UPDATE: The Broncs World Tour was officially cancelled after this story went to press. The online article has now been adjusted.
Ron Labrie is well-known in the Ponoka community for being a dedicated teacher, a passionate advocate for active military service remembrance, as well as a long-time coach of various community sports.
For Labrie, now in his 28th year as a teacher at Ponoka Secondary Campus (PSC) and his 29th year overall educating young minds, teaching is more than what he does for a living.
“It’s a lifestyle, not necessarily a job for me,” he said in an interview on March 5.
It’s that philosophy of being an educator first that he instills into every aspect of his life, from sharing ideas on wartime remembrance with other schools, to coaching, to even his parenting.
Labrie and his wife Lori, who is a dietitian at the clinic and hospital in town, settled down in Ponoka in 1992 and raised their three children here: Chloë, Jordan and Davis.
The Labries were always involved in the community, and set that example for their children.
They love Ponoka — its small-town atmosphere, the kindness of the people and the support of the community, says Labrie.
“When you live in the community you teach in, they take you in.”
Labrie says he’d probably feel lost in a larger centre.
“A small town is definitely where my roots are.”
Labrie has coached many sports over the years, including hockey, softball, soccer and golf and he is a member of the Crestomere Clippers Monday night hockey team.
He has also served on the executive for minor hockey and minor ball and is currently the PSC senior girls’ volleyball coach.
A big event he’s excited for is the school hosting the 3A girls ASAA volleyball provincials next fall, when 144 athletes, their coaches and families will descend on Ponoka.
Undoubtedly the largest undertaking Labrie is involved with is the Broncs World Tour Cenotaph Project, which is now in its 11th year.
The school had done an international trip bi-yearly, which Labrie had taken a part of planing since 1994, but didn’t get the idea of making the trip into a remembrance project until 2005.
That year, which was declared The Year of the Veteran, was when Labrie was selected to be a delegate for a battlefields tour with the Canadian Battlefields Foundation and Historica.
“I’ve always had a very sincere interest in war history,” he said.
Having the interest and passion already, and then being given the opporunity, was like hitting the “trifecta.”
The tour aimed to educate teachers on Canadian battlefields and cemeteries in Europe. As part of the tour, Labrie was tasked with writing a biography on a soldier from Ponoka.
He chose Warrant Officer II Joseph Gordon Brady. It was then that he got the idea of having students research other local fallen soldiers from Ponoka cenotaph and write their biographies.
In 2007, Labrie led an Albertan delegation of students to Ottawa for the Remembrance Youth Summit for the 90th anniversary of Vimy Ridge.
It was this summit, that was all about brainstorming ideas to better incorporate remembrance practices, that led the students to feel a greater sense of duty towards remembrance.
The Broncs World Tour Cenotaph Project was born in 2009, and the researching, of the 42 World War I and 30 World War II soldiers from the Ponoka-area who were killed in action, began.
From May to April, interested students take part in the unscheduled course, usually on Sundays, that culminates in the international travel experience to Europe to visit the Canadian battlefields and cemeteries the following school year.
The itinerary of the tour is determined by the where the final resting places of the soldiers the students have researched that year are, and a tour company, Explorica, creates a custom tour for the class based on those destinations.
According to Labrie, in many instances, the PSC students have been the only visitors to the final resting place of Ponoka killed-in-action soldiers.
The students then recite the biography of the solider they researched over their grave — a difficult, but immeasurably rewarding experience, says Labrie.
“That’s a good challenge,” he said, adding that the best education often does not come from a textbook.
Labrie keeps a record of the highlights of every trip.
The tours over the years have focused on different points of history, from marking the 100th anniversary of Vimy Ridge in 2017, to the centennial year of Armistice in 2018, and the 75th anniversary of D-day in 2019, when the students walked the beaches at Normandy.
The annoucement was made on March 11 that Wolf Creek Public Schools cancelled the PSC Broncs World Tour trip, and another school trip planned for Alix MAC School, due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
The itinerary for this year’s trip, which was to leave on March 18, included a stop in Cambridge where an airman from WWII is buried, then on to Ypres, Belgium, where the class was to take part in the nightly ceremony of remembrance that takes place at the city’s gates.
They were also to visit the Vimy Ridge memorial as part of two soldier biographies they have uncovered this year, and had planned to finish the tour with two biographies of soldiers buried between Paris and Strasbourg.
Remembrance is an integral part of the culture at PSC, from their Hall of Valour, to the emphasis they put on their Remembrance Day assembly each year, to the turning of the page in the Book of Remembrance every day at 11 a.m.
Labrie continues his remembrance outreach in other ways as well, undertaking various speaking engagements and presentations on different aspects of Canadian war history, as well as taking the students on a yearly trip to participate in the Ponoka Legion’s candlelight vigil every October at the Forest Home Cemetery.
And in April, the work begins for the tour the following year.
Students have projects and assignments to complete and earn credits for the course. Once the course work is completed, they have to apply to be considered for participation in the tour.
Students submit a personal statement explaining why they should be considered, that outlines their interest and suitability, such as reliability. They must also be students in good standing, passing their classes and have good attendance.
“I think we’re pretty proud of our school too, because it’s a locally produced course,” said Labrie.
“I know for a fact there are no other schools in the vicinity doing this project.”
For Labrie, part of his pursuit of remembrance is a deep desire to understand the motivation that led so many to make the ultimate sacrifice, calling it “mystifying” and “perplexing.”
He ponders whether the motivation was economical, or patriotism, but finds the sacrifice extremely courageous, even considering those factors.
“They volunteered to put their lives and family on the line to fight in a foreign war … it’s a riddle to me,” he said, adding the Canadian forces in the World Wars were predominately volunteers.
“That speaks volumes to me … it’s the greatest example of character I can think of.”
Eventually, the names on the Ponoka Cenotaph will run out and there won’t be any more biographies left to write, but for now, Labrie says “My mission is to make sure we don’t forget anybody.”
Labrie says his wife Lori is every bit a part of his community involvement and the tour as he is, as none of it would happen without her support.
He also recognizes the support of the PSC school administrators, Wolf Creek Public Schools and The Royal Canadian Legion Branch No. 66.
“They have been big supporters of this project since the beginning.”
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