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Emergency services in Whapmagoostui deliver priceless smiles during pandemic

BY Patrick Quinn May 19, 2020

While the pandemic lockdown may have brought a stop to gatherings, Whapmagoostui police have found a way to ensure kids still have a birthday treat. Since April 22, the community’s emergency services have been delivering drive-by birthday greetings to children turning 12 or younger. 

Lieutenant Steven Boudrias came across the idea from one of his colleagues in the Eeyou Eenou Police Force (EEPF), who posted on social media about a police force in the United States that drove to the house of a boy missing friends on his birthday.

“I said, wow, we should do that in our community, but we’ll do it a different way – we’ll get the fire department involved, too,” Boudrias recounted. “It’s been working out pretty good. We’ve done 11 in the past two weeks. People love it.”

With communities practicing isolation measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19, Boudrias said the EEPF has a little more time for this kind of initiative. Parents of children with upcoming birthdays contact the police station to arrange the celebration’s date and time, typically in the quieter hours of late afternoon on any day of the week. 

Although Whapmagoostui children are now starting to anticipate these drive-by parties and are even getting dressed up for the occasion, the first time that police cruisers and fire trucks approached a house with sirens blaring it caused quite a stir. Boudrias learned about Sammy Salt’s fourth birthday through social media and suggested to her mother that they could try something new to make it special.

“Before [Boudrias] called, Sammy said, ‘I’m going to cover my eyes and you guys are going to give me a surprise birthday party with cake and I want everybody to come’,” Amy Salt told the Nation. “As parents, we were sad we couldn’t make that happen, so we were very happy when Lieutenant Boudrias approached us with his idea.”

Like many kids across Eeyou Istchee, Sammy hoped to celebrate with her many friends, cousins and grandparents and didn’t understand why she couldn’t have a big birthday party this year. This one turned out to be big in a different way – Sammy was so startled by the sirens that she jumped into her mother’s arms.

With her father capturing the moment on video, Sammy stood on a snowmobile in the driveway while curious neighbours stepped outside to see what was going on. As the emergency services crew wished her happy birthday over the loudspeaker, Sammy realized they were there for her.

“Her facial expression was priceless,” said Salt. “They started singing to her and you could see how proud she was. The fire department gave her a fireman’s hat, a colouring activity book with crayons and a placemat, and the police gave her a pink bicycle helmet, which she wouldn’t take off for days.”

Similar successes have followed in the weeks since, expanding to both the Cree and Inuit sides of the community to meet the growing demand. Although Boudrias had initially intended to only visit Cree homes, now the Kuujjuarapik police force have joined the cause so Inuit children can also have a birthday they’ll never forget.

“We all get together at the same time and go there,” Boudrias explained. “It doesn’t matter if they’re Cree or Inuit. The collaboration between both police forces is awesome. We get along together very well, the fire department also. We see each other every day – it’s not like a big city down south.”

In these days of quarantine, drive-by parties have become an increasingly popular way for people around the world to celebrate all kinds of events. Sometimes too popular – Burlington, Ontario, recently prohibited parades of larger than five vehicles after celebrations grew significantly in “size, duration and frequency.” 

This hasn’t been a problem in Whapmagoostui, especially since the community has grown quieter during Goose Break. With the police leading the parade, a welcomed by-product of the initiative has been that the younger generation sees them in a more positive light. 

“I’ve overheard parents disciplining their children say, ‘I’m going to call the cops’, just to show the power of authority and kids get scared or anxious around the police,” said Salt. “This way, I found that the children see another side of their job. I’m very grateful for what they’ve started, especially at this time. It’s really helpful.”

Boudrias said they intend to continue these drive-by celebrations so long as demand exists, though he admitted they’ll have to slow down once activity picks back up in the community. For now, the EEPF and the Whapmagoostui Fire Department invite residents wanting a drive-by party to contact them at 819-929-3316. 

“Once you bring that smile to a child, it’s priceless and nothing can beat that,” said Boudrias. “The kids are jumping up and down. They see the lights and hear the sirens and know it’s for them. It’s always the same thing we’re after – a child’s smile and happiness.”

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Patrick Quinn lives in Montreal with his wife and two small children. With a passion for words and social justice, he enjoys sharing Eeyou Istchee's stories and playing music.