Nemaska firefighters are best Indigenous crew in Canada 

By Benjamin Powless

 Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Like so many kids, Kurtis Black was dead set on becoming a firefighter when he was in Grade One. Unlike most kids, he followed his dream and is the fire chief of Nemaska. Now he has added a new laurel _ being part of the team that won the 2022 National Firefighting Competition organized by the National Indigenous Fire Safety Council Project.

The competition was held October 1 in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, where six teams competed after having already won regional or provincial championships. Nemaska took first place in the Quebec Aboriginal Firefighter competition in Kahnawake last August.

Black said it was “nerve-wracking” waiting to hear the results after competing in the grueling events. “It was five minutes before the banquet when they announced the winners,” he recounted. “My nerves were just racing.”

Slowly, the announcers began naming the team that came in sixth place. When they got to second and Black heard the name of another team, Black realized Nemaska had won. “I was so happy,” he said.

At the competition, which took place on the last day of a four-day conference on fire safety, the teams competed in several challenges selected by raffle. The possible tasks include working with the hose, equipping and changing the SCBA breathing apparatuses, or using buckets.

This year, the teams had to change a hose as if it had burst while in action. Another challenge saw them use hoses and then buckets to hit targets. A new addition this year had them create a fire-prevention video or presentation that could be used on social media, which Black said his team was prepared for.

Black’s son, Cody, is also a Nemaska firefighter for the past seven years who competed as part of a spare team. Unfortunately, he was sent to the clinic for smoke inhalation during a shack fire exercise. “After everything was under control, we checked up on him. He was okay and became a champ,” Black said.

“It’s pretty fun,” he added. “It’s good experience of how everything works. Sometimes people panic their first time on the competing grounds.”

Or worse, they get too into it, and yell at the judges like at a hockey game, which happened with one of their teammates at the provincial competition. Black said that can be grounds for disqualification.

Black explained that there are different manuals available for the national, provincial and regional competitions that the teams can use for practice, but the exercises are like the ones the teams practice daily. His team trains an hour a day, with swimming and other fitness routines.

Nemaska’s firefighters are supposed to win equipment for taking first place, but Black said he isn’t sure what it will be. “We might donate it to a less fortunate fire department that needs the equipment, because one of the fire departments we competed against only had a garage to keep the fire truck warm,” he said.

“I’m just happy with the bragging rights,” Black added with a laugh, noting that he was part of a winning team in 2009 when he worked for the Waskaganish Fire Department, where he grew up.

After 24 years in the service, he joined at 14 before bylaws required firefighters to be over 18, he’s starting to think about retirement. But first, he’s planning for next year: “We’re looking forward to defending the title.”

 Benjamin Powless is a  Local Journalism Initiative Reporter with  THE NATION. The LJI is federally funded.

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