Canadian Firefighters Memorial sees light of day
Thereis no greater sacrifice than to put one’s life on the line for the safety and security of others. And now, there is a magnificent and captivating monument at the nation’s capital, just a kilometer west of Parliament, to honour a special group of individuals who made that sacrifice: Canadian firefighters who have died either
in the line of duty or from work-related illnesses.
The Canadian Firefighters Memorial was unveiled on September 9th, during the annual Fallen Firefighters Ceremony, in front of a crowd of several thousand that included about one thousand firefighters from across Canada and across the United States, and many from our own region.
A bronze firefighter, sixteen feet tall and affectionately known as ‘Fire Guy’, towers at the landscaped site and points compellingly to a one hundred foot long granite wall. On the wall are etched the names of over 1100 firefighters no longer with us. The fitting memorial was designed by Canadian artist Douglas Coupland and architect Mary Tremain.
Mike McKenna, the firechief of Ayer’s Cliff, North Hatley and Hatley Township, played an important role in the realization of the Canadian Firefighters Memorial and he spoke with the Stanstead Journal about the experience.
“I was invited to take part as a presenter in the Fallen Firefighters Ceremony in 2007. A few months later the president of the Canadian Fallen Firefighters Foundation (CFFF), Robert Kirkpatrick, called and asked if I could be on the Board of Directors as the Quebec representative,” explained Mr. McKenna in an interview at the North Hatley fire hall. “I accepted and at first it was about six hours a week. Then we started working on the monument and the hours increased,” said McKenna who soon after was asked to take the position of 2nd vice-president of the CFFF.
This local firechief was involved in all aspects of the project, including the choosing of the design, overseeing the planning and construction of the monument, and, before all that, the fundraising. “We were each given a challenge to raise money in our own departments.” The volunteer fire departments of Stanstead, Ayer’s Cliff and North Hatley each generously donated $500 towards the $4.5 million dollar project. The Minister of Heritage announced a $2.56 million grant for the memorial in 2010, assuring its completion.
Choosing the design of the monument was a lengthy and arduous task for the committee in charge which included Mike McKenna and the president of the CFFF. “About sixty artists submitted projects; the finalists made presentations with scale models and powerpoints. We consulted with firechiefs from across the country for their opinion. We discussed the symbolism, the artistry and the longevity of the design proposals. We didn’t want to fundraise again in twenty years for its maintenance.”
There were different opinions when it came to choosing the stone for the twelve foot tall, one hundred foot long wall of names. “They wanted to use a stone called ‘Elite Blue’ for the face, but we wanted a stone that met engineering standards so we settled with stone from a Quebec quarry for the face and the remainder of the granite came from a quarry in Ontario. We used the Elite Blue just on the top.”
Another challenge was getting the sixteen foot tall, 2,400 pound bronze statue, cast all in one piece, delivered from Red Deer, Alberta, to Ottawa. The statue arrived in good shape, along with the artist and his wife but no helpers. “We took off our good clothes, rolled up our sleeves and went to work. My construction experience came in handy!”
Looking as if he just slid down from the heavens for his important role, the ‘Fire Guy’ stands beside a sixty foot tall fire pole. “That pole was the last piece delivered, arriving in late August. We hired an engineer to study the effects of wind on the pole, not just structurally, but for sound and vibrations, ‘vortex-shedding’, which would eventually destroy the mounts. Inside the pole there are all kinds of chains to reduce the vibrations and there is lightning protection built in, too.”
The installation of the monument and the landscaping of the site were completed just in time for the annual Canadian Fallen Firefighters Ceremony, held on the second Sunday of September, in Ottawa. “There are the names of 1111 firefighters on that wall; close to 250 from Quebec. Next year, two firefighters from Quebec will be honoured in that ceremony,” said the firechief.
The weekend of the unveiling was a busy one. “A Chapel Service for the families was held on Friday
dinner. We gave out plaques, made by Picture This on Granite, as tokens of appreciation to people like the artist Douglas Coupland, and the architect, Mary Tremain,” said Mr. McKenna who was the emcee for that event.
The names of all the Fallen Firefighters were read in a special ceremony held on Saturday at the monument with only the families present. “That ceremony was organized informally; we agreed it should be done before the unveiling. It was raining sideways during that – we thought the lightning system on the pole was going to be tested. That storm tapered off as soon as we were done reading the names.”
Also on Saturday, Mr. McKenna was awarded a Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Medal for his involvement in the building of the monument. “That was a really humbling experience; my folks were in attendance, my wife, too.”
The official inauguration on Sunday began at 10:30 in the morning with the unveiling of the monument by Governor General David Johnson. Not only was Mr. McKenna the emcee for that event, his wife, Karen McKenna, sang the National Anthem.
Asked what the Canadian Firefighters Memorial means to the families of the fallen, the firechief answered: “Judging by the letters of appreciation we’ve received over the last month, I’d say they’re very happy their family members are not forgotten and there’s a physical record of their sacrifice.”
“I’m very proud of the work our team did, and I’m glad it’s over. I must have made a dozen trips to Ottawa in the last twelve months. When you get caught up in a project like this, personal things get put aside. I have a house three quarters finished that I started a few years ago so I’ll get back to working on that.”
The annual Canadian Fallen Firefighters ceremony takes place on the second Sunday of September at the Canadian Firefighters Memorial located on Le Breton Flats, in Ottawa. For more photos of the beautiful memorial and its inauguration ceremony, visit the website of the CFFF.
Mike McKenna is seen here in front of the granite wall of the Memorial with his wife, Karen, and their sons, Adam and Ian.
Firechief Mike McKenna (at left) at the unveiling of the Canadian Firefighters Memorial. The guest of honour, His Excellency the Right Honourable David Johnson, Governor General, is second from the right.