Nova Scotia

How Rita MacNeil, Viola Desmond and others joined an Atlantic disaster response team

Five important Maritime women are now part of Team Rubicon's Atlantic unit, which responds to disasters at home and across the country. Their names will be inscribed on the five chainsaws the team uses in their work.

'The story stays with us, and it helps keep that person and their messages alive'

Members of Team Rubicon Canada's Atlantic unit learn how to do roof repairs and remove contaminated drywall during a training course. (Team Rubicon)

Rita MacNeil and Viola Desmond have joined a team of Atlantic Canadians responding to disasters at home and across the country.

The Atlantic unit of Team Rubicon — an international non-profit group that began in the U.S. and expanded into Canada in 2016 in the aftermath of the Fort McMurray fire  — has been recruiting and taking part in operations for the past year and a half, according to regional administrator Tim McDermott.

The group of roughly 200 people have been helping with COVID-19 relief like delivering food, volunteering at Nova Scotia testing sites, or giving emergency heating candles to people living rough in tents outside Halifax.

They have also taken part in national teams helping out in disasters across Canada like the recent fires in Lytton, B.C. or tornados in Ontario.

Team Rubicon volunteers sift through debris at the Lytton First Nation. (Team Rubicon Canada)

"I call it tonic for the soul. You know, being able to help people, being able to make a difference when people are experiencing their worst days is an incredibly fulfilling feeling," McDermott said.

Now the team has five iconic Maritime women to help them.

An unofficial Team Rubicon tradition has been to name each team's chainsaws after prominent Canadian women, and McDermott said their team has highlighted five from the Atlantic area.

After polling their members, the chainsaws will be inscribed with the names Viola Desmond, Rita MacNeil, Mona Parsons, Molly Kool and Emma Edmonds.

Most Canadians know Desmond as a civil-rights pioneer from Nova Scotia who now graces the $10 bill and MacNeil as Cape Breton's "first lady of song." Parsons, who took part in the Dutch resistance in the Second World War, was highlighted in a Heritage Moment.

The chainsaw soon to be named Viola Desmond is now a part of Team Rubicon's Atlantic unit. (Team Rubicon)

Kool, originally from New Brunswick, was the first woman in North America to become a deep sea captain, and only the second woman in the world to obtain that title. There is now a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker bearing her name.

Edmonds, also of New Brunswick, disguised herself as a man to escape an unwanted marriage proposal and moved to the United States. She eventually fought in the Union Army when the Civil War broke out in 1861. 

"Each woman represents an idea, an ideal, or a notion that is important to us. Whether it's you know, ensuring that we are true to ourselves and we don't have to hide who we are, or we are blazing a trail where no one has gone before, or we are fighting injustice and racism," McDermott said.

"The name stays with us, the story stays with us, and it helps keep that person and their messages alive."

Tim McDermott is the Atlantic regional administrator for Team Rubicon Canada. (Team Rubicon)

The names are inscribed on each chainsaw's box, the saw itself, and McDermott has arranged for the Atlantic names to be done in calligraphy rather than a standard stencil. The boxes also have a small booklet carrying information about each woman's life.

Although Team Rubicon began as primarily a veterans organization that grew to include first responders, of which there are many in the Atlantic unit, McDermott said about half of their members are civilians.

About 40 per cent of the team are women, McDermott said, and added that anyone is welcome to join. They have members with various physical and intellectual challenges alongside military veterans, or people who have never served at all, because a variety of perspectives makes the team stronger.

Some of the Team Rubicon Canada volunteers from the Atlantic region are shown during a training course. (Team Rubicon)

But for those veterans like himself, McDermott said, who served in the navy 35 years, Team Rubicon provides an important transition as a place of camaraderie and purpose. 

"We allow veterans to redevelop their sense of purpose in life, and give them that meaning that they're missing when they leave the service," he said.

Next week, the Atlantic team will be holding a chainsaw training camp where they will be using other chainsaws brought in from other provinces — but also bearing names of important Nova Scotia women.

They include Capt. Jenn Casey, Const. Heidi Stevenson and Sub.-Lt. Abbigail Cowbrough who all died last year in separate tragedies while in their military and police roles.

Part of the booklet that travels with the 'Heidi' chainsaw. The chainsaw is named for the late RCMP Const. Heidi Stevenson of Nova Scotia. (Team Rubicon)

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