BY ANDREW SMITH
OTTAWA – North Perth firefighters Ken Rea and Ray Walter were among those honoured at a ceremony earlier this month for the dedication of the Canadian Firefighters Memorial.
Over a thousand firefighters, dignitaries, friends and family attended the Sept. 9 ceremony in Ottawa, as the names of 12 firefighters from across Canada were added to the national memorial in the LeBreton Flats area, just west of Parliament Hill. Twenty-five members of North Perth’s Fire Department attended, including Chief Edward Smith and fire prevention officer/public educator Janny Elg.
Elg said the experience brought her right back to memories of the March 2011 funeral for Rea and Walter after the two firefighters lost their lives in a downtown Listowel fire on St. Patrick’s Day, 2011.
“Just seeing the families again, going through that was probably the toughest,” she said. “To hear those boots again and have absolute silence around you, really is an experience I can’t even really describe.”
Smith said it was a very emotional day for everyone involved, listening to the heartfelt loss and the heroism of the names added to the monument.
“Of course, on top of all the other emotions, you deal with the emotions of your own people being honoured,” he said. “It just brings everything back.”
The Canadian Firefighters Monument features a 105-foot-high wall with over 1,000 names, honouring all firefighters who have died in the line of duty, including wildland, full-time, part-time, volunteer, military, airport and industrial firefighters. The monument is watched over by a bronze firefighter descending from a 65-foot fire pole. Other unique aspects of the memorial include special tree plantings that will turn a bright crimson, representing fire retardant dropped from helicopters to fight forest fires.
“There was a lot of work that went into making it uniquely Canadian, also very symbolic,” Elg said.
Brass hose couplings were also collected from fire departments across Canada and melted down to be included in the brass elements of the monument. Family members of the firefighters were presented with memorial helmets and medallions, and provided with every accommodation imaginable by the Canadian Fallen Firefighters Foundation, Smith said.
“They went above and beyond just to make the families comfortable,” Smith said. “There was no question about that.”
Both Smith and Elg said they were given a new perspective at the ceremony, surrounded by other fire service members from across the country. Smith said his came when observing the wildland firefighters, who can enter the service as young as 18 years old.
“It really takes you back, because you see what the rest of the firefighting world is about,” Smith said. “You see how young these kids are that doing that kind of stuff and you have a whole different respect for them.”
Seated with other members of the procession, Elg said it occurred to her that any of their names could be added to the memorial wall at any time, giving her a new understanding of the fire service profession.
“It just gives you a different perspective, when you’re sitting there with strangers,” Elg said. “We have a connection now, unfortunately a very strong connection.”
North Perth’s own firefighter memorial is expected to be completed later next year, and the design has been approved by the Rea and Walter families. Smith said the families have been closely involved with the process since the beginning.
“The families have been the key focus of this memorial in North Perth,” Smith said. “We have strived to make sure it’s what they would like to see.”
Ryan Johnston, Mat Harrison, Curt McLaughlin and Tim Blagrave also made the trip to Ottawa, not only to honour their best friend Ray Walter, but offer their continued support to the families. Harrison said it was an opportunity to spend time together and remember their friend.
“There was no hesitation, we all wanted to be there,” he said. “We don’t necessarily feel like we lost him, he’s just not physically here with us.”
The friends were all amazed to see the level of support, not only from those in attendance for the ceremony, but from the entire city of Ottawa during the weekend.
“It really shows you how much respect people have for firefighters in general,” Johnston said. “It’s pretty impressive how they look up to people on a wall like that.”
The men share a feeling of honour to be associated with someone who has their name on the wall of the Canadian Firefighters Memorial, and it cements Ray and Ken as heroes in the community.
“That’s Ray, that’s our best friend,” McLaughlin said. “He’s etched in stoned in Ottawa and he’ll be remembered forever.”
Scott Smith, acting district chief for the Atwood station, worked with Ken Rea for 19 years, and said he recalled the good times when he attended the Ottawa ceremony.
“You feel for the family, they’ve got a big hole there that they’re missing,” he said. “There’s a lot of thoughts running through your head at the time and they’re kind of all over the place, yet you’re focusing on the family.”
Smith said it’s important to focus on the good memories and the time spent together with Ken, and the memorial was a fitting tribute.
“Ken was a good guy and there was a lot of positive things that came out of the relationship with everyone in the fire department,” Smith said. “I think it was very fitting for all those involved, not only for Ken and Ray but for the other firefighters honoured,” Smith said.