SHILO, Man. - From prehistoric spears to massive modern field guns, mankind has always found a way to launch projectiles at enemies. And if something can be fired, shot or hurled, chances are it's on display at The RCA Museum located at Canadian Forces Base Shilo in southwestern Manitoba.
Walking through the 2,230-square-metre building is like taking a trip through Canadian history as seen by members of the artillery, an army regiment with a long history of action at home and overseas. There's a cannon that was used against Louis Riel and other Metis in the Northwest Rebellion, a German mortar captured at Vimy Ridge, and a large wooden table on which Gen. James Wolfe is believed to have been laid after he died while his British troops captured Quebec.
But the museum — its official name is the Central Museum of the Royal Regiment of Canadian Artillery — is more about the gunners than the guns. Each item has a story, and the aim is to get visitors to focus on people who fought in the forests, on the plains and in trenches, often during important turning points in Canadian history.
"War is a terrible event which we should avoid at all costs. However, the reality is that you can't always choose not to fight," museum director Marc George said during a recent tour.
"So you then rely on people coming forward and serving their country. And so that's what this is about. It's a place where we can tell all Canadians the story about the people who have chosen to serve Canada."
One of the first weapons visitors see is one of the four-kilogram (nine-pound) field guns used in the battles of Fish Creek and Batoche during the Northwest Rebellion of 1885 in what is now Saskatchewan. The battle at Batoche led to Louis Riel's surrender and later execution.
Alongside the gun is a picture of a nine-pounder in action at Batoche taken by Capt. James Peters, one of the world's first battlefield photographers. Peters was on the cutting edge, considering the technology of the day was not exactly user-friendly.
"What amazes me is, not only was he snapping these things under fire, but he was also busy giving orders, so I have this image in my mind of him yelling out, you know 'range 4,000 with high explosive load' and then 'look over here and smile, guys,'" George said.
"And then he was developing the photos under his blankets at night."
One of the better-known pieces in the museum is a German 17-centimetre trench mortar captured by Canadian troops at Vimy Ridge. It was one of three guns the museum loaned to the producers of the 2008 movie "Passchendaele" that starred Paul Gross.
On the smaller side, the museum also hosts rifles, pistols and muskets dating as far back as the 17th century. Most have been donated from private collections.
The oldest item in the museum is a prehistoric spear-throwing device called an atlatl, which dates back 7,000 to 9,000 years. It was found just 50 kilometres from where the museum sits.
"What I love about this is ... a human being was doing something 3,000-5,000 years before the great pyramid (of Giza, in Egypt) was built. He was sitting here in Manitoba making an atlatl," George said.
Most displays have mannequins next to them, to help visitors appreciate what the weapon-handler had to deal with in terms of the weapons' weight, portability and the conditions in which they were used. One exhibit shows a gunner's dugout in the First World War, where troops dealt with mud, fended off rats and lice, and slept underneath their cannon.
The mannequins are meant to be life-like. They have prosthetic eyes, dentures, and resin that makes their lips appear moist. Most look like young men, barely past their teens.
"What we want is, each time someone approaches an artifact in the museum, the first thing they're aware of is that could be a person standing there," George said.
Weapons are not the only items on display. There is other memorabilia that connects gunners to some true Canadiana.
Hockey legend Conn Smythe was a gunner in both world wars. He picked the stylized maple leaf that has been part of the Toronto Maple Leafs logo because it looked like the hat badges used by Canadian troops, George said, pointing to a badge on display beneath a photo of Smythe.
Nearby is a signed, handwritten copy of "In Flanders Fields," the war poem by longtime gunner Lt.-Col. John McCrae of Guelph, Ont., which has been taught to generations of schoolchildren. The display also includes a printing plate that adopted McCrae's handwriting style to make copies.
The end of the tour brings visitors to something of a mystery, called The Other Grey Cup. It's a small chalice of sorts that pales in comparison to the Grey Cup that is awarded annually to Canadian Football League champions.
Legend has it, George says, that it was the original cup designed for Earl Grey, Canada's governor general in the early 1900s — something he is still trying to determine through the British company that made it.
"The myth that goes with it is that it was made and the governor general originally intended it to be the football trophy, but he was a little bit underwhelmed. So he had it dedicated as an artillery practice trophy instead and got a better cup made for football."
If You Go...
— The museum at CFB Shilo is open year-round, Monday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Between Victoria Day and Labour Day, the museum is also open on weekends during the same hours. It is a two-hour drive from Winnipeg and a half-hour drive from Brandon, Man.
— Admission is $5 for adults.
— Group tours can be booked at 204-765-3000 ext. 3570.