Breaking a deadly silence

By Shelley Page

I was at a children’s party when I overheard an acquaintance say that her husband was sick with malignant melanoma and that he wasn’t the only young firefighter on his platoon who had cancer. In fact, two of his friends were dying.

These were young men with children the same age as mine.

I was intrigued and assumed it would be relatively easy to tell this story. However, it was eight weeks before I was actually sitting in the home of one of the dying firefighters. Ranks had closed.

The union, the firefighters, their managers and the politicians didn’t want to talk about the cancers or their causes. Even when I did get them to discuss the situation, they held back a great deal of information. It took weeks of persuasion to get the full story. I also had to work through dozens upon dozens of scientific studies trying to figure out if firefighters were at greater risk of cancer because of the dangers of their job.

Despite many frustrations, this was a very rewarding experience for many reasons. I had to win the trust of the people involved. Second, I succeeded in telling the stories of the firefighters who had terminal cancer before they died. Third, I felt this series exposed a previously hidden issue to public scrutiny. And lastly, the reaction was considerable. I received dozens upon dozens of letters, calls and e-mails from the public, the Ottawa City Council vowed to better protect its firefighters, and the provincial government agreed to look into the problem.

In May, the province passed presumptive legislation that would compensate firefighters who contracted various cancers. Obviously, there were many people lobbying the province for this legislation, but I was told my series influenced the decision.

In late May, when I won the Canadian Association of Journalists investigative journalism award for print, I dedicated the award to the two firefighters who shared their stories with me before they died. They were Mark Johnston and Patrick Thibodeau.

Read “Falling Heroes”