Saint Mary's class visit to The Gambia uncovers little-known chapter of Canadian war history

The faculty and students in this year’s Geography International Field School.

The faculty and students in this year’s Geography International Field School.

What started out as a geography lesson is also turning into a fascinating Canadian war history exploration for a class of 11 students and two faculty members at Saint Mary’s University. 

Students in this year’s Geography International Field School (GEOG 4100) are departing Halifax today (Nov. 8) for a study trip to The Gambia, returning November 20. Soon after arriving in Banjul, the students will attend a Remembrance Day ceremony for Gambian war veterans in the Fajara War Cemetery. They are bringing Canadian poppies and several wreaths to commemorate at least 10 Canadians who are buried at the cemetery.

The buried servicemen were with the Royal Canadian Air Force and died during World War II. They served with the 200 RAF Squadron, which played a significant role in deterring German U-boats in the Western Atlantic Ocean.

At least one of them has a Nova Scotia connection: Warrant Officer Basil Ralph Yorke, who died March 11, 1942, was the son of Harry and Gertrude Yorke of Wharton, Cumberland County.

“This may be one of the first times that Canadians will be there on November 11 to place remembrances on these gravestones,” says Dr. Cathy Conrad, a professor in the SMU Department of Geography and Environmental Studies. “When we first started planning this trip, we didn’t even know Canadians were buried there. The more we look into it, it’s like pulling a thread from a sweater and we keep unravelling it to find out more. It’s a piece of our history that had possibly been lost or at least not very well known until now.”

The students continue their research into the fallen airmen; they plan to visit a small war museum in the area and speak to Gambian veterans for recollections of the Canadian presence during the war. After the Remembrance Day activities, the class will travel to rural areas to visit a number of community-based tourism sites for experiential learning on cultural and historical issues. 

Saint Mary’s University has a longstanding relationship with The Gambia, which made the news last week as the first stop on a royal tour of West Africa for Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall. The SMU Geography Field School has been travelling there for eight years.