A complex project an ocean away: The Vimy Visitor Education Centre

A tall memorial with soldiers standing on the steps in front of it.

In April of 1917, Canadian soldiers stormed and captured Vimy Ridge in northern France, leading to a celebrated but costly victory. The ridge is now the site of the Canadian National Vimy Memorial, Canada’s national First World War memorial in France. Built between 1925 and 1936, the memorial stands within the bounds of over 110 hectares of former battlefield terrain.

One of only 2 National Historic Sites located outside of Canada, Vimy Ridge was lacking a permanent visitor centre to serve the many people who make the pilgrimage to the memorial each year.

Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC), together with several partners, such as the Vimy Foundation, collaborated on a project to build one for the centennial anniversary of the battle in 2017. As the federal government’s procurement and real property expert, Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) supported VAC with the contracting, design and construction elements of the project.

A tall order for the team

The Canadian National Vimy Memorial is a sombre and emotional place, so it was important to ensure that the building design respected the mood of the site and complemented the majestic monument. The history of Vimy Ridge presented physical challenges as well. Bomb disposal experts had to be engaged to remove buried shells and mortars while archaeologists excavated and preserved remaining war relics.

The white exterior of the Vimy Visitor Education Centre, with grass in front.

At the same time, the project team set out to build a modern facility that effectively represents Canada while meeting strict sustainability and energy reduction targets. Within that space, they also had the unusual task of partnering with multidisciplinary creative experts to develop a permanent exhibit.

This project was particularly ambitious because it had to be delivered on another continent. It required ingenuity, expertise and close collaboration with the stakeholders to manage the project across the ocean.

After PSPC awarded a competitive design contract to an architectural firm in Canada, the project team needed to find a construction company to carry out the work on the ground, in France. PSPC was fortunate to have a European procurement office in Koblenz, Germany, to issue the tender documents. “That was key,” says PSPC Project Director Martin Contal. “They had the overseas knowledge and networks.”

Despite the geographical barriers, coupled with budget and time limitations, the project team employed an innovative strategy to maximize the terms of the construction contract. “In addition to the basic facility specifications, we put together a wish list of features we wanted to include, and we chose a qualified bidder who agreed to incorporate as many of them as possible,” explains Contal.

Once construction began, the team in Canada was responsible for monitoring the progress of the work and verifying that it aligned with the details of the contract. “We had to maintain quality control though we weren’t on-site. The solution was to hire a local consultant to be our eyes and ears abroad,” says Contal. “It was the best way to provide the physical oversight that’s essential for a project like this.”

The interior of the Vimy Visitor Education Centre, with large windows and wood accents.

The consultant also served as an advisor on building codes and methods of conducting business in the host country. “Sometimes, the building process or materials were different in France. The consultant helped us move forward with our ideas, like using wood for a Canadian flair.”

The main focus during the last months of the project was preparing the permanent exhibit for visitors. “That was new territory for us,” says Contal, “devising the narrative for the exhibit, as well as the audiovisual and projection elements. In addition to 2 exhibit consultants, we received input from historians, museum specialists, writers, artifact collectors and archaeologists, along with the team at VAC.”

In the weeks leading up to the centre’s opening, PSPC Project Manager Michel Langlois went to France to perform the final building inspections. “It was crucial for him to be there in person at the end,” says Contal. “That’s the stage where we formally accept and sign off on the work delivered.”

Making an impact

An exhibit featuring black and white photos, along with artifacts in a lit display box.

The simple and evocative Vimy Visitor Education Centre was ready in time for the opening ceremony, as was the We Will Remember exhibit, which blends historical facts, stories and artifacts to trace Canada’s involvement in the First World War and honour the Canadians whose lives were lost or impacted by it.

The significance of this work is clear to the PSPC project managers. “The memorial is magnificent, and visiting it is like a religious experience,” says Contal. “Now, we have the Visitor Education Centre to add context and recount the human history.” Considering the meaning of the centre on a broader level, Langlois says, “I get emotional when I think that this project will have a tremendous impact on the lives of thousands of Canadians for years to come.”

For more information, check out these videos about the making of the Vimy Visitor Education Centre. You can also visit Public Services and Procurement Canada to learn more about our real property services, or consult Our stories for articles about interesting PSPC people, projects and initiatives.

Date modified: