Marie Renee Charbonneau, executive director, stops for a photo at the Veterans Memorial Park & Interpretive Centre in Grande Prairie, Alta. on Friday, May 26, 2023. The interpretive centre currently is displaying an exhibit honouring the Second World War Italian campaign and battle of Ortona which saw 55 local soldiers killed in action. (Photo by Jesse Boily)Jesse Boily

Grande Prairie’s newest museum is gearing up for another year of educating the public about local soldiers while also bringing the community together in various ways.

The Veterans Memorial Park & Interpretive Centre’s garden is currently being planted by volunteers and a new exhibit marking the 80th anniversary of the battle of Ortona and the Italian campaign in the Second World War is now open. 

Marie Renee Charbonneau, executive director at the park, is happy to have a place in the community that can share the impacts of war on the community.

The museum is working on creating a database of local soldiers and has found the region has more than 349 soldiers who were killed in action; 55 local soldiers were in the Italian campaign, which includes the battle of Ortona. 

“Their dedication, determination and commitment to the Italian people are so exemplary that to this day the Italian seniors honour the Canadian soldiers that saved their city,” said Charbonneau. 

Many were from the Loyal Edmonton Regiment.

An event in September is being planned including a military vehicle display; members from the Loyal Edmonton Regiments and Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry will be in attendance, along with local cadets volunteering.

“The fact that the cadets get to spend time with the unit they’re tied to is really important,” said Charbonneau.

The event currently expects about 440 people to attend but for Charbonneau, the museum is about creating a sense of community while remembering the past. 

“We all have a shared history, a shared cultural experience, whether it be good, bad or indifferent, it’s shared. And if we understand that through talking through breaking bread, through events through understanding through education, all of a sudden that shared history, the shared pain, the shared joys, everything becomes amplified to the good, and it starts that healing and communication process.”

That has extended to helping feed 14 seniors through the Second Harvest Food Rescue program, said Charbonneau. Fruits and vegetables are being grown in the garden to help with the current food security problems being faced locally; flower beds are being made to honour the past.

The museum is also hosting a variety of events that not only bring the community together but also help support the museum. 

On June 5, it will host a pancake breakfast for Canadian Forces Day.

The following week (June 10), it’s hosting seniors for tea in the gardens during Seniors Week.  

It will also host a Christmas in July event on July 23, including bouncy castles, photos with Santa, a bicycle decorating contest, barbecue as well as a vehicle show and shine that will be judged by children in attendance. 

“That’s what a museum is supposed to do; help to build community,” said Charbonneau.

The centre also provides a unique education opportunity for local schools: Education kits give students a chance to try on helmets and jackets and hold items from soldiers. 

“They can get right into the mood of what it was like to be a soldier.”

Charbonneau said students who visit the centre often arrive rambunctious and noisy but after listening to a speech from Winston Churchill, the room goes silent.

“It’s a pretty cool experience,” she said.

Still, the centre is in its early years and is looking to the future to become more self-sufficient. It is looking to the community for sponsorships for events and displays at the interpretive centre and garden.

Charbonneau is also looking at alternative income methods such as operating a tour company out of the centre with a focus on sending tourists to local museums. She noted that any profits made by the travel agency go back into the centre’s operations and programming.

Looking to the future, Charbonneau sees a bright one.

“I have a 10-year road map for this thing, and every year we add another year, so it just keeps being a 10-year road map,” she said.

She hopes to see a new website in the future that will be interactive, much like the garden with its pillars with biographies of local soldiers surrounding the walking path. 

The museum covers a large area of the north from the B.C. border to the N.W.T. border, MD of Opportunity, and south to Grande Cache. 

By Jesse Boily, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Jun 01, 2023