’Heroes in our midst’

Honouring the nation’s most courageous citizens
Irwin Cotler
'Heroes in our midst'
Thomas Manuel (left) with David Johnston; Medal of Bravery | Adrian Wyld/CP/ Sgt Serge Gouin/Rideau Hall

While the media was suffused last week with the gruesome evidence of Russell Williams’s criminality, a remarkable and inspiring event took place in Ottawa. Although it went largely unreported in the mainstream national media, it represents—as someone fortunate to witness it first-hand—the best, and I would say authentic, face of Canada.

I am referring to the awarding of Canadian Bravery Decorations to those who risked their lives to save others, and in some instances even lost their own lives in the effort. People from across the country—ordinary Canadians who engaged in extraordinary acts of courage—were presented with decorations from newly installed Governor General David Johnston in the Rideau Hall ceremony.

In the words of the Governor General, “Behind every one of these beautiful medals is an amazing story. A story of a life saved, a family preserved, a community strengthened. Stories, too, of fear overcome, because bravery is not the absence of fear, it is the judgment that something else—and someone else—is more important than fear.” Regrettably, space constraints allow me to highlight the heroism of only some of the 53 persons honoured.

Kimberly Friesen, a woman from British Columbia, rescued a boy from a possible drowning. The boy, out with his family along the Quesnel Riverfront Trail, missed a turn and ended up in the water. Friesen was rollerblading nearby when she heard the child’s mother call out for help. Although not a strong swimmer, Friesen took off her skates and, without hesitation, jumped into the freezing waters of the swollen river. Battling against the strong current, she reached the unconscious victim and pulled him safely to shore, where he was resuscitated.

Frédéric Dufresne of Trois-Rivières, Que., risked his life to prevent a young boy from being hit by an oncoming truck. Dufresne and his Scout troop were at a roadside rest stop when they noticed a three-year-old boy running toward the roadway, with his father trying to catch him from behind. As Dufresne joined the chase, the boy ran directly into the path of a transport truck filled with logs. Dufresne sprinted and tackled the boy, rolling with him until they cleared the road, just as the truck whizzed by.

Shane Michael Doucette rescued a co-worker from a methane gas well in Clive, Alta. After seeing that a tank hatch was open and there was no sign of his colleague, Doucette climbed up the ladder on the tank and saw the victim floating face down inside. Doucette shut off the valves controlling the gas flow and shouted out for help. He held his breath and jumped down through the hatch into the confined space full of toxic gas to grab the victim and pull him up the ladder. Doucette climbed out to take several deep breaths, went back inside, put the victim onto his shoulder and carried him to the opening, where others helped pull them out. Doucette then performed CPR until the man was revived.

One of the most inspiring examples is that of Thomas Manuel, who was severely injured while protecting his family from an intruder in Fort Good Hope, N.W.T. The aggressor entered the home and started firing a rifle at members of the household, who then ran into the master bedroom. Manuel was shot in the neck and stomach when he tried to stop the invader. Manuel blocked his bedroom door with a large chest and made a rope out of bedsheets and shirts to escape through a window. Once his wife and three grandchildren were safely on the ground, Manuel climbed down and ran to the side of the house to distract the attacker. The aggressor ran up to Manuel, shot him in the face and fled. Fortunately, the intruder was later apprehended by the RCMP. I had a moving exchange with Mr. Manuel, who told me that since this incident he prays in appreciation every night.

While the nation understandably focused on Belleville, Ont.—site of a healing rally Saturday in the wake of the trauma caused by Williams—we should not overlook the three residents of Belleville who themselves were awarded Medals of Bravery on Oct. 22, one of whom was himself a member of the armed forces.

David Byrd, Michael Byrd and Pte. Gabriel Proulx rescued three people from a burning vehicle near Napanee, Ont. After witnessing an accident that caused one of the vehicles to burst into flames, the three men hurried to the vehicle and pulled a teenage boy through the car’s back passenger window. As the interior became fully engulfed in flames, the rescuers then carried a woman to safety. Battling the heat, flames and smoke, they finally extracted the driver just as the gas tank ignited. Sadly, the driver succumbed to his injuries a few weeks later.

The brave men and women from across Canada—and their inspiring stories of bravery in the face of imminent peril—personify the “heroes in our midst,” as the Governor General put it. In the media culture of today, this not only “good” but great news story went largely ignored. For those there to experience this most moving of ceremonies, the stories of these 53 remarkable Canadians deserve, as David Johnston put it, “the thanks of a grateful nation.”

Irwin Cotler is the member of Parliament for Mount Royal.