Lynn Johnston says she'll never forget a conversation with fellow cartoonist Charles Schulz, creator of the Peanuts comic strip, just before he died in February 2000.
Johnston, author of the acclaimed Canadian strip For Better or For Worse, and Schulz, inventor of Snoopy, were talking, of all things, about the tragedy of war. Schulz fought with the United States Army during the Second World War and helped liberate the death camp at Dachau.
"He said that was the proudest moment of his life, to be part of the liberation of people in the prison camps," says Johnston. "He also said he hoped that when he came back to America, that would be the end of it all — that there would be no more war. But instead he said, 'Nothing's changed. Wars continue. So what did we fight for?'"
Johnston agrees with Schulz's melancholy assessment.
"Nothing has changed," she says. "People still want to kill other people. Armies still want a purpose. It makes you shake your head and wonder, what is it all about?
"It's just such a waste of life and effort, but for some reason the human species needs to go to war, and you always pick an enemy that you think is different from you. But we're all the same. We all love our children, we all want the best for our families. It makes me sad and angry. And it makes we wonder what my own Dad fought for, and why his friends died."
Canada's most successful comic-strip artist grew up in Vancouver, surrounded by stories of the Second World War. Her parents, Mervyn and Ursula Ridgeway, had met while serving together on the ground crew of a Royal Canadian Air Force bomber squadron in Britain.
"My parents talked about the war all the time," she says. "My dad especially — because it was the most exciting time in his life, when he really meant something to the world, when he was part of something big."
A watchmaker from Collingwood, Ontario, Mervyn enlisted in the Air Force at 18 and served as an aircraft mechanic at an airbase in Linton, England. Ursula left her home in West Vancouver at 19, and worked at Linton as a supply clerk, ordering nuts and bolts and other parts for the airplanes. Johnston's parents never knew the fear of actual combat or the horror of battle, but they lived with the constant sorrow of seeing their friends die — or the anxiety of not knowing, each time an aircraft took off, whether its crew would return.
"Because neither of them were in battle, they spent a lot of time saying goodbye to the people who were," says Johnston. "So they partied a lot. And the partying was filled with warmth and affection, because they never knew whether their friends were going to come back."
Johnston says her parents maintained a deep respect for the war's veterans and their sacrifices, long after they came home to Canada.
"Dad went to every Remembrance Day parade," she says. "I think the loss of some of his good friends never, ever went away. I can remember going with him as a child to the cenotaph in North Vancouver, and my father standing there at attention with tears in his eyes."
Johnston learned first-hand from her parents — who died several years ago — the tragedy of war and the lifelong scars it inflicts on a generation. How can those lessons be taught to Canadians, once the country's remaining veterans are all gone?
"The only way to carry remembrance on to another generation is to hear it first-hand from those who lived through it," says Johnston. "At the moment we still have people to talk to, and I really beg teachers to take their students to the seniors' homes and Legions, and have these young people hear first-hand about the war from the people who lived through it. They really can tell the most incredible stories."