Canadian Celebrities Read War Letters for VIU's National Online Archive Project

Sheila McCarthy, an acclaimed Canadian stage, film and television actress, and a number of other well-known celebrities have lent their voices to VIU's Canadian Letters and Images project. The audio recordings can be heard by going to

October 28, 2016 - 9:00am

Audio recordings a new addition to the University’s Canadian Letters and Images Project

"My Dearest Flo, Just a line to tell you Poor old Bert is killed.”

So begins one of the letters that Sheila McCarthy, an acclaimed Canadian stage, film and television actress, reads out for Vancouver Island University’s (VIU’s) Canadian Letters and Images Project – an online archive of letters and images telling the personal side of the Canadian war experience.

The project recently added an audio component to the website, and a growing list of well-known Canadian celebrities have lent their voices to the endeavour. Besides McCarthy, other celebrity readers include Chris Hadfield, Alex Trebek, Cynthia Dale, Georgina Reilly, Wayne Gretzky, his Excellency the Right Honorable David Johnston, RH Thomson and James Moore.

McCarthy, who invited Dr. Stephen Davies, a VIU History Professor and coordinator of the Canadian Letters and Images Project, into her Ontario home this summer to record her reading two First World War-era letters, says the readings add another layer of authenticity to the project.

“It gives a human voice to our past,” she says. “It brings these stories to life and that’s a wonderful, organic progression for the project. I’m really proud to be part of projects like this in Canada. I feel like it’s my duty to partake in projects like this when I can.”

In the letter about “Poor old Bert,” the writer talks about staring at the casualty list for several minutes in disbelief, before telling her daughter about the reactions of other loved ones to the news and how her husband played cards with Teddy when he came by after hearing the news.

For McCarthy, who was very moved by the letter-reading experience, the challenge was not to inject too much emotion into the reading because the letter wasn’t written that way. “You want to give a kind of staunchness to them because they were private,” she says. “They were so practical. What’s most moving about the letters I got to read was the sort of day-to-day ordinariness of them. They weren’t big stories, they weren’t monumental events, it was the ritual day-to-day everydayness of them. Those are the best letters, when you just go, ‘Oh, they did that too.’”

Started 16 years ago by Davies as a class project to help his students explore the personal side of war in a First World War course, the Canadian Letters and Images Project now includes more than 25,000 letters painstakingly transcribed and digitized by Davies and work experience students, as well as about 15,000 images. The letters and images are divided into different collections, including Pre-1914, World War One, World War Two, Korea, and Post-Korea.

The new audio component is intended to draw more people to the website and improve accessibility for the visually impaired. Davies went through the collections and chose letters he thought were particularly powerful and meaningful for the celebrities to read.

“When the letters are read aloud, the impact is so different than simply reading the letter on your computer screen – I think it has much greater power,” says Davies. “If you close your eyes and listen, you can picture the person writing the letter. This project is all about making the past accessible to the present and preserving it for the future. Hearing the letters read out is the latest part of that bridge between a University research project and the general public.”

Families from across Canada send in letters to add to the online database. The unique thing about the Canadian Letters and Images Project is that unlike a museum, Davies and undergraduate students from various departments at VIU digitize the letters and images, and then return them to the families afterwards.

The project is completely funded by donations and grants. VIU also funds four work experience students to help Davies transcribe and digitize the letters and images, but even so, he says there are more letters coming in all the time than his work crew can keep up with. Thanks to a number of grants and individual donations, he’s been able to hire an additional four students this year to help out.

To learn more or donate to the Canadian Letters and Images Project, visit



“It is both the highest honour and the greatest demand to be asked to serve one’s country in time of war. I felt privileged to be able to help share those experiences through reading another’s words aloud. Hopefully the lessons learned from those who have gone before can help us more clearly make good choices today.”

- Chris Hadfield, a retired Canadian astronaut who was the first Canadian to walk in space

“To hear and read these letters from people who lived through these times is always so fascinating. I’m very inspired by these relationships that lasted years apart through letters. It’s such a wonderful art form that I try to still employ in my life – writing letters to people. I’m just really glad that someone is putting all these letters and all these lives together so people can experience them.”

- Georgina Reilly, a Canadian film and television actress best known for her role as Dr. Emily Grace on Murdoch Mysteries

“Early on in my broadcast career … I got to be part of a small group of announcers whose job was to do live radio and television broadcasts of special events in Canada. One of those events was the Remembrance Day ceremonies every November 11 at the National War Memorial in Ottawa and one of the tender moments in that annual event was the laying of a wreath at the National War Memorial by a woman who had been selected to represent mothers across the country who had lost sons or daughters in war. The first year I did it the woman selected was the mother of five sons who had died in World War One. You can imagine the effect that had on me. That is the kind of memory that stays with you. That first telecast for me occurred over 50 years ago and I still remember it to this day. Remembrance Day … lest we forget.”

- Alex Trebek, host of Jeopardy



Jenn McGarrigle, Communications Officer, Vancouver Island University

P: 250-740-6288 | C: 250.619.6860 | E: | T: @VIUNews

Tags: In the Community