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Maintaining Canada’s Books of Remembrance

Canada’s Books of Remembrance hold the collective memory of a nation. In them, the names of the more than 120,000 Canadians who have made the ultimate sacrifice while serving Canada in uniform are remembered with beautiful penmanship. Richard Draffin, the calligrapher who updates and makes additions to these priceless objects for Veterans Affairs Canada, uses only traditional methods of lettering. Every brush stroke and every letter is done by hand. It is a painstaking process that gives him a sense of connection to the past.

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Richard Draffin is a 28-year Veteran of the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals. Upon retiring from the forces, he returned to his roots in fine arts. He is now the Calligrapher that maintains and updates Canada’s Books of Remembrance for Veterans Affairs Canada.

Of the eight Books of Remembrance, the first seven commemorate the more than 118,000 Canadians who, since Confederation, lost their lives while serving Canada in uniform. The eighth book, the War of 1812 Book of Remembrance, was commissioned to mark the 200th anniversary of the peace treaty that ended the conflict.

Richard uses traditional methods of lettering on vellum paper (i.e. animal skin). He also uses 23 or 24 karat gold, done in the same thousand year-old method as those who came before him. These methods ensure the books will be preserved for thousands of years.

“When the books are open in a thousand years, the lettering, the gold, the colors will be as nice, clean, crisp as they were when they were actually laid down and that I think does honour to it.”

HTML5 Transcript/Captions

Courage (music)

Honour (music)

Dedication (music)

Remembrance (music)

Canada Remembers (music)

My name is Richard Draffin and I am a calligrapher who works for Veterans Affairs Canada, and I maintain and make additions to the Books of Remembrance for Canada.

My background is in Fine Arts; however, I joined the army when I was 18 and I served for 28 years.

I was in the Corps of Signals and Communications doing tactical and strategic communications for the Canadian Forces.

I was in the back of trucks and down in holes doing communications. Yeah.

There’s two main parts to the job. The first main part is, I make corrections,

so when a family or the military or a friend notices that there’s a mistake in one of the Books of Remembrance, then on one of my visits to Veterans Affairs, I correct it.

Then, every year, unfortunately, there are Canadians who lose their life as a result of military service, so I make those as new entries.

Unfortunately, when the war in Afghanistan was on, there were some times when I was coming in every week to add names, and that was a bit… a bit emotional for many people.

I do have a personal connection to the Books of Remembrance.

My grandfather’s name is in the First World War book, and because I am a veteran, I have names… I have friends’ names that are in the seventh Book of Remembrance as well.

The first time I took a razor blade to one of these books, some people in the room were really anxious.

I’m very pleased to do it, because I’m proud of what calligraphers do. These are one of the marvels of Canada.

The more people that see them and appreciate them, the better it is, not just for Veterans Affairs, but for Canadians.

The technical side of my job hasn’t really changed in a thousand years, so everything I do in the books, I have to assume will be there for hundreds, if not a thousand years or so.

It’s not a fast process. The 1812… War of 1812 Book of Remembrance took a total of almost two and a half years to complete;

and it took me almost 11 months to enter the 1600 names on 176 pages of vellum.

I am constantly in awe of the calligraphers who came before me and the responsibility that lies with me in maintaining these books.

Unfortunately, most Canadians don’t see the books when they’re out of the cases,

and sometimes I’ve been in a room with four of the books and I’m able to run my hands and my fingers over the names,

and you can feel the slight rise that the ink gives to it and the rise of the gold, and that… that is why I am in awe of the folks before me and the Canadians whose names are in the books.

Close up of a Book of Remembrance (music)

A message from the Government of Canada.

Richard updates and maintains the Books of Remembrance on behalf of Veterans Affairs Canada. This mostly entails making corrections and additions. For instance, sometimes the wrong name, rank, or regiment was originally entered, thus requiring a correction. In the case of additions, well, the story is much more somber. During the War in Afghanistan, Richard was sometimes adding names every week of those who suffered fatal casualties.

Calligraphy is exceptionally meticulous work. It requires a great deal of care and technique. Richard remembers the time it took to write the War of 1812 Book of Remembrance (nearly 11 months to write the 1,600 names).

Richard has a personal connection to the books. His grandfather’s name appears in the First World War Book of Remembrance. Also, as a Veteran himself, some of his friends’ names appear in the pages of the seventh book. When you listen to Richard describe these priceless objects with awe and reverence, you get a true sense of the pride he takes in his work.

A close up of Richard Draffin's hand inscribing a name in the Books of Remembrance.

“I am constantly in awe of the calligraphers that came before me and the responsibility that lies with me in maintaining these books”

The eight Books of Remembrance are temporarily on display in the Room of Remembrance in the Visitor Welcome Centre of Parliament Hill’s West Block. The Memorial Chamber in the Peace Tower, where the Books of Remembrance used to lie, will remain closed throughout the decade long renovations of the Centre Block. The names inscribed in these Books of Remembrance can also be found in the Canadian Virtual War Memorial.

Date published: 2020-05-18

Richard Draffin, during his time as a member of the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals

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