What Capt. Steve Letourneau means to the firefighters he worked with for 35 years was evident Tuesday as more than 200 men and women in uniform jammed into Vancouver city hall to pay tribute to their colleague.
They were there to see the 58-year-old veteran receive a service medal from Mayor Kennedy Stewart and celebrate a career that ended unexpectedly four-and-a-half years ago.
Cancer is always unexpected.
As he shared in his speech—often pausing to recompose himself as he did—Letourneau was diagnosed with work-related colorectal cancer Nov. 6, 2014. The disease has now spread to his spine and is attacking his kidneys.
But you wouldn’t know he was in ill health from looking at him Tuesday as he stood proudly in his uniform at a lectern in the council chamber next to the mayor.
His wife, his parents and relatives looked on from the gallery, as did the councillors from their chairs and many firefighters in the balcony and lobby, including Fire Chief Darrell Reid.
Letourneau smiled more than he broke down as he spoke.
Still, the news he delivered was heartbreaking.
“My doctors have deemed me as palliative—in other words, terminal,” he said.
One doctor, he continued, said he has months to live. Another said the fact he was still able to walk was a great sign. One other said that everyone has an expiration date.
“With that being said, I’m not here to wimp and whine,” he said, before recognizing the efforts of late Vancouver firefighter Robert Hall in fighting for compensation for firefighters diagnosed with cancer. Hall died of job-related cancer in 2007.
“Many fellow brothers and sisters—firefighters—have received treatments and benefits because of Capt. Robert Hall’s sacrifice. I, myself, am one of them.”
Letourneau, who worked at all 20 firehalls in the city, said he was fortunate to have two families—the one at home and the one at the fire department.
He said despite his diagnosis, and many of the dark days that ensued, he has kept a sense of optimism and humour from what he described as the outpouring of love and prayers.
He went on to tell a story that he thinks explains him quite well.
“I’m like the poor soul who falls off of a tall building. Each floor goes by and a person leans out and asks, ‘How you doing?’ At each floor, when asked, I smile and say, ‘I’m doing alright, so far.’”
The moral of the story, he said, is: “Smile. Enjoy every moment because, well, you never know how tall your building is.”
He received a standing ovation.
Reid spoke next, saying he was proud to be fire chief of a city that honours people and their families the way Letourneau was being recognized at city hall.
Reid said the tribute wasn’t necessarily to honour how long Letourneau worked, but the way he worked. Letourneau was a member of the fireboat and heavy rescue teams and a respected officer, he said.
“Steve, all your brothers and sisters are jamming this building today because of the way you did those things,” he said, noting other firefighters described him as smart, a great firefighter, awesome officer, witty, tough, strong and brave.
He was also known as a prankster and comedian and “a person with really long stories.” That brought laughs. There was more laughter at his nickname as a hockey player—“No Leftourneau,” because he could only turn right on his skates.
Robert Weeks of the Vancouver Firefighters’ Union told the crowd Letourneau is the department’s most experienced and longest serving firefighter.
In that time, Weeks said, Letourneau made many peoples’ days better.
“Capt. Letourneau you have given the most significant sacrifice to our family and our community,” he said. “I’m honoured to call you a brother. I’m even more honored to call you a friend.”
In the lobby after the ceremony, Letourneau said he was overwhelmed by the support of his colleagues, who stuck around to shake his hand, embrace him and thank him for his service.
“It was very uplifting for me,” he said, as more firefighters waited to speak to him. “To see them take precious time out of their day and lives to come here to honour my medal award is touching. And it just reaffirms that I made the right choice to join a team that thinks so much of each other.”
Letourneau said he wouldn’t dissuade anyone interested in becoming a firefighter, including a nephew who is close to being hired. Letourneau said the training, including decontamination after a fire, and the equipment is getting better.
“I’ve explained to him that there are serious consequences to your choices,” he said. “I never thought it would be me, but it is me who has cancer. I really have no regrets. I’ve been dealt a bad hand. But in general, it’s been a great, great ride.”