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This article was published 16/4/2020 (760 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
When a local child’s birthday party goes up in smoke due to coronavirus pandemic restrictions, firefighters in the Rural Municipality of Cartier come riding to the rescue.
It’s an impressive sight: a handful of volunteers from the 20-member department climb into their gear, drive three gleaming fire trucks and a support vehicle, sirens blaring and lights flashing, to an area home, where they file out and sing a leather-lunged rendition of Happy Birthday to You.
The kind-hearted Cartier firefighters have staged about 10 such birthday parades in the region since the novel coronavirus started shutting down the province, and more requests come in each day on their Facebook page.
"It lets everyone in the community know that we are here for them," Lt. Luc Mallet, who came up with the idea, explained as his crew prepared for a parade to another child’s home Wednesday evening.
"We’re not just here for them when they call 911; we care for our community 365 days a year. We don’t just volunteer to be firefighters to wear a T-shirt and drive a big flashy truck."
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On Wednesday, members pulled their trucks up outside a home about 1.5 kilometres north of the fire hall in Elie (about 30 km west of Winnipeg) and serenaded a beaming Mya Richard, who was eager to celebrate her 11th birthday.
"It was awesome. It was so much fun," said Mya’s grateful mother, Tracy Richard. "She had her birthday party planned for months and months, and was so upset she couldn’t have what she planned on."
But the fire truck parade — supplemented by about 25 other vehicles filled with family friends — proved more memorable than any pre-pandemic party.
"After the parade, Mya said it was the best birthday ever. She was on Cloud 9. It was pretty special," Richard said. "It’s a pretty special birthday she’ll never forget. They (Cartier firefighters) have really brightened our community by doing this. It goes to show what community is all about."
The fire truck parades — often joined by the RM ambulance crew, if they’re not busy, and other townsfolk — are staged with respect for social-distancing guidelines, with only one firefighter per vehicle.
"Mya made up little Easter eggs and had them sitting on a table outside for her friends to take home. Mya just stood back with her little sign that said: ‘Thank you!’" Richard said. "She didn’t get much sleep last night because she was so excited."
Mallet said the Chartier celebrations got rolling after a request from a friend on social media.
"Her son was having a birthday; she was hoping we could do a parade. Unfortunately, we can’t leave our RM. She got the idea from the Morris Fire Department," said Mallet, 37, also an Air Canada pilot and father of two.
"It’s been very very positive. The kids are usually over the moon. They’re very surprised and very happy and the parents enjoy it, as well. Not being able to have birthday parties during the pandemic has been a real challenge. We’ve got four more parades over the next two weeks. Every day, I get more requests."
The RM firefighters are paid when on duty, but Mallet and Fire Chief Dan Bouchard stressed they are all donating their time, free of charge, for the birthday parades.
"They’re not getting paid for this. We never have a problem getting volunteers," Bouchard said.
"It’s fantastic," said Bouchard, 45. "The kids are super excited and the parents are, as well. We’re happy to do it for them.
"It’s just about the kids. We love our community and we love our kids and we’d do anything within reason to make them smile and lighten the mood in these somewhat gloomy days. It’s been a nice break from our usual routine."
It also gives firefighters a chance to maintain equipment, get vehicles on the road, and then disinfect everything when they get back to the fire hall.
"(Mallet) approached me with the idea, and I loved it immediately," Bouchard said. "I ran it by the RM, and they gave us their blessing. They thought it was a great idea."
It’s proven to be the perfect antidote for a rural community, like others around the world, had the rug pulled out from under its feet by an outbreak that is threatening lives and crippling the economy.
"We get out and sing Happy Birthday," the chief said. "The guys actually do a great job; we’ve had a lot of practice. I haven’t had any complaints. We had one kid who put on his own firefighter costume from Halloween. That was cool."
The movement has also gone viral.
"I think it’s taken off on Facebook across Canada and the U.S.," Bouchard said. "A lot of fire departments are doing this. It’s great to see. I don’t see any downside.
"We’re here to support our community in good times and bad."
Doug has held almost every job at the newspaper — reporter, city editor, night editor, tour guide, hand model — and his colleagues are confident he’ll eventually find something he is good at.