Friends and clients of Vancouver photographer Grant McAvoy might be surprised to discover he leads a double life.
The successful photographer, known for his high-profile photo shoots of politicians, actors and celebrities, such as TV chef Gordon Ramsey, as well as for print ads for major North American publications, lives an urban lifestyle that includes a home in an Olympic Village condo, a sailboat moored at the Heather Marina and his Image Werx Photography studio located at False Creek.
What those friends and clients may not know is that McAvoy, 46, has a passion for Canadian military history and is one of the founders of the second-largest museum dedicated to the military in Canada. (The Canadian War Museum, the country's biggest, is in Ottawa.)
McAvoy also helped create the Remembering Project, which thousands of students visit each year to learn about Canada's military past and meet veterans and peacekeepers old and young. The museum, now called the Canadian Military Education Centre (CMEC), is located on former Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Chilliwack lands now owned by the City of Chilliwack.
McAvoy says he was inspired to start the Remembering Project when he was an elementary school teacher in the Fraser Valley. McAvoy retired from teaching in Abbotsford in 2004.
"It was [near] Remembrance Day and we had a minute of silence," McAvoy recalls. "Afterwards I asked my Grade 7 class what they were thinking about and I got everything from 'the Canucks,' to 'the Civil War.' So I decided to do something about it."
That "something" launched McAvoy on a mission to educate B.C. students about the First and Second world wars and the sacrifices Canadian soldiers made and continue to make. McAvoy, who previously served with a military reserve unit based in Edmonton, decided it would be a good teaching tool to bring veterans in to speak to students at his school. "When I was a kid I had a grandpa and an uncle who served in the war, but these kids had no one," says McAvoy. "So I brought in some veterans. One of them set up a Morse code machine and the kids loved it. He told them this was the email from the 1930s."
The veterans also did one better and challenged the kids to a texting versus Morse code competition. "These two old signallers blew them out of the water," says McAvoy, laughing at the memory.
It was common for returning veterans to refuse to talk about their experiences during the Second World War, McAvoy notes, but as their numbers dwindle they seem more anxious to tell their stories. That's something McAvoy and his fellow volunteers at the education centre want to take full advantage of.
"They came home, they got a job and they got a house and never talked about the horrors they saw," says McAvoy. "They never talked about it. But now some of them really want to tell their stories."
McAvoy launched the Remembering Project in 2006-with the support of the City of Abbotsford, Veterans Affairs Canada and School District 34-by gathering enough Second World War vehicles, rifles, uniforms and military memorabilia from across the province to fill a 2,800-square-metre show barn in that city. The goal for the volunteers has always been to teach students the true meaning of Remembrance Day.
McAvoy says veterans, military family members and collectors from across the province emptied their closets, basements and garages to contribute to the display. The result was overwhelming. "We filled this massive building and had 8,000 kids over four days come though that first year guided by veterans."
"Out of that 8,000 kids I think only two were disciplined," adds McAvoy. "We had a veteran talk about landing on Juno Beach in a tank and getting stuck under fire. The kids got to sit in a tank and imagine that. This went way beyond reciting In Flanders Fields in the gym."
McAvoy says the Remembering Project became a victim of its own success and eventually the volunteers were turning people away at the door. By then, McAvoy had retired from teaching to work on getting a permanent space for a museum and education centre, while taking up photography full time. McAvoy approached the City of Abbotsford in search of a suitable location, but no appropriate space was available. He then travelled further east to Chilliwack to look at an empty 25,000-square-foot building at the former CFB Chilliwack base. A deal was struck with that city and the core group of founders, including McAvoy, Brooke Quam, George Clark and Dan Jahn, took possession of the former supply/quarter master warehouse in 2008.
On a damp October Friday morning, two eager young boys climb inside and on top of a military vehicle called a "universal carrier." Interrupting their play, the Courier asks them for their thoughts on the museum. "It's awesome," says a grinning nine-year-old Keefer Sandve. "This is my second time here and it was awesome the first time, too."
Keefer adds the museum's exhibits make him think about how soldiers who fought in a war must have felt at the time. "I worry because I'm always a little scared it could happen again," the Grade 4 student from Greendale elementary in Chilliwack explains with great sincerity. Clambering over the vehicle beside him is Wyatt English, also nine, whose mother brought the boys to the museum on a wet professional development day. Wyatt describes the centre as "pretty neat," and says it was a good way to learn about the meaning of Remembrance Day. Meanwhile, mom Candice English tells the Courier she brought her son and his friend as a way to pay tribute to a special friend and veteran she calls "Gunny."
"He's a very special person and I wanted the boys to see some of what he might have seen," says English.
Military vehicle enthusiast and CMEC co-founder Brooke Quam is happy to lead this reporter on a tour of the museum. Quam not only collects military vehicles, he also lovingly restores them. The volunteers on hand this day at the centre joke they had no choice but to open a museum because their wives were tired of not being able to access their garages.
Quam is happy to show off a little and says the centre's Ford Lynx Mark 1 scout car, which was used in the Second World War, is the only one in Canada. Quam walks from jeep to tank to truck, happily explaining the history of each vehicle, including the Lynx, which after the war had been sold to a logging camp in B.C. When Quam heard about the vehicle, it had been discovered long-abandoned near Stave Lake and was reduced to a pile of rusted pieces.
It took Quam two years to restore it to the pristine running condition it's in today. Another vehicle Quam restored to running condition is a Dodge command car, similar to the one used by American general George Patton. Like the Lynx, the vehicle was found in pieces.
"There are only two running examples in Canada," says Quam proudly.
The fact that almost all the of military vehicles work is a point of pride for the volunteers. Part of the attraction of the centre is how it allows and encourages students to explore the exhibits and vehicles hands-on. On special occasions, the volunteers treat visitors to rides on many of the vehicles, including the iconic "Caroline" M4 Sherman tank, which sat as a landmark adjacent to the All Sappers' Cenotaph outside the side gate of CFB Chilliwack on Vedder Road for years. McAvoy says as CFB Chilliwack was preparing to close in 1992, the fate of the popular tank was in question. The tank had already survived one previous close call when it was once proposed to be used as a target on the base's range. McAvoy says it was then suggested the Caroline be donated to a museum in Kelowna.
"But then we got permission to take it for the centre," McAvoy says, while showing off the tank where it sits outside the centre under a large khaki-green tarped structure. "We got it running again and on nice days we bring it out and give kids a ride."
The one vehicle not running-yet-is a military plane under repair in an abandoned parking lot behind where the Caroline is parked.
The museum is much more than military vehicles, though, and includes a library with more than 1,200 books, a tank simulator, a land mine exhibit demonstrating the horrors of their destruction as well as displays dedicated to Mtis soldiers and Canadians who served in Vietnam. And, of course, there's a station where students can try their hand at Morse code. McAvoy has never forgotten the impact that lesson had on his students and himself all those years ago.
"Kids like to try things hands-on, it's how they learn," he says.
The museum also has a large display devoted to the Nazi movement. McAvoy says the display was created only after much discussion on the ethics of dedicating space to Adolf Hitler. But, he adds, the visual impact of the memorabilia included in the display is an important one. "We decided historically it's what happened and we would be careful not to glorify the Nazi movement," says McAvoy.
The tiny clothing on display worn by Hitler Youth shows the early indoctrination young German children endured during the Nazi regime. The backdrop of the display is a huge Nazi flag, which once hung from the plaza in Nuremberg where Hitler often held rallies.
McAvoy and all the volunteers hope to one day have a permanent home for the collection and education centre. The centre's home at CFB Chilliwack is likely only secure until the economy improves and the land can be sold for redevelopment.
"The kids we see are really interested, but no one's teaching them Canadian military history any more," says McAvoy. "When they do get a chance to learn, they're so excited. Look at what we've done as a band of volunteers. Can you imagine what we could accomplish with some real support?"
McAvoy and other centre volunteers will be in Chilliwack today, Nov. 11, taking part in the Remembrance Day parade and working at the centre, which is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The Canadian Military Education Centre is located at the end of Dieppe Street on the former CFB Chillwack. Fore more information, go to cmedcentre.ca.