“We’re gunning for first,” said Summer Martin of the Kahnawake Fire Brigade – one of seven teams participating in the National Indigenous Firefighting Competition.
“I don’t want to jinx us, but we were five seconds shy of first place last year. And we came in second. So, we’re trying to redeem ourselves and get that first-place win,” explained Martin.
More than 60 Indigenous firefighters from across Canada gathered in Kahnawake for the event. The seven teams from across Canada competed in judged events to determine the 2023 National Firefighting Competition Champion. All hailing from small communities, each team had its own set of unique challenges.
Team Atlantic had the most stacked against them as they only had one chance to practice as a team before the competition. Since there was no single regional winning team, members were selected from various communities, including Larry Sockabasin (Tobique, NB), Gavin Creemon (We’koma’q, Cape Breton), Auden Pierro (Wamatcook, NS) and William Stevens, Stephen Francis and Jordan Scott (Eskasoni, NS).
Fire Chief Shane Bair, from Beaver Lake Cree Nation in northern Alberta, explained his community of 700 created their fire department only nine months ago.“All of my guys are brand, brand new because we just restarted our fire department last December. Everyone’s new. No experience. Green as grass. Never competed. Never knew what a fire hose was.”
The competition’s physical exercises, called evolutions, are based on firefighting skills that test strength and endurance. They range from rolling hoses, fast coupling drills and replacing a burst length of a hose.
“It’s a different feeling than fighting fires when you’re in the competition because there’s a lot more training involved. And doing physical skills. I’m really good at rolling the hose,” said Martin.
However, the teams also incur penalties, explained Martin. “Everything is fast paced, but running isn’t allowed. You have to fast walk, which is freaking hilarious when you see us doing it.”
One of the four judges was former NHL hockey player Jordan Nolan of Garden River First Nation. The recently retired Nolan is now pursuing a career in firefighting. “My uncle was a firefighter in our community. And I’ve never heard one bad thing about being a firefighter. Obviously, it has issues like other jobs, but I think the camaraderie and being part of a team seems like a great career for a former athlete.”
The competition is broken down into two elements: the physical competition and the fire prevention presentation that were done the night before.
“I feel that my guys rocked the presentation,” said Bair. “It is supposed to be on fire prevention initiatives that you do in your community. But we’re so new we don’t have any set programs yet. Since we’ve just restarted the fire department, we did ours on what we’ve done so far to make public safety a priority.”
Some presentations struck an emotional chord, especially Team Saskatchewan from Fond du Lac (population 900) who lost three firefighters to suicide.
The championship winners were announced at a banquet following the competition. There was a surprised hush in the crowd when the favoured Team Kahnawake came in sixth place. Team BC took third, Team Alberta placed second with Team Manitoba clinching first place, hoisting the championship trophy with pride.
“The competition is about fire service leadership and about showing team camaraderie,” said Blaine Wiggins, director of the Indigenous Fire Safety Council. This is why the coveted “Most Sportsmanlike Team” prize went to Team Atlantic.
“Ninety-nine per cent of Indigenous fire departments in Canada are staffed by volunteers and this was one way to acknowledge their service,” Wiggins added.
The evening wrapped up with Happy Garrioch of Cross Lake First Nation representing champion winners Team Manitoba breaking out in a celebratory jig on centre stage.
The 2024 National Indigenous Competition will be held in Vancouver.