August 27, 2021 Message to Members

Where There Is Smoke

I sat in the car, watching the flickers of orange begin to show through the wood siding of the building. My little sister’s bedroom was on the other side of that wall. It was only a few minutes earlier that I was climbing down a ladder from the third-floor balcony of our apartment in Coquitlam. And it was only minutes before that when my mother’s voice – sharp and alarmed – woke me from a deep sleep with one word: “Fire!” It was December 7, 1975.

I think the sight of my family stepping out on to the balcony and signaling fearfully to the firemen below came as a shock to everyone gathered there. Billowing smoke followed us out of the sliding door; it was the only thing, other than our pyjamas, that we brought with us as we fled.

The parking lot was full of people, early that Sunday morning. Along with those evacuated from the building were neighbours attracted by the sirens and the activity. One of them was Steve, a boy in my class. Steve was standing next to our car, straddling his bike with both his feet on the ground. Like me, he was watching the tongues of flame beginning to show through the walls of the building’s top floor. I noticed him before he noticed me, as I sat inside the car beside him with the windows rolled up. His face told the story: he was engrossed by the drama unfolding around him. It is unlikely that he had ever before witnessed such personal loss and tragedy.  

I stared at Steve for no real reason; perhaps I wanted to gaze at something other than the burning building. When Steve’s eyes finally turned to mine through the glass of the car window, I heard him ask, “Is that your house?” While it wasn’t a house on fire – rather the top floor of an apartment block – I knew what he meant. I nodded; that was my home.

Steve laughed.

I’m not sure if it was his giddiness in discovering a direct connection to this story, one he could retell and put himself close to the action. He can be forgiven, as he was only eleven.

We had been rescued; my family was safe and unharmed. As a single parent, my mother felt the loss deeply. There was little recovered from the rubble, the insurance was modest, and Christmas was coming. The community was amazingly generous and we carried on, going to work and school, clothed in donations. I wasn't bothered by this until another boy in my class, recognizing the shirt I was wearing, told everyone on the playground how he had helped me. He can also be forgiven his excitement, as he didn't know better.

The memory of the fire has surfaced for me each year at this time. I have felt a profound empathy this summer for our BC families living under threat, as smoke fills their skies. And I have felt such a deep sadness for our families who are suffering from the loss – so sudden and complete – of literally everything they own. Evacuated, they stood by powerless as awesome forces consumed everything that was their home.

This utter devastation comes immediately following a time of profound emotion and pain for our Indigenous communities. At a time when members of these communities were symbolically ‘walking their children home’, many homes – apart from the land – no longer stand.  

And of course, within these communities there were schools. In other communities on alert due to the threat of wildfires, the schools still stand in the smoky air. This week, our Principals and Vice-Principals have begun to ready these schools to welcome students and staff back for a new school year. They have returned to buildings they closed in July, or they are working with their teams to establish new learning spaces. Our school leaders begin this work as residents themselves on alert, living with their precious possessions packed at the ready by the front door. 

All school leaders in BC will prepare for back to school with the now-familiar health and safety measures and mask mandate in place. It is not an understatement to describe this September’s return to school as complex. Some weeks ago, the provincial government communications began to include a bright yellow graphic which depicted several colourful animals, each at different points on a path. There is a red turtle and a purple moose, a swift rabbit and a swifter hummingbird. The caption states that “Everyone is moving forward at their own pace.” While intended for a somewhat different purpose, the graphic serves to encourage a proportional, culturally sensitive, and trauma-informed response with those around us, acknowledging that we each have a different lived experience.  

As we prepare to begin our year, this graphic serves as a good reminder for all leaders in our sector to attend to where their people are on the path to this restart. Who are your moose, and who are your hummingbirds? What have people experienced, and how can you help? It is important to remember that our actions, or inactions, may leave lasting impressions on our people.

Despite my own experience with trauma, I live with a natural and not inordinate fear of the danger posed by fire. I also recovered from the humiliation and anger I felt at the insensitivity of young boys. However, as my wife and I composed our lists of baby names at those times in our life together, ‘Steve’ never made the cut.


The BC Principals' & Vice-Principals' Association is a voluntary professional association representing school leaders employed as Principals and Vice-Principals in BC's public education system. We provide our members with the professional services and supports they need to provide exemplary leadership in public education.

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