SFU geography student Vienna Watt works as a tour guide at the Canadian National Vimy Ridge memorial in France as part of her co-op term.

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SFU geography co-op student finds family connection, guides Canadian veterans at 100-year anniversary of Vimy Ridge

April 10, 2017
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By Ian Bryce

Simon Fraser University student Vienna Watt knows what it’s like to work in the trenches. This spring, she’s completing a co-op term with Veteran Affairs Canada at the Canadian National Vimy Ridge memorial in France.

Her co-op term also happens to coincide with the 100-year anniversary of the battle of Vimy Ridge—a gruesome battle in the First World War that resulted in more than 11,000 Canadian soldier casualties.

Watt is working as a tour guide who educates visitors about the memorial and takes them through preserved Canadian and German trenches and bunkers.

“I have an interest in human and population geography,” says Watt. “With my co-op, I’m able to look at the displacement of populations due to the war in 1917 and the effect that it had on the town that I’m now living in.”

Watt says that while most Canadians have a difficult time remembering a war in a place thousands of kilometers away, she sees the effects every day.

Watt has also had the chance to do personal research during her co-op term. Last year, she learned that her great-grandfather fought in the battle near Vimy Ridge.

“Thankfully, he did survive the war and when I returned home I spoke to my grandmother about her father’s experience and I could really see the effect the war had on my own family,” she says.

The memorial itself commemorates the death of 11,285 Canadian soldiers who died with no known grave during the war. The battle was the first time four Canadian divisions fought together for a significant strategic victory.

For the 100-year anniversary, Watt says the memorial fielded 22,000 visitors with special appearances by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and members of the British Royal Family: Prince Charles, Prince William and Prince Harry.

While Watt wasn’t the personal guide for the Prime Minister or Royal Family, she did guide the Hon. Kent Hehr, Canada’s Minister of Veterans Affairs, CBC anchor Peter Mansbridge, current Canadian Armed Forces personnel and Canadian veterans around the site.

“Speaking with veterans and current members of the CAF reminds me that conflicts continue throughout the world, and the Canadian National Vimy Memorial serves as a reminder of our shared hope for peace,” says Watt.

“I may not work as a tour guide forever, but my experience working at Vimy has left me with a duty to remember, and a reminder of the importance of solving complex international issues peacefully.”