Teachers gain first-hand experience of war

Charles Leskun could almost hear the wailing of the Chinese girls who were once abducted to this rundown “comfort station” in Shanghai to serve the thousands of Japanese soldiers occupying their land during World War II in Asia.

The day after touring the Japanese-run ianjo, Leskun and other Ontario teachers met with Madame Lui, a 78-year-old Chinese woman and listened to how she was kidnapped in 1941, sterilized and exploited as a sex slave by as many as 27 soldiers a day for two years, and about her successful escape and ultimate survival in shame.

Then there were visits with two villagers, ages 85 and 83, in the countryside of Beijing, who were taken and tortured in forced labour camps in Japan at the height of the war, and another stop at Harbin’s Japanese Germ Warfare Base Museum which once housed the infamous Unit 731, which tested biochemical weapons on live Chinese.


The overwhelming experience of the 16-day “Peace and Reconciliation Study Tour” in July, organized by the Canada Association for Learning and Preserving the History of WWII in Asia (ALPHA), was as vivid as any of the 15 participating teachers could imagine.

Now, Leskun, a history and civics teacher at Mississauga’s St. Aloysius Gonzaga Catholic Secondary School, is set to take 30 high school students from the Dufferin-Peel Catholic School Board on the same journey this October.

“It is easy to get up in front of the class and say this and that happened, but now we are able to give a first-hand account to our students,” says the 34-year veteran teacher. “All teachers try to teach moral and ethical issues.

“To read and listen to history is one thing, but to truly experience it, you have to take it one step further. As teachers, our worst fear is to see our students become numb to human atrocities.”

That’s music to the ears of Joseph Wong, chair of ALPHA, which has been campaigning for a decade to bring the WWII history in Asia to Canadian educators’ Eurocentric curriculum by launching a classroom kit and books last year, and sponsoring the annual tour since 2004.

To date, almost three dozen Ontario history and civics teachers have taken the trip, and local initiatives such as Leskun’s are what Wong and other ALPHA volunteers would like to see.

Gina Lobb-Harris taught a Grade 10 civics course at Mitchell District High School near Stratford last year and incorporated the Nanjing Massacre in China. The tour to war monuments has made what she teaches much more relevant.

“I’m sure the experience will help me do a much better job in relating to the events and people of the war, making the connections and putting more energy into explaining to the students what happened,” notes the 25-year-old.