Preserving Canadian memory on Juno Beach
By Dan Calrinsky
The guns have long been silenced; the war long ago won. But Rebecca (Cline) Le Savoureux is ensuring the world never forgets the contributions of Canadian soldiers who liberated a country and freed a planet from fascism during the Second World War.
Le Savoureux cannot recall just why she decided to enter a French immersion program in Grade 7. Maybe she thought it was cool. Maybe she thought it was romantic. Today, the best explanation she can come up with is, “Something in my 12-year-old brain told me to do it.”
As it turned out, the 12-year-old London, Ont., native made a good choice. Her early attraction to all things French has followed her through the rest of her schooling and beyond.
At Western, an introductory European history course gave Le Savoureux, BA’05 (Political Science, French), the urge to someday work and live in France. Just before graduation, she landed a temporary job as a guide at the Juno Beach Centre, the Second World War museum on the sands in the Canadian sector of the Normandy landing beaches.
“I finished my last exam and three days later I was in Normandy,” she said. “I had to learn how to explain to visitors Canada’s role on D-Day and in all of the Second World War.”
On D-Day, June 6, 1944, the long-awaited invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe began with Allied armies from the United States, Great Britain and Canada landing on the coast of Normandy.
Canada played a critical role in the invasion. Royal Canadian Air Force squadrons patrolled the skies and attacked enemy targets onshore, while 10,000 sailors onboard 110 ships of the Royal Canadian Navy supported the invasion. It fell to more than 14,000 volunteer soldiers from across Canada, under Major-General Rod Keller, commander of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, to storm the 10-kilometre stretch of French coastline code-named Juno Beach.
Three hundred fifty-nine Canadians were killed on D-Day, out of 1,074 Canadian casualties. The dead, along with scores of other Canadians killed in the fighting during the weeks that followed, are buried today in the Canadian War Cemetery at Bény-sur-Mer, behind Juno Beach.
After decades of seeing D-Day tourism focused on contributions of U.S. and British forces, the veterans who created the Juno Beach Centre in 2003 wanted a permanent Canadian presence at the beach.
They also wanted the face of the museum to be young people, the same age as the soldiers who had fought on the beach generations earlier. So staff started hiring a rotating crew of bilingual students and recent graduates of Canadian universities as greeters – although ambassadors might be a better word.
“We really felt we were representing our country to visitors from home and especially to those from Europe and elsewhere,” Le Savoureux said. “People generalize, so if they liked us, they’d like Canada.”
When her guide rotation finished, Le Savoureux returned home to London. But she’d had a taste of living in France, so when the centre later offered her a full-time position as customer service manager – a job that included helping train and supervise the guides – she jumped.
Now, after nearly a decade as an expat, and with a French husband, she comfortably calls Normandy “my adopted home.” No doubt her 12-year-old self would approve.
If the idea of living in France was stoked by a Western course, the influence of another course is with her to this day.
“I took Business French with French Studies professor Chantal Dawar,” Le Savoureux said. “Things we learned in that course are relevant to my job now: vocabulary, French geography, French business culture, how the workforce operates here. In fact, I still use Le Robert & Collins du management pratique, the French-English management dictionary we used.”
Each summer, as many as eight young guides offer 10 tours a day through the centre with what Le Savoureux calls a “charge to perpetuate the memory to the next generations.”
Besides exploring the museum itself, guides accompany visitors to the stretch of beach just steps from the museum’s door. Once there, they tour several relics of the Nazis’ formidable Atlantic Wall – concrete bunkers and machine gun emplacements, an underground command post and tunnels – built to defend against the Allied invasion everyone knew would come from sea and air.
“It isn’t always clear just how to do things – there’s no handbook on how to remember. War is not an easy subject. We try to keep an appropriate level of respect as we present the story, and despite the subject matter, we have to do it with warmth and friendliness; after all, people are on vacation. It’s a balancing act.”
Fellow Western alumna Darcie (Williams) Blainey, BA’05 (French, Linguistics), MA’06 (Theoretical and Applied French Linguistics), applied for a Juno Beach guide job. She did so, in part, because of her grandfather, who piloted a B-17 bomber in the war. Like many veterans, he didn’t talk much about his experience.
“Knowing just a little of what he had been through made me want to see the important places of that period of history,” she said.
Blainey credits her stint as a guide with helping to prepare her for an academic career. Having earned a PhD in linguistics at Tulane University, she’s currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto.
“Doing bilingual tours – switching languages clause by clause so people don’t get bored – really helped me with French fluency and developed my public-speaking skills,” she explained. And she recalls sometimes being overwhelmed by French visitors’ expressions of gratitude.
Le Savoureux had the same experience when she was a guide. Today, she finds visitors no less thankful, noting the French express enormous appreciation of Canada’s part in ending the four-year Nazi occupation.
“Senior citizens come up to us all the time and say, ‘Thank goodness for the Canadians,’” she said. “It’s very genuine. It’s very touching. And it’s humbling.”