A Christmas at the end of the road…

As the late admired journalist David Carr said when asked about his journey from crack cocaine addict to NY Times reporter, he explained that indeed he had led a “textured life”. It resonated with me, in that my life has not been a straight line, maybe not even a crooked or jagged line. There has been no A to B followed by C; no real planning, no career to wife, house, children and the apparent ultimate goal of mortgage free retirement.  

It was just one of these unconventional, somewhat twisted career moves that led me to an isolated rain soaked valley, one which literally sat at the “end of the road”.  Comfortably nestled in isolation, pushed up amongst the coastal mountains lies the village of Bella Coola, my third posting in what was then a still young career. I was going there from living and working in downtown Toronto; within 48 hours transitioning from a surveillance assignment on Yonge St., only to find myself standing in front of the nondescript police detachment on MacKenzie St. in Bella Coola, British Columbia.

If you should choose to drive there, turn directly west on Hwy 20 from Williams Lake and begin your drive, across the sparse Chilcotin plateau, periodic marshy lakes interrupted by seemingly never ending patches of cedar and spruce. You will gradually enter a new, sometimes forgotten world, winding through sparsely settled Alexis Creek, Riske Creek, and Anahim Lake. A still wild land, untouched, ignored for the most part by the rest of the Province.

After 4 or 5 hours, the Coastal Mountains begin to frame the horizon and you think that you must be near the end when the asphalt abruptly turns to dirt. Most are usually not prepared for this final phase, one where you begin to descend into the Valley. You are now on the “Hill”

This “Hill” (in any other place it is a Mountain) is a sometimes one-lane dirt road, descending 4020′ over 19 kms, with road grades of 15-18%, nicknamed, inadvertently tongue in cheek, as the “Freedom Road”. Denied government funding local citizens in 1952 took it upon themselves to complete this highway connection, one that government engineers said was impossible. Stubbornly, armed with brashness and bulldozers these rugged individuals pushed it through on their own and “freedom” and access was gained to the rest of the world, or at least that small part of the world which allowed an exit from their isolation.   

So it was that in 1984, I found myself standing in front of the brick, flat-roofed square detachment, a townsite surrounded on three sides by mountains, the sides of the valley about a mile away. Cloud cover, I learned was never far away, often hovering at 1000 feet. A box designed by nature, unable to see too far up, or too far to the sides. The rain feeds the dense forest, its foliage of hanging mosses and green carpeted limbs make it almost impenetrable.

Tourism now seems to be supplanting the days of logging and commercial fishing which were the original economic engines, and Norwegian settlers from Minnesota, began living side by side with the Nuxalk First Nation.

The centre of town, is about 300 yards long, with the central road dividing the Reserve from the “white” side. There is a Co-op grocery store, Kopas’ General Store, and the hotel restaurant which was then the Cedar Inn.

The Reserve is three or four rows of sub-standard housing, ill-fitting doors, a variety of window coverings, from flags to plastic bags. Dogs running in groups, lazily stirring in driveways or yards if provoked.

Few are making a living “off the land”, struggling teenagers fully aware of life on the outside, consumed much like their city counter parts with all that is playing on large screen t.v.’s. Everything that they want achingly out of reach.

There are no jobs to speak of, generations of welfare and isolation further further quelling any chance or desire for economic freedom; other than the usual small town government employment. In re-visiting a couple of years ago, depressingly, nothing has changed, although the police now live in a rather large conspicuous yellow modern styled building. An ignoble and incongruous bus shelter, now sits on the main drag, and appears to be the only other new addition in 30 years.

It was here my two year “isolated post” began.

And It was here, in these surroundings, that I found myself that first Xmas Day in 1984. Alone for the holidays as the other three officers like most of the residents of Bella Coola, had left town for the holidays. Besides being the only cop in town, the only breathalyzer operator, the sworn in sheriff for civil action, I was the holder of the keys for the local garage should a tourist run out of gas during the holidays. 

The rain pelted down, bouncing off the pavement, and as I looked out the front detachment window, there was not a sole in sight, not even a passing vehicle. Clearly, those that were around, were now content to surround themselves with family in their respective houses as it neared Xmas dinner hour. It was getting dark at 2 in the afternoon and the sides of the valley had already begun to close in. I stood there in my ball cap, uniform shirt, and jeans held up by a holster pondering how to pass the time. 

A Xmas tree, which I had proudly felled myself days before, was laying on the back porch, yet to be brought into the house. There seemed to be no point in bringing it in, especially when I had just discovered that there were no decorations to speak of anyway. With the greenish shag carpet in the living room, and no decorations, it would have looked ridiculously more like a tree having grown up through the floor. It stayed on the porch.

Xmas dinner had not been planned for either, the local restaurant was closed, the only day in the year which received this honour. Not wanting to be alone with thoughts of Xmas’s from the past, I decided that I would take a patrol of the townsite and the area further up the Valley; more out of boredom than diligence. I backed the police car out of the carport, put on the defogger and the windshield wipers on full force and began the usual rounds.

A few lights shone in the houses on the Reserve, but the rest of the town site had become ghostly, little signs of life, the odd and sparse string of Xmas lights blinking at the Co-op and the Liquor Store entrance ways, their closed signs stating the obvious hanging in the doorways. I decided to head up the highway, up towards Hagensborg.

Hagensborg is just a small collection of houses, a small convenience store, a bar and a faded yellow clapboarded bowling alley.

As I drove slowly by, I could clearly see a light on in the bowling alley, near the front of the building, which served as the coffee shop and catered to the bowlers. I couldn’t be sure but this seemed out of the norm having driven by on the single road highway many times. It had been vacant in previous years, but I had heard that some people had recently bought it, and trying to make a go of it. The rumour was that a “homosexual” couple were escaping Vancouver and the burgeoning AIDS epidemic, escaping to nature, escaping to where the disease would not find them. Why else would someone who was “homosexual” move to Bella Coola, at least that was the local scuttle butt. Bored, and having lots of time on my hands, I thought I should rattle the door handles, just to make sure it was ok.

The rain was incessant, stinging the bridge of my nose, as I climbed out of the security of the police car, and went up to shake the front door, not really expecting an answer.

The door suddenly opened and a middle aged man, with a slight paunch, dressed in khakis and a flannel shirt framed the doorway. “Hello officer” and I was hit with the smell of roasting food and the warmth of the insides flowing out. “Hey, come on in, come in” gesturing and opening the door further.

A couple of steps in as I was muttering something about not wanting to disturb them, that a second man appeared coming out from deeper inside the cafe. A similar aged man, a dress shirt over jeans, short perfectly groomed hair, smiling broadly, and with a pair of clearly used oven mitts on both hands.

I began to explain again that I was checking on the property, when I felt myself being swept up by the effusiveness of the two. Without waiting for an answer, they told me to have a chair, directing me by the arm, to have some dinner with them. “After all…” they had cooked a goose and had more than enough to go around, the deliciously browned bird sitting prominently on the counter, proof of their apparent predicament and the need for company. They both talked at the same time, resisting seemed futile, despite my “not wanting to impose”.

So I sat as minutes became hours, and I listened. They talked about their previous life in the city, why they came to Bella Coola, what they loved about the place, what they hated, their backgrounds, the bowling alley being a dream of owning their own business, Xmas, and plans for New Years. Their voices seemed as one, and as I sat, I was enveloped and drawn into their kindness. It was an atmosphere usually reserved for long friendships.

I ate sweet dark goose meat, mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, vegetables, sitting near the picture glass window, the heat inside causing condensation to form on the single large window, the rain noisily pelting the glass, the abandoned dark bowling lanes off to my left, the police car once in a while shimmering in the flickering light a few yards away in the darkened outside world. How did I get here, how did I come to be sitting in this pinpoint of light and time, at the end of the road, eating what I remember as one of the best meals I had ever eaten, eating with two people who were strangers 30 minutes before. One of those jagged turns in the road.

And 34 years later, I still remember those two gentlemen. I don’t remember their names, but I remember them. I picture the scene that night as if it were yesterday.

They didn’t last long in Bella Coola, maybe another year or two, and then they were gone like they came in; without a word or anyone expressing surprise that they had left.

Every Xmas I think of them, who are probably in their 80’s by now. I do hope and believe that they survived. I picture them sitting down for another Xmas dinner, happily reminiscing about the year or two they spent in Bella Coola; remembering the year they had that “young” Mountie in for Xmas dinner, the Mountie who had taken the time to check on them.

Merry Xmas and a Safe New Year to you all, and thanks for reading.

Photo courtesy of Google Pics…an actual picture of the Hill..some Rights Reserved.

The Politics of “First Responders”

In March 2017, there was a blog on this site which posed the question as to whether it was time to cut back on Fire Services, who despite a diminishing need for their services,  were in fact expanding in terms of manpower, equipment, and general presence.

The self-justifications for the fire services expansion all hinged on their incursion into medical calls, fanned by the publicity burning opioid crisis. It was the continuing perpetuation of the somewhat mythical life saver dynamic, they being the foremost and therefore indispensable “first responders” that made up the Group of Three.

What stirred this pot which highlighted the decreasing need, was the review in Ontario of the Fraser Research Report, which reviewed Fire Services in Ontario for the period of 1997-2012.  It discovered that during this time period in Ontario the number of firefighters increased by 36.3% while fires (including autos) had decreased in the same period by 41.4%.  In British Columbia in this same time period the number of firefighters had increased by 43.8%.

The hourly wages for firefighters followed suit, in Ontario, their wages went up 47.8% in this same time period, whereas price levels only increased by 34.6%.

All of this growth in both wages and infrastructure, while at the same time there has been a phenomenal decline in the need for “fire” services. There are some estimates that say as little as 5% of the fire department calls now relate to actual fires.

Clearly, this should call for most persons aware of ever dwindling municipal budgets and ever increasing tax levels, that maybe one could do away with some of the equipment, halls and personnel involved in firefighting. Although Ontario did cut back some of their services, most areas including British Columbia seem oblivious to the seemingly obvious.

So how is it that governments, municipal counsels, and the governing bodies seem to have missed this obvious decline in the need for fire services?  In searching for explanations one finds a masterful blend of self-promotion, coupled with an outright expansion of their roles outside of their intended mandate, which this blog covered previously.

Now it would seem that we need to add another component, a political component.

But we need to review how we got this new level.

With subtle flourish even the modern day lexicon has been transformed. No longer, police, fire and ambulance. Now, all are “first responders”.  Their’s is the only one group who has a vested interest as being on par with the others, both in terms of how they are viewed, how they are paid, and the significance of the role they play.

To their credit the firefighters early on figured out that they needed to expand their roles, they need to aggressively move into other mandates, areas where they were not before. In terms of mandate, of course the only place for them to go was to cross-over into the ambulance and police services.

They even made the subtle name change from Fire Department, to Fire and Rescue Services as they jumped headlong into car accidents and medical calls and they have been remarkably successful. They point out in somewhat boastful tones that they estimate 70% of their calls are now medical, as they “rescue” opioid overdoses, or respond to heart attacks. This is true, even though they do not and can not provide the same level of service as the paramedics.

Even their “rescue” capabilities, has become more specialized, now under the umbrella of “Technical rescue”.  ‘Auto extraction’, marine, or bridge rescue components are now separate tranches, in an attempt to be more expansive and all inclusive.  They have also  become, through little debate, the Hazardous Material experts.

Why? Their very employment and infrastructure survival depends on a sleight of hand, the general public needs to believe that they are the “first responders” of record. They need to convince you that they are the white hats, always there, always the first on scene. They are the life savers which we can not do without.

In B.C. there was a recent budget increase for paramedics of $31million.

The firefighters had the audacity to actually complain that it had cut into their calls for service. They justified their complaint saying that they were often first and more capable of getting to a scene “quicker”. The argument of getting there first by the way, is a constantly repeated theme. The obvious counter argument would be if there were more paramedics on the road, people more qualified, than their ability to get there first becomes moot.

The fire departments are unflagging in their efforts. Vancouver Fire Department and “Rescue Services” prior to the municipal elections were asking for an additional 21 fire personnel. They justify this of course on the need  to respond to 6200 opioid calls.

All of the above has been obvious for quite some time but what caught one’s eye during these same elections in the Lower Mainland was a somewhat new twist. It would appear that the firefighters are now honing their political voice, enhancing their political efforts, and are now becoming an active political force, a true definition of a self-interest group.

No more was this more obvious than in the City of  Burnaby, who have now elected an independent mayor, a former firefighter, Mike Hurley in an upset victory over Derek Corrigan.

Burnaby is an interesting case study.

All 281 firefighters in Burnaby belong to the International Association of Fire Fighters, Local 323.

If one visits their website, they make no mistake as to what they believe: “When it comes to Political Action, we support those that support us” – May 17, 2014.

It is equally clear from their website that the building block from which any political action will flow is the charities. Golf tournaments, city fairs, parades, and charitable balls dominate their photos and exclamations of fealty to the community.

In recent years the Burnaby firefighters came into the news on a couple of occasions, one when Burnaby firefighter Nick Elmes and a couple of others formed the Florian Knights, who met with and were sanctioned to wear their “colours” by the Hells Angels. They used to ride to work showing their “colours” before management stepped in.

Then there was Bryan Kirk, a 36 year firefighter who decided to retire after being confronted on his support of “Camp Cloud” which was the campsite put up by Indigenous protestors at the site of the Trans Mountain pipeline in Burnaby. The camp was eventually taken down, via court injunction by the Burnaby RCMP, but Kirk supported the protestors and went on record saying “I’m more inclined to put out the Olympic torch then put out a First Nation ceremonial fire”.  (Newly elected Hurley is also on record, aligning with Kirk, saying that he supports no pipeline.)

As one watched the celebrations at the Hurley election campaign, which was held at the Firefighters Public House in Burnaby, where a smiling Hurley was surrounded by Firefighters in similar styled t-shirts as they celebrated one of their own being elected. One could guess that a serious look at the monies being spent on the firefighters in a time when municipal budgets are under crises will not occur in Burnaby, at least while under the faithful guidance of Mr. Hurley.

This was not the only example.

In Langley the Langley Township Fire Department IAFF Local 4550 were out endorsing certain candidates.

In Surrey, the Surrey Firefighters endorsed Tom Gill for mayor (who lost to McCallum). Already on counsel in Surrey was the former firefighter Mike Starchuk, who was a firefighter for 32 years, and still headed up one of their Charitable foundations.

In 2014 Surrey First party raised $1.7 million in support of Linda Hepner– one of the biggest donors, if not the biggest were the Surrey Firefighters who donated $32, 564. 01.

In fairness, it should be pointed out that other “first responders” have become active in politics. Former police officers have taken roles as counsellors on various cities and townships, and one ex-RCMP member is now mayor of Pitt Meadows.

But this firefighter involvement seems different. It seems more organized, more overt, with an exposed agenda. A concerted effort to get their candidate elected.

Many will argue that they are members of the public, they too therefore have a right to get involved in the politics of the day. That is true and there are special interest groups who put forward candidates, and organize to support those candidates. But this seems somehow different.

One needs to ask, do fire, police and medical personnel hold a special role in our society? Clearly their mandates enter into our lives in different ways than other members of the general public. Are they in a position of undue influence? Do they have access to the media which is not available on a regular basis to the members of the general public?  Should or could it be perceived that there is a political component to the service provided by “first responders”? Police are held back from overt political support by a pressing need to be neutral in terms of the laws and its applications. Should medical and fire service be bound by any kind of neutrality?

It is the slippery slope of mixing politics with your role, especially one that is specifically mandated to serve the public. One should be equally alarmed at the Chiefs of Police supporting a particular party, or ambulance attendants supporting a particular pro-union politician.

One can not help but feel that the firefighter new found interest in municipal politics is also being influenced by the need to get a friendly face on the inside. One who will not question the need for greater and greater expansion, who will not look at the statistics, one who will not worry about unneeded financial expenditures. Is there a faint taint on the Burnaby election?

Maybe we need to go back to “police, fire or ambulance?” which is the first question still asked by 911 operators. Maybe the three services should be examined as separate entities, both in terms of budget and mandate, not as a single group of “first responders”. Taxpayers need to pay attention.

But hey, it’s the Xmas season, and the firefighters are busy setting up the Bright Nights Xmas Train in Stanley Park, where a portion of the proceeds goes to the BC Professional Fire Fighters Burn Fund. The media will be fawning over the children and the sponsoring firefighters on every news channel and after all who could argue with the cause. It’s brilliant and not just because of the 3,000 lights.

It used to be beefcake calendars, it’s much more subtle now, but the impression remains the same.

Photo Courtesy of  Pete at Flickr Commons – Some Rights Reserved

Merry Xmas to All….

To my few readers, first I wish to thank you for your interest and feedback over the last several months, as I indulge in this fantasy of trying to be a writer.

It has been a busy year, and like all of you I’m sure, one filled with the ups and downs of life. The good, the inconsequential, and the fearful, in this era of the Trump shadow. As Xmas day gallops toward us, for some reason it tends to make me look back with a poignant but peculiar nostalgia.

I always remember the Xmas’s lost, the Xmas’s where I worked, coming home to the kids, but sometimes coming home to an empty house.

The Xmas where I was the only officer in the town of Bella Coola, British Columbia, nestled in the middle of nowhere on the British Columbia coast. Rain poured in sheets, almost hurting as it hit the skin. I ate Xmas dinner with the only openly gay couple in town. They had recently purchased the local bowling alley, escaping and hiding from the city life they left in Vancouver. They took me in that Xmas, and served me a goose dinner in the attached coffee shop, while the rain lashed the windows in the restaurant while the dimly lit bowling lanes acted as a backdrop. It is a great and fond memory. I went home to the detachment, and then realized that the Xmas tree that I had cut was still on the back porch of the police residence, never making it into the warmth of the house.

There was the many Xmas’ working in uniform, where by three or four in the morning you found yourself parked along side another officer, smoking, or drinking coffee, yawning uncontrollably, and wondering how you were going to be able to stay up when you got home. Praying that there was not another call coming your way and you could bask in the nothingness of pre-dawn.

There was the  Xmas in Newcastle New Brunswick where I answered the domestic disturbance call. I pulled into the driveway on Xmas eve, just as the overwrought husband through the Xmas tree through the front window, landing in the front yard still adorned with bulbs and lights. I arrested Dad, but I still wonder how and where those children are now, what kind of adults they became and I hope they are ok now.

Now that I think of it, I think I spent more Xmas’ with criminals. This is not intended to imply that this was always negative.  People seem to change a bit over the holidays, even the eight per cent of the population that we dealt with routinely as police officers.  A lot of laughs were shared over the cellblock counter, despite the often desperate situation they found themselves in, and it was not unusual to see goodwill extended to others while there. As they feasted on the government supplied meat pie, slice of white bread, and instant coffee they were pretty far removed from the turkey extravaganza but they seemed to appreciate you being there in some sort of misplaced way.

There  was also something emotional about being out in the middle of the night, patrolling, sometimes alone, standing herd over the darkened houses. It gave you a sense of real, measurable worth. Things always seemed pretty good.

So to those of you who find yourself sitting in those same police cars, biding time, counting the hours until dawn, sneaking into the radio room to scoff down Xmas cake and cookies brought by considerate dispatchers; enjoy it, as it is a fleeting feeling.  It is a Xmas not experienced by most, and it highlights the sometime and somewhat elusive purpose to your profession. Police officers in Toronto, in New York, and in Brandon, Manitoba are all having and sharing that same feeling, as they stretch, and look up at the brightening sky.

Then go home and hug your kids if you have them, if you don’t, hug someone else’s kids. Yours was the night, but now the day belongs to them.

Merry Xmas everyone….may you always come home to a full house….

Pete

Image Courtesy of Creative Commons by Coral Lacey entitled “Deerly beloved” Some Rights Reserved