P.E.I. firefighter to be honoured nationally 18 years after his death

An Island firefighter will be among those honoured at the annual Canadian Firefighters Memorial in Ottawa next month — thanks to amendments to the Workers Compensation Act.

Willard MacPhail's death is now considered in the line of duty — after his decades of work as a firefighter

Willard MacPhail, one of the founding members of the North River Fire Department, died in 2001 of leukemia. Recent amendments to P.E.I.'s Workers Compensation Act mean his death is now considered in the line of duty. (Submitted by Kevin MacPhail )

An Island firefighter will be among those honoured at the annual Canadian Firefighters Memorial in Ottawa next month.

Willard MacPhail — one of the founding members of the North River Fire Department in 1965 — died of leukemia in 2001.

But amendments to P.E.I.'s Workers Compensation Act, effective Jan. 1, 2019,  mean his death is now recognized as a "line of duty death" — and his name will be added to a permanent Canadian Fallen Firefighters Foundation memorial. 

Kevin MacPhail, Willard MacPhail's son, is one of about a dozen people from the Island headed to Ottawa for the ceremony in September. He said the recognition means a lot. 

"To have dad's work and sacrifice recognized, for me personally, and for my children to be able to see what their grandfather did, and how important it is to the community, to the province, and now nationally," said MacPhail. 

Kevin MacPhail, Willard MacPhail's son, says the recognition of his father's years of service means a lot to him, and believes it will mean a lot to Willard's grandchildren, who never got to meet him. (Jessica Doria-Brown/CBC )

The amendments to the act mean that for firefighters and inspectors, a number of cancers and conditions are now assumed to be related to their work.

For those still living there is new eligibility for WCB benefits, and for those who have already passed — new recognition of the sacrifice firefighters make to assist and protect their community. 

Times have changed

"Twenty, 30, 40 years ago there wasn't much education, there was just: go fight the fire and put on a pair of rubber boots and basically a raincoat and maybe a helmet if you had it," said North River Fire Chief Anson Grant. 

North River Fire Chief Anson Grant says back when the North River Fire Department got going in the 1960s, firefighters didn't have any of the protective gear they have today. (Jessica Doria-Brown/CBC )

It was his recommendation, along with letters of support from the town of Cornwall, the P.E.I. Firefighters Association, and the fire marshal's office, that secured Willard MacPhail's place among the line of duty deaths, which is tracked through the Canadian Fallen Firefighters Foundation. 

"It really brings it close to home when a member of your own department does pass away with a disease like this," said Grant. 

'It opens your eyes'

"It opens your eyes, it makes you more aware and to use those safety precautions and gear to protect yourself because it can happen."

Kevin MacPhail followed in his dad's footsteps and also became a volunteer firefighter with the North River Fire Department. He believes his father would be pleased to see greater acknowledgement of the long-term health effects firefighting can bring. 

Willard MacPhail will be honoured at a memorial service in Ottawa in September. (Submitted by Kevin MacPhail)

"He would have seen it as his responsibility, as someone going through cancer, to prevent younger firefighters from experiencing what he experienced," said Kevin MacPhail. 

"So very important for him to have that information made available, and to [increase] the awareness of the population in general of what we face and what firefighters are dealing with on a daily basis."

The North River Fire Department is also planning a monument of their own to honour Willard MacPhail — as well as other volunteers who have passed away since the station opened in 1965. 

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About the Author

Jessica Doria-Brown


Jessica Doria-Brown is a videojournalist with CBC in P.E.I. Originally from Toronto, Jessica has worked for CBC in Newfoundland & Labrador, New Brunswick, and Ontario.


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