Recently I had the opportunity to watch a great little video dedicated to John Mercier of Porcupine, Timmins who served the Whitney Volunteer Fire Department for 40 years. The video really captured the Johnny that I have come to know over the past few years. It made me feel lucky to know him and his wife Celia. It was a snapshot of their lives and throughout the video I could see Johnny always with a smile on his face, ready to make someone laugh or feel better with a few words.

There are some people who I have met so far that live life with a balance and Johnny is living proof that this is possible. He retired as chief of the department this year and he was honoured by his peers, family and even Gilles Bisson, our local MPP, who showed up to say thanks. I am happy that so many took time to stop and say thanks to Johnny because I know that he put his best efforts out over the years to help save lives and homes in his community.

Believe it or not, the volunteer fire department is pretty much a new thing in my home community of Attawapiskat. Attawapiskat’s first volunteer fire department was established in the late 1980s. People always lived with a great fear of a fire while I was growing up in my home community of Attawapiskat on the James Bay coast.

This was due to the fact that every home back then was kept warm during the colder months with a wood stove. As a matter of fact many still are. I can remember several incidents where people’s homes exploded into burning infernos in the dark night at 40 below zero. In a small, tight-knit community like Attawapiskat, it was hurtful to watch a neighbour’s, a friend’s or a relative’s home going up in smoke.

Every house fire was a spectacle that was attended by the entire community and people lined the perimeter of the person’s home and watched helplessly as the fire consumed a home. Individuals helped as much as possible to save vehicles, snowmobiles or other belongings but rarely could anything be saved from inside the home. There were also many tragic incidents where people and children lost their lives from late night or early morning house fires.

Back then house fires usually resulted in a home being completely burned to the ground. With no fire truck or trained volunteers in place, not much could be done. At the time, we lived in a community without running water, which meant fighting a fire was made more difficult because of a lack of a steady supply of water. Most of the time fighting any fire was in vain and all anyone could do was to keep watch over the blaze to make sure neighboring homes did not start their own fire from the blowing and drifting embers.

It was after a series of fatal events that the community established a modern fire fighting department. When the department was established, a 24-hour base in the middle of the community was built and a fully equipped fire truck was purchased to haul and pump water. Once running water was provided in the community in the early 1990s firefighting efforts were made easier.

Several dedicated individuals continue to serve as volunteer firefighters in the community. Their special training and hard work help to save lives and property. In addition, there is also a group of individuals who volunteer their time for emergency services to help those in need find the medical attention they require as quickly as possible. All in all people are safer in my home town thanks to volunteerism.

It takes a special person to volunteer for a fire department or an emergency services department. These are dedicated individuals who want to put forth their efforts to help their community and make it safe for their family and friends. In the north we are grateful for the volunteer firefighters and emergency medical services personnel who help to keep our people and our community safe. So Meegwetch to ail those who protect us all and make our world a lot safer by giving their time and skills.