Tiny pennants of patriotism, dozens of miniature Canadian flags snapped smartly in the freshening breeze at Forest Home Cemetery in Ponoka on Sept. 17, representing the pride and gratitude of a nation: it was Decorating Day once again.
Every year, the members of the Royal Canadian Legion Ponoka Branch No. 66 pay their respects to the fallen soldiers who gave their lives in the service of their country by decorating their headstones.
Legion member and event organizer Joanne Palechek said there was a record turnout this year, with volunteers young and old coming out.
Following the decoration ceremony at the cemetery, a veterans’ appreciation luncheon was held at the Legion with several guest speakers.
Among the reverence for the services of its members past and present, the celebration this year was also coloured with reminiscing about, and tributes to, the late Queen Elizabeth II, who passed away on Sept. 8.
The master of ceremonies stated that the memory of Her Majesty would remain firmly entrenched in the hearts and minds of the Legion forever.
The Royal Canadian Legion has strong ties to the monarchy. Queen Elizabeth herself was a veteran, having served as a driver and mechanic in WWII.
It was noted that in 1961, by royal consent, the prefix “royal” was added before the name of the Canadian Legion.
Lacombe-Ponoka MLA and Minister of Culture Ron Orr thanked the Legion for placing a wreath for the queen and congratulated them on their efforts to follow proper protocol in transitioning to a new king.
A lawyer, former local MP, athlete, chief, and former Truth and Reconciliation commissioner, Dr. Wilton Littlechild is also a card-carrying member of Branch No. 66, having served as member of Ponoka’s medical core.
Among his many accomplishments and storied history, Littlechild has the distinction of having been in Queen Elizabeth’s presence a total of six times over his lifetime as well.
The first time he met her, he was eight years old.
Then, when he was 18, as a cadet in the Alberta Dragoons, he was part of the honour guard when she visited B.C.
When she honoured the Canadian athletes that were invited to join her in Toronto, he was among them.
He was there when she honoured the members of Parliament in Calgary, and he met her when he became a trustee at the Canadian Museum of Human Rights and Her Majesty came to officially open the museum.
He wore a medal that was to commemorate the queen’s 70 years of service — of which he said he was one of the first 25 recipients of — for the occasional, as well as his headdress.
“Today being so special to honour veterans, I chose to wear both my headdress and the latest medal in honour of Queen Elizabeth, and now of course, we’ll make connections with the king,” said Littlechild.
He added that King Charles is an honourary member of Siksika Nation.
“Since leaving the medical core here in Ponoka, I’ve been very busy. Thank you veterans, for your service.”
Greetings were also given by Ponoka County Coun. Bryce Liddle and Ponoka Mayor Kevin Ferguson.
Ferguson said when the queen was first sworn in as a young woman, she promised to serve the commonwealth for the rest of her life.
“Beating in her chest was the heart of a matriarch … never once did she break her promise to us,” said Ferguson.
The district commander of the Ladies Auxiliary and the local Ladies Auxiliary also spoke.
Ponoka Secondary Campus social studies teacher and long-time wartime remembrance advocate Ron Labrie gave an immersive presentation on the work of the Broncs World Tour Cenotaph Project.
Using video, pictures and maps, Labrie demonstrated how 301 students in the class over 10 years have researched local fallen soldiers and then travelled to Europe to read those histories at the soldiers’ grave sites and the impact it had on those students.
Labrie said he hopes the school returns to a full Remembrance Day assembly this year and that the Broncs World Tour was going ahead in 2023.
Cyril Nerubenko, a division officer with HMCS Nonsuch (a naval reserve division located in Edmonton) and a resident of Maskwacis, spoke about his recent time in Ukraine helping refugees.
Nerubenko said Canadian military are serving in Ukraine to support the country as it fights off the invasion of Russia. He spoke of the mass graves recently found that are believed to include civilians. The bodies bear signs of torture.
The first time Nerubenko was deployed to Ukraine he was teaching combat crews and this last time, he served as a translator in refuge camps in Poland. As he’s originally from Ukraine, he speaks the language.
At the end of the luncheon, longtime member Dorothy Houghton was awarded with the Palm Leaf to the Meritorious Service Medal (MSM). The Palm Leaf can only be awarded to a member who has already received the MSM or Meritorious Service Award and recognizes further outstanding service.