The Battle of Vimy Ridge, which began on April 9, 1917, was a defining moment in Canadian history. Today, the legacy of those who served our country is now commemorated here on Havergal’s campus, through a rare tree species known as the Vimy Oaks. The story of these special saplings dates back to over 100 years ago when Leslie Miller—a Canadian soldier and farmer—salvaged a few acorns among the war-torn land in France and enclosed them in a letter back to Canada to be planted on his farm in Scarborough, Ontario. The nursing and distribution of these commemorative saplings is now known as the Vimy Oaks Legacy.
“When Miller mailed the acorns back to Canada, he had a vision of hope that is realized in the meeting of two strangers, coming together to reflect on the Battle of Vimy Ridge,” says Havergal’s Consulting Arborist Jose Lazo, who applied for the trees on the school’s behalf. Having studied Canadian History at the University of Toronto and Sustainability at Harvard University, the story of the Vimy Oaks was of great interest to Lazo. He first heard about the opportunity through his role as a Board Member for the Ontario Urban Forest Council, a non-profit organization dedicated to the health of urban forests in our province. “As soon as I heard about the trees, I knew that one day I would plant them on the Havergal campus,” says Lazo.
The deep heritage tied to Havergal’s land and the school’s involvement in the First World War helped qualify the campus as the ideal candidate for the living monuments to take root. “When I first announced the planting of the Vimy Oaks, many faculty and staff reached out to me to share their families’ involvement in the Battle of Vimy Ridge,” says Havergal’s Director of Facilities, Lisa Massie. “It really shows the close ties between the Havergal community, Canada at large and the war,” she says.
During the First World War, many Havergal students, Old Girls, faculty and staff contributed to Canada’s war efforts, both overseas and at the school. Those who were sent abroad were transferred to hospitals and convalescent homes in England and France to serve as nurses; in Canada, their peers supported from a distance, fastening hospital materials, like bandages and pads, knitting socks for soldiers and hosting fundraisers to raise money for military and relief organizations. During the Second World War, many families from the United Kingdom sent their daughters to foster homes in Canada and by 1941 there were 110 British students enrolled at Havergal1. Since then, the school continues to honour these dedicated community members, both living and deceased, by way of a carefully curated archive, the annual Remembrance Day Prayers and a rich Social Sciences program, including a Canadian History class.
The new species contribute to the school’s long-term goal of building and supporting the forests’ natural symbiotic relationship and biodiversity on campus. Over the last ten years, Lazo has worked towards rejuvenating the Lisa Hardie Trail by incorporating both native and drought-tolerant species to create a living library of Carolinian species, which originally inhabited the area pre-settlement. There are many benefits of having a diverse ecology: it provides food and shelter for wildlife, protects the forest from widespread disease and acts as an outdoor classroom for students to explore and gain a deeper appreciation for our earth. “I always encourage people to plant the right tree, in the right place and avoid monocultures. Trees that work with the ecology of the forest can be maintained without the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides,” explains Lazo.
The Vimy Oaks can be found throughout the Havergal Campus– in the South Quad, near the bridge between the Junior and Upper Schools and throughout the Lisa Hardie Trail, which is open to the public. “This is a wonderful story and a great example of ‘making a difference’ here on our own school campus. What a meaningful way to give back to future generations of Havergal students and to our broader community,” says Havergal Principal Helen-Kay Davy.
The presence of these special species will commemorate the Battle of Vimy Ridge for generations to come. They also serve as a reminder for our community to be thankful for the men and women who helped solidify Canada’s identity as a nation. “Leslie Miller gave us the opportunity to remember our fallen soldiers and that legacy will stay with Havergal forever,” says Lazo.
1. M.Byers: Havergal: Celebrating a Century. 1994.