Vancouver composer honours veterans through music

High on a hill in Renfrew Heights, overlooking East Vancouver and the North Shore mountains, a sprawling wartime legacy is slowly slipping from memory. 

In fact, upon a visit to the area, only the keenly astute will notice names like Falaise Park, Normandy Drive, and Dieppe Drive amongst the newly built homes, and even think to wonder why they are named for battles in the Second World War.

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On Nov. 11, however, local composer and double bassist Mark Haney hopes to use music to remind residents that many veterans returning from that war faced struggles at home trying to find a home, and that the City of Vancouver attempted to solve the ensuing mid-'40s housing crisis with the Renfrew Heights Veterans' Housing Project.

Haney is the artist in residence at the Falaise Park field house, located in the heart of the development where 600 veterans' families once resided. 

Field houses, the discrete beige buildings found in more than 50 municipal parks, were formerly the domains of park caretakers. In 2012, 15 were converted into free, work-only studios for more than 50 artists like Haney in exchange for arts-based community engagement.

As part of his Falaise residency, which ends on January 15, Haney has composed "11", a Remembrance Day arrangement commemorating the history of the neighbourhood.

"Before the project, my inroad to Remembrance Day was always through the arts somehow. Like, Benjamin Britten's "War Requiem", or the music Shostakovich wrote in Russia during the war. These artistic responses to what was going on were really how I personally connected with it," explains Haney, sitting in the kitchen of his field house. "But then, doing all the research for this project, I realized how little I knew about the realities of people in the Second World War. These people literally went through something beyond our scope of understanding."

After the war was over, Haney continues, veterans had to deal with a scarcity of affordable rental housing in Vancouver. 

In January of 1946, a fed-up ex-serviceman named Bob McEwen inspired 700 veterans to take over the then-unoccupied old Vancouver Hotel to force a resolution. 

They turned the luxury hotel into a $20/month hostel, and after months of living there – backed by countless supporters – the city agreed to build them affordable housing, and many ended up in Renfrew Heights.

Upon learning this, Haney and collaborator and documentarian Diane Park decided to turn the stories of 11 Vancouver veterans – some who passed away in the war, others who lived in the Renfrew area – into 11 questions for the solo trumpet, and 11 replies on answering brass instruments. 

What is your name? Where were you born? Did you return? Where do you rest?… On Nov. 11 at 11am, after a moment of silence , the questions will ring out across upper Falaise Park once a minute for 11 minutes. 

Included are the stories of George Clifford, Harley Godwin, Frank Helden, Laura Williams, the Worthington brothers, Joseph Iaci, Peter Stephen Price, Antonio Mauro, David Allison Killam, and 99-year-old D-Day survivor Edmond Champoux, the only living veteran involved in the project. 

Many of the stories were brought to Haney by relatives – now-adult children who grew up in the project.  

"I really feel supported," says Haney, "and [the children] are really happy there is some kind of specific Remembrance Day project about this place in this place. 

"A lot of them really feel that the history and significance of this area is unknown to most. I certainly didn't know about it before I came," he continues. "It's really getting lost, because it doesn't look like it – almost every house has been torn down, people who live here do not know why the streets are named after battles, they don't know why there's poppies on the street signs. It's really part of the city's living history that is disappearing."

To rectify that, Haney reached out to his neighbours to get them involved, and children from the nearby Christian school signed on to help. Volunteers will hold red umbrellas for the musicians as they sound off on trumpet, flugelhorn, alto sax, French horn, trombone, and tuba throughout the park, and attendees slowly make their way down from vista at the top (the service is fully wheelchair accessible).

The procession will then move into the gym of the school for coffee and snacks, and explore the materials gathered for the project. Linda Jones, a veterans’ entertainer who grew up in the housing project, will perform to close the day.

"This project is not about 'The War', it's not about Canada at war, it's not about the military," says Haney. "It's about individuals – the 11 in the project, but in the broader sense, all the people who grew up in the Renfrew Heights Veterans' Housing Project."

More information on "11" can be found at FalaiseParkMusic.com/11

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