Saturday, May 30, 2009

silver lining

Every cloud has a silver lining. Or at least that's what they say. Northwestern Ontario has seen a lot of cumulonimbus in the past few years, but very little silver. Take Ignace for example. They are Upsala's nearest municipal neighbour to the west. Sixteen or seventeen years ago the local mine shut down, ending the gravy days for the town. More recently the forest industry has been in trouble with lots of jobs lost. Pretty gloomy stuff, but the Ignacians are tough. If they can't have silver, they'll make do with aluminum foil.

There is an abandoned building about a minute's drive from the Ignace fire hall. It used to have a bustling grocery store on the ground floor, and apartments on the second floor. Now it's an empty shell, reclaimed by the municipality. The silver lining is that Ignace fire department can use it for training. Yesterday we raked students over the coals of firefighter survival training in the apartments. Tangled straps, blacked-out masks, partially dismembered air packs, screeching man-down alarms, snarls of wire were the order of the day. We instructors take sadistic pleasure in dreaming up ingenious ways to badger our students into proficiency. The silver lining is that we genuinely want them to live to tell their grandkids how dastardly cruel we were.
Here is a clip of a firefighter winning against a gauntlet that someone dreamed up for him.

In between groups of firefighters (in varying degrees of distress), I looked around the empty apartment we had comandeered. There were remnants of the days when the building still lived and breathed. A flowered tea towel hanging on the kitchen range handle. A 1984 penny on the musty green carpet. An old record player in a walnut cabinet. I could almost hear the echoes of days gone by. No, wait a minute. That's a firefighter's PASS alarm echoing off the empty walls.

The recession ghost is getting lots of headline news lately, but it has haunted the North for many years. It's just gotten worse in the past year. People that were hanging on by a thread collect unemployment now. That's the silver lining. The dark cloud is that the job creators are out on their ear. Toast. No benefits whatsoever. Go figure. The employee is taken care of, but the employer - the guy that creates the job in the first place, the heroic recession fighter - doesn't get a red cent. A friend of mine who employed scores of people over the years is now bankrupt. Another is pumping gas for a living. If you're feeling gloomy, or if your name is Stephen Harper or Dalton McGuinty, click

Enough of the devil. Training continues in Ignace. We're having fun. The crews are learning lots of cool stuff. Today we froze to death moving water from hydrants and ponds and portable ponds. Not your glitzy, camera-catching training, but just as important as the live fire stuff. If you've ever been an Incident Commander watching both the burning house and your water supply disappear while waiting for the tanker to return, you know what I mean.

As bad as things get, I suspect the volunteer firefighter will always be here, just like the bedrock that seems to symbolize Ignace. Recession or no recession, the North will remain too. Otherwise, where would the politicians go fishing?

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