thomson grew up in Ontario during the 1950s hearing tales about two global conflicts, the First and Second World Wars. His father fought in the second and returned home, while his father’s uncles fought in the first. Two of them didn’t return home, two died afterward from lung illnesses brought on by the war, and only one of them lived to old age. On his mother’s side of the family, three great uncles lost their lives.

As a teenager, Thomson read some of the hundreds of letters his great uncles and distant cousins had sent back from Europe. That began a long-standing fascination with Canada’s military and war veterans that continues to inform his work today, including By the Ghost Light: Wars, Memory, and Families, his new memoir.


By the Ghost Light is also an extension of his one-man show The Lost Boys, which saw him act out some of those letters on stage.

“I’m a storyteller. That’s my profession. I’m an actor. I work in TV and theatre. That’s all we do, is tell stories,” he said.

“So, I became pretty cognizant of the power of stories — when they’re told, when they’re distorted, when they’re not told. That’s why I wrote the book.”

It’s the untold stories that interest Thomson the most. He argues the history we know today has been “tidied up” for political purposes, honouring the victors at the expense of the vanquished.

“So, you kind of put away the messy questions like why, who is responsible, and you go into a kind of honourable remembrance. Well, it’s time to do different.”

Different because he feels our current observances are still rooted firmly in the mindset that brought about the Great War.

“Very British, very Empire,” he said. “Well, we’re a very different country now because we’re everybody.”

“So, on Remembrance Day, do you leave out the Punjabi Canadians? Do you leave out the Pakistani Canadians and Nigerian Canadians, the Italian Canadians, Ukrainian Canadians, the Chinese Canadians, the Indigenous? Do you leave them out? I say no.”

Thomson also writes about his passion project, The World Remembers. Its goal is to show the names of all the soldiers killed in The Great War, both victor and vanquished, all together in one place for the first time.

“So, the act of naming the nine and a half million — we’ve only got four million so far — is to reach out to everyone and say, ‘Let’s make an inclusive history, an inclusive remembrance.’ And, in the seeds of that, you start to de-escalate conflict.”

Thomson also argues wars aren’t just about soldiers, but the families they leave behind. He spends three chapters of the book talking about the women back home — the nurses, the mothers, and others.

“Mostly it’s about the men, the men who fought, the men who came back, the men who commanded, the men were the politicians, the men, the men, the men, and rightfully so,” he said.

“But in doing so, the women’s stories were absented, and I don’t think that’s appropriate.”

Thomson says while women, for the most part, weren’t combatants in the First World War, they were left to deal with the aftermath.

“So, they have to be honoured. They have to be recognized. So that’s why a lot of the book is about women.”

And with two wars underway right now, one in Ukraine, the other in the Middle East, Thomson reminds us we must be cognizant of the stories being told — and the ones that aren’t.

By the Ghost Light: Wars, Memory, and Families is published by Knopf Canada.

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