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An Evening With Historian Norman Leach

Written by Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail on 08 October 2011.

Norman LeachOn September 20, the Manitoba Chapter of the Canadian Aviation Historical Society sponsored a visit from Norman Leach, one of Canada’s foremost authors and historians, held at the Western Canada Aviation Museum.

By Bill Zuk

Leach is a historian, award-winning freelance writer, professional speaker and adventurer with a degree in Political Science and History from the University of Manitoba.

It was a memorable evening where the audience members were intrigued, challenged and ultimately captivated by a wonderful storyteller.

Norman Leach is the bestselling author of five books on military history:

  • Canadian Battles,
  • Passchendaele - Canada’s Triumph and Tragedy on the Fields of Flanders,
  • Broken Arrow – America’s First Lost Nuke,
  • Canadian Peacekeepers, and
  • Great Military Leaders.

Leach is also a regular contributor to the Canadian Defence Review and a number of other military and historical journals. His books have won two Crystal Awards from the University of Lethbridge and a Saskatchewan Book Award. Passchendaele - Canada’s Triumph and Tragedy on the Fields of Flanders was nominated for a 2009 Governor General’s Award.

As the historian on a number of movies and documentaries, his credits include: “Passchendaele” – the First World War epic produced by Canadian Paul Gross and filmed in Calgary. Norman worked with all departments, was a special skills extra and an active media spokesperson for the movie. Norman’s documentary credits include: “The Road to Passchendaele” which aired on Global, “Hunt for the Mad Trapper” on Discovery and “Hitler’s Stealth Fighter” – by National Geographic.

Norman is a well-known militaria and military art collector. At the Military Museums in Calgary he is an Honourary Commander of the Honourable Guard, serves on the Museum’s Art Gallery Advisory Council and delivers the Museum’s educational program on the Evolution of Peacekeeping. His involvement with writing and filmmaking came about from his extensive background in Canadian militaria and the fact that his wife, posed a simple question, “do you think you can make some money with all of this collecting?” and he proceeded to do just that.

Throughout the 90-minute presentation, Norman weaved in stories of his research and lately, the work he has done on some of his film projects. Not only has he trekked up a British Columbia mountain in search of a lost nuclear bomb, but he enthralled the crowd with behind-the-scenes stories of “Passchendaele.” One fascinating tidbit was that of the introduction of a lab rat as an “actor” on set and the bureaucratic muddle that resulted, including having the rat made up in makeup, building a fence and moat to satisfy government wildlife authorities and having the aforementioned rat show up with rat “handlers” and his owner, a not-amused university professor.

In constant demand to speak at schools and historical societies across Canada, Norman Leach brings history to life in his speeches and presentations. In fact, he was a special guest during this year's annual conference in Edmonton. His most significant comments during the evening concerned the depiction of history in Canada. Norman stressed our history is exciting, filled with rich characters and needs to be told in an accessible way, whether it is in text, film or electronic forms. A brief but dramatic showing of a scene from “Hitler’s Stealth Fighter” emphasized that point. He advocated that historians do not have to “live the history” but as long as there is a passion for the subject, and an ability to tell the story in an engaging and meaningful way, the history of Canada can be shared by all.

Norman is currently working on a documentary on “James Richardson and the Pipes of War” and a book and documentary on the life of Samuel Benefield “Sam” Steele. He is a member of the Canadian Aviation Historical Society.         

Bill Zuk is an author, filmmaker, photographer and artist, with a passion for aviation history. He has been published extensively in aviation magazines worldwide, served as editor of Manitoba Aviation, and has published several aviation titles including: True-life Adventures of Canada’s Bush Pilots, (2009); Janusz Zurakowski: A Legend in the Skies (2007);The Avro Arrow Story, (2006). He also built a flying saucer for the Discovery Canada television documentary, Avrocar: Flying Saucer Secrets of the Past, which now resides at the Western Canada Aviation Museum.