Stefan Labbé graduated from UBC Journalism in 2017 and now works as the digital reporter for Tri-City News.
Along with reporting daily news, he’s produced several in-depth features focusing on the impacts conflicts have on communities: from ISIS fighters being de-radicalized in Jordan to former guerrillas working towards a civilian existence in Colombia. Some of his more recent off-beat features include coverage of a sea lion research station assessing the effects of climate change, and a master replica Coquitlam painter painting his last piece.
Here’s what he had to say.
Why did you pursue a graduate program in journalism?
I was living in South Korea for about four and a half years and I was teaching there at a university. I did some freelancing work for a rock-climbing magazine. I would write features here and there that would tie in history, local culture — stuff like that.
I was teaching writing and English full-time, and the more freelancing I did, the more it appealed to me. I figured I would jump in with two feet. I had a young kid, so my wife and I decided we’d come back to North America, and UBC appealed to me in many ways. I graduated from UBC for my undergrad many years before.
What are some highlights from your time at UBC?
One of the first big stories I reported at the school was about a lack of funding for an association that counsels survivors of torture. In my reporting, I found a young Syrian refugee, Mohammed, at a townhall meeting in Burnaby held just before the largest wave of Syrian refugees arrived in the country. We spoke over the phone for hours after that, him detailing the horrible things he endured while in a Syrian prison. The story worked out but I always knew there was something more there.
Over the next two years of the program, I was lucky to collaborate on projects like the Reporting in Indigenous Communities course and the International Reporting Program. The instructors in those courses taught me a lot about how pushing hard on stories means being persistent.
So here and there I checked in with Mohammed to see what he was up to. Then, right before graduation, another student and I got access to shoot a seven-minute video package about Mohammed, which eventually got picked up by PBS Newshour. It was a kind of perfect bookend to my time there and a hell of a lesson in checking in with sources.
You traveled to Colombia as part of the International Reporting Program. What was the story you worked on there?
We ended up pursuing two stories. We spent months building sources on the end of the war between the FARC guerrilla group and the government and paramilitary groups. We got some people who were working with former guerrillas; a nun who worked to bring people out of group violence or gang violence. We had that going in, but it was on the ground that we really started developing our sources. We got lucky — one of the people this nun knew, we ended up hiring as a taxi driver, and he had a brother-in-law who was a former weapons expert with the FARC. And then through another person, we got this former fighter. So we spent weeks there developing these sources. And then me and the other student who spoke Spanish, we stayed a bit longer to get access to the camp. It was a really interesting project. It was non-stop pushing to get sources, access — and it all kind of came together at the end.
After graduating, what did you get up to?
I worked with OpenCanada, which was a foreign affairs magazine. Unfortunately, it closed last year. I worked with them writing features. I did a piece on the export of Canadian weapons to human rights abusers. I did a story on post-hurricane Maria; I went to the small island [nation] of Dominica which is the Lesser Antilles. You hear a lot about Puerto Rico getting hit, but the island of Dominica was actually hit the hardest and the first. And it has a much smaller population, but it was just decimated. It was known as the fruit bowl of the Caribbean and it had just been stripped clean like a bomb went off on the island. So I went down there on a humanitarian flight with the UN. I also went to Jordan and reported on how ISIS fighters were being reintegrated into the country — kind of a similar vein to what I did in Colombia, but this was a bigger challenge because I don’t speak Arabic.
Tell us a bit about your current job with Tri-City News, which publishes at quite a different pace from what you had done for your longer features.
I was lucky to have started last February , so I had time to ease into the job and the regular rhythm of it. I had a fantastic editor who gave me a lot of leeway to do the kind of features I had always done as a freelancer, which is something I need in my life. But I was also constantly writing news on a regular basis, pumping out several stories a day. So by the time the fall hit and we started covering the  federal election, I was more than comfortable with the pace. I ended up covering two ridings, one of which ended up being the closest riding in the whole country.
Then, when the first case of COVID-19 — which wasn’t even called COVID-19 then — hit B.C., I was reporting on it from the beginning. I found it fascinating going from international reporting to local news but then having that international news just follow you. As a reporter, you see the world and society unravelling around you, and you do what you can to document that and get people the news they need to navigate their world. But really you’re also trying to tell bigger stories of what’s going on and get to the core of how people are dealing with it. It’s been a really tricky balance, and it’s really just come down to working a lot harder.