From March 26 to April 6 a group of 30 students from Ponoka Composite High School will be going on a trip of a lifetime.
Under the direction of group leader and teacher, Ron Labrie and additional chaperones from the social studies department, the group will be flying overseas to embark on 10-day Canadian Battlefields tour.
Initially, students interested in going on the trip registered and attended information sessions before enrolling in a bi-weekly – sometimes monthly- course learning about tourism, airlines, the project they would be conducting, and the sites and countries they would be visiting (primarily battlefields, memorials, museums and cemeteries in Belgium and France before heading to Italy to learn about the Renaissance while getting to shop at the markets as well). After creating a spreadsheet of Ponoka and area soldiers who were killed in action during the First and Second World War, military records for most of the men on the list were gathered. With this information, students were asked to create a soldier dossier consisting of everything from his height, weight and leisure activities to the detailed cause of his death and the very cemetery, row and plot his remains rest at. If the cemetery is on the route of the itinerary, students will stop at the plot, read his biography and will also be performing grave rubbings and will attempt to track down relatives of the fallen soldier to give it to them if they are interested. Also, the Legion has donated six wreaths so students can lay them in remembrance of those who served our country while leaving a piece of Ponoka behind.
The idea for the highly anticipated tour came from Labrie who was selected as one of 12 high school history teachers across the country to set out on a Canadians Battlefields tour sponsored by the Canadian Battlefields Foundation (CBF), Veterans Affairs Canada and the Historica Foundation on August 6 of 2005. Each teacher was asked to introduce a Canadian soldier who lies buried in one of the many cemeteries on the tour.
At the British war cemetery near Bergen-op-Zoom in the province of North Brabant in the Netherlands, Labrie introduced Joseph Gordon Brady, an Alberta air-gunner killed in action in 1943 and it was this experience that inspired Labrie to bring the tour to the high school students. Other sources of inspiration for this tour have given it another name – “The tour of Jack’s” Many students of PCHS are familiar with Mr. Jack Chapman – a tank driver in the Second World War who was a Prisoner of War in Germany. He currently lives in Stettler and gives heart-wrenching presentations about his experiences every year. “He is one of the reasons why we do this,” said Labrie. The other inspirational Jack is John (Jack) Babcock who currently resides in Spokane, Washington but grew up in a rural community near Kingston, Ont. At 107 years of age, he is Canada’s only surviving veteran of the First World War. “I explained the significance of the fact that he is the last Canadian primary source of the First World War. When he is gone – that’s it,” said Labrie, before mentioning that today’s students have a much greater understanding and respect for Canada and Ponoka’s military history then he can remember from his days in high school. “I can remember standing and reciting “In Flanders Fields” as it played over the intercom which was followed by a moment of silence and that was it. Maybe it’s because we’re at war in Afghanistan – but now, they do an incredible job. We have ceremonies, speakers, the Hall of Valour – I think we’ve come a long way,” he said. “We’re not glorifying war – we’re remembering those who died in action fighting for our country and acknowledging that every one of them has a story that not many people know – In certain cases, stories not even their families know,” he said. An example of this is Hobbema’s Daniel Joshua, whose gravesite is marked by a civilian marker even though he was a private during the First World War. With the support of the Samson Cree Nation and permission from family members, PCHS students hope to get a commonwealth war grave marker on his site in the Riverside Cemetery soon.
For a detailed day-to-day schedule of a trip that is sure to generate amazing pictures, stories, and memories that will not soon be forgotten, visit http://pchs.wolfcreek.ab.ca/ and click on the March Newsletter.
Eventually, Labrie plans to have a complete military record for everyone listed in the Hall of Valour. If anyone would like a complete list of Ponoka and area killed in action soldiers which includes their reginment numbers, dates of deaths, and the cemeteries they are buried at, and wants and has additional information on these men, they can contact Mr. Labrie by phoning 403-783-4411 (ext. 5142) or by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org