One local high school student has been recognized for the positive impact she has on her community, winning the 2022 Vimy Pilgrimage Award.
The annual award recognizes the actions of students aged 14 to 17 who show dedication to the betterment of society by volunteering and making positive contributions that benefit their peers, family, school, town, province or country. Winners travel to France and Belgium to represent Canada and explore the history of the First World War.
With only 21 winners and 120 applicants, Grade 11 John F. Ross CVI student Julia Elmslie was shocked to learn she had won.
“I had heard it was difficult to win the award – they get a lot of applicants. So I was very excited,” she said.
A big part of the reason she won was because of all the work she does in the community.
Elmslie is one of two student trustees this year for the Upper Grand District School Board, but she also spends a lot of time volunteering.
Every week, she volunteers with the Darling Home for Kids in Milton, a residential, respite and hospice palliative care home for children with medically complex needs. She’s also part of the Youth Advisory Council for KidsAbility’s Centre for Child Development, where she works as an “ally and advocate for children with complex needs.”
“I find that when I have time to give at the end of the day, instead of just doing what I would want to, I find it a lot more impactful to help others,” she said. “I think that if we all just tried to impact others in the best way possible on a daily basis, then our world would be a better place. So that's what I try to do.”
She also believes obtaining historical knowledge about the First World War is important, as is sharing the individual experiences and varied perspectives of the men and women who fought.
“There were so many people involved in the war that don’t get full credit for it,” she said. “This was shown to me in an even more impactful way when I was there, and I think it’s important that everybody understand how impactful this conflict was for every part involved; that it still touches people to this day.”
The trip itself took place earlier this month, with students visiting museums, cemeteries and historic battlefield monuments – including, of course, the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France.
For Elmslie, it was a powerful learning experience.
“To see the amount of different ways that people commemorate the war and those who fought... It was definitely a once in a lifetime opportunity,” she said.
One of her favourite places was visiting the Thiepval Memorial for the Missing of the Somme, a war memorial in France for more than 72,000 missing British and South African servicemen who died during the Battles of the Somme.
“Their names are all written on the sides of the memorial. I had seen pictures before, but it was hard to see the real scale of the monument, the amount of people on the walls. So that was impactful. And that was just one of the many places we went, but they all had some sort of deeper significance.”
But the most powerful part of the trip for Elmslie was the “soldier project.”
In anticipation of the trip, the 21 recipients each researched a soldier who died in Belgium or France, learning about their life, service and how they died.
“We went to visit their graves, and we heard everybody’s speeches about their soldiers. That was the most impactful thing for me, was being able to have a more personal connection with people in the war, just by hearing about their stories, who they were and what they did,” she said.
Now, Elmslie is an ambassador for the program, and she hopes to educate her peers about what she learned.
“We learned a lot about different perspectives in the war while we were there, about the role of Indigenous Canadians, immigrants, people of colour, and different perspectives,” she said. “Even just trying to reduce the stigma of the war only being on Remembrance Day, and just talking about it more often, because it impacts our lives to this day.”
The 2023 application just became available, and she’s excited to spread the word about the program over social media and encourage people to apply by sharing her own experience.