[newsletter] December 2022: An Account of Unparalleled Resilience: 

Mike & Barb Irwin: Other Types of Heroes

The first version of this story was written in 2014 by Mike & Barb’s friend and photojournalist, Alyssa Lloyd.  There seemed to be a lot of interest in the story.  Early 2020 another friend, Heather Taylor, who also writes, agreed to help develop their story and expanded it to a more detailed version:

I.  Intro:
I first heard of Mike Irwin when my family and I were looking for someone to plough our cottage driveway in Harcourt Park. We have a 3-season cottage that we use like a 4-season cottage in the county of Dysart et al, Ontario. It was 2018. Before the pandemic. My husband Dave, armed with his mission of improving our long and tumultuous driveway so that it can withstand things like the weight of the honey truck and accommodate installation of a propane tank, set out along the cottage driveways adjacent to our property to introduce himself to a few neighbours and inquire about snow ploughing. Someone put Dave in touch with Mike.
Dave told me about this guy who lived nearby year-round and could remove the huge quantities of snow that fall on our driveway so that we don’t have to snowshoe ½ km with all our gear for winter weekends. Nice guy, Dave said, knowledgeable, and by the way he’s disabled. What do you mean by that, I asked?  Dave shrugged and told me Mike used to be a cop but got injured somehow at work.
The first time I met Mike, I didn’t get it either. Disabled is not what you think of when you meet him. Grizzly Adams, papa-bear, wise elder, friendly, helpful, strong. Surrounded by his dogs. Mike handled our driveway that winter, and the next year he helped us with a roofing project, backing his flatbed truck down our treacherous driveway and hauling away the shingles.

II.    Mike’s Story:

Growing up, I wanted to be a police officer like my father. I joined the Metropolitan Toronto Police Force in 1975 as a cadet when I was 18 years old. I married my high school sweetheart Barbara McDonald on September 17, 1977, attended Ontario Police College in 1978. When our son Michael was born in 1979, Barb and I acted on our desire to move out of Toronto to raise our family. I left the Toronto Police Force to join the OPP in 1980 and was posted to Hornepayne, Ontario which is in Algoma District, north of Sault Ste. Marie and Wawa. Our daughter Stephanie was born in 1981.

On April 2, 1982, the morning of my 25th birthday, my partner and I chased five youths on foot into the deep snow of a wooded area. They had stolen a truck and some money at a gas station (Mooseland Esso) and then robbed the paraplegic gas bar owner. My partner was a young recruit. We apprehended two of the youths, and I left them with my partner while I chased the others into the bush. The crust of snow and ice supported them but when I got to the tree line it was a different story. The ice gave way and I fell several feet onto a frozen tree branch. I landed on my knees. My thigh bones crushed my kneecaps from inside.

The recruit radioed for help. Two cruisers left from Hearst Detachment. It took them about an hour and a half to get to us. By then I had crawled back to the cruiser and positioned it so we could watch the area in case the other 3 youths came out of the woods. Once the cruisers arrived, the youths did come out and surrendered to those officers, and the two we had arrested were also turned over. I went to the local hospital as my knees were about the size of basket balls. The first diagnosis was severe bruising. After a few days of icing and the swelling not receding, further investigation led to a less favorable diagnosis.

My fall left me with crushed kneecaps. The prognosis from Dr. Remus in Thunder Bay was that I would never walk again. At 25 years of age, I was not ready to hear this. I returned to active duty two months later, in June 1982. Giving up or stopping is not in my make-up. I always move forward, sometimes not very fast but always forward. That year, 1982, threw Barb and I quite a few challenges. Barb was only 24, a mother of two youngsters, when she required major surgery to save her kidney. Barb and I are two of a kind though, and between the two of us, we kept our family moving forward to our goals.

In 1983, I transferred to Napanee. Michael was ready to start school, and Barb and I wanted to be closer to her family’s cottage in Harcourt Park. We had a dream of owning a small hobby farm. We bought a property in Napanee with nine acres. We were planning to have horses!

Two months after the transfer once again I had to visit my doctor. This time they discovered cancer; I was told to get my affairs in order as things were not good.  I opted for an experimental surgery that took eight hours, removing a testicle and most of my abdominal lymph nodes. I consider myself “lucky” as I didn’t have to have radiation or chemo treatment.  After some time off work, once again I returned to active duty. 

In 1984, age 27, doctors ordered me out of active duty. It was time. That was an awfully hard decision to accept – being on the road as a police officer was my career plan, and my calling but I was becoming a risk to co-workers due to ongoing consequences from the knee injuries.  In 1985 I was seconded to Ontario Police College in Aylmer, Ontario for a one-year position, as a Firearms instructor. Barb and I sold the Napanee property and purchased another small hobby farm near Aylmer. It was perfect for us, a wonderful place to raise our children. Each year for seven years my secondment was renewed. However, in 1992 my long term secondment to the Ontario Police College ended.  I was pleased to secure a permanent Firearms Instructor position in August of that year.

By 1993, age 36, a wheelchair was now needed and, in time, an electric scooter to allow me to get around work. In the fall of 1995 due to further deterioration of my knees and recognizing the potential risk to others I voluntarily removed myself from teaching firearms. My time was spent helping where I could and rewriting the firearms training manual. A short time later, because of a change in College administration, I was offered a contract to a training position with more flexible hours at the courthouse in London, Ontario. I took the position, and commuted from Aylmer for this work.

By August of 1998, at age 41, I could no longer tolerate the stress of a regular workday. The doctors indicated that “enough was enough”, my body was giving up, and the doctors’ verdict was clear: slow down or jeopardize future health and shorten your life expectancy. The only options offered were Long Term Disability and then Canada Pension disability. In 2000, following a Workplace Safety and Insurance Appeals Tribunal hearing, I resigned from the Ontario government with an undisclosed settlement. It meant I had to give up all medical and insurance benefits that would normally be extended into retirement for police officers and drawing a reduced pension rather than contributing to it. We sold our Aylmer area hobby farm in 2003 and moved to Barb’s parents’ cottage in Harcourt Park which we renovated to make our home.

III.   Fast-forward fifteen years
This is where I meet Mike and Barb – at Harcourt Park, where they were living in their beautiful lakeside property. They had renovated it so creatively and cozily it has been profiled in Cottage Life magazine. One of its features, a massive beam running the length of the large country kitchen, had come from the barn on the Aylmer home.  For a visitor, the cottage was a delight to engage with, clean and comfortable, full of curiosities, home-cooking, happy dogs. I admired the way accessible solutions had been found and engineered by Barb and Mike themselves.
But it was time for another move, and my husband Dave was helping with the design and drawings. So while I hung around at design meetings, and helped Barb and Mike with their packing, I started to hear about these events from years past. With a background in the legal profession, I’ve read often the anguished experiences of people disabled in workplace injuries and motor vehicle accidents. The “solutions” offered by insurance companies, unions, and employers seem rigid and formulaic, and as if the formula were devised without any reference to the real experiences of those disabled. They lack the creativity required to help good people remain in the workforce, depriving many of the dignity and sense of worth found there.

IV.   Barb’s story:

 An adventurer’s spirit! There’s no doubt that Barb’s determination and creative solution-finding ability are an integral part of the successful life this inspiring couple have crafted for themselves. Barb’s a homemaker extraordinaire when I first met her, pulling batches of sinfully good brownies from the Elmira stove in her Harcourt Park home, grilling inch thick steaks, directing dog traffic, and providing detailed design guidance to the architect on plans for the construction of their next home, all at the same time!  Barb was a hands-on partner in the design/build of the renovations to the Harcourt Park cottage in the early 2000s. She told me she realized that her skills as a seamstress and menswear tailor translated into useful home construction and design skills, and she put them to work.

Barb’s first job was at age 16 as a teller for the Bank of Nova Scotia. She laughs, telling me that was in the days your bank balance was handwritten into your bank book. After high school, she continued to work for the bank, and stayed there until pregnant with her first child, named Michael William after his grandfathers.

Her employment experiences include frozen meat sales, running an alteration business then being asked to apprentice at a Menswear store in Aylmer, bookkeeping, Funeral Director’s assistant obtaining her qualifications as a grief counsellor, and office assistant to a Pet Behaviourist. She found work that would fit into her schedule that already included raising Michael and Stephanie on a hobby farm while assisting husband Mike with the challenges confronting him as a disabled police officer. At that point, Barb and Mike were very actively lobbying for disabled Canadians, promoting a focus on adaptation, and finding ways to continue meaningful participation in activities of living and working on farms.

Barb is the only child of William Henry and Dorothy Gwen McDonald.  Gwen was a secretary until Barb was born, and as a homemaker she was active in volunteering with senior’s organizations and the Red Cross. Bill was a numismatist – a specialist in currency. I suspect some of Barb’s adventurer’s spirit comes from her Dad. He liked starting things. He was a venture capitalist who founded the Canadian Paper Money Society, and the Canadian Commercial Bank. In 1949, he took a job in Ottawa with the Bank of Canada, and after that moved to Toronto to work at the Bank of Nova Scotia. Following that, he co-founded Boyd, Stott and McDonald Technologies Inc. Morguard. He finished his career at Bank of Canada, when they asked him to come back and fix a substantial issue with the bank. All of this from someone who never finished grade 8. His understanding of numbers was instinctual.

In high school, Barb played the flute, and recalls playing in the band at Mike’s high school commencement when he graduated two years before her. She knew Mike as a guy who was always hanging out in Chemistry class dressed in work boots, jeans, t-shirt and beard, and a friend of an earlier boyfriend. Soon after that relationship ended, Mike asked Barb for a date. He was a cadet on the Toronto Police then. He brought dinner over the Friday night of a long weekend, and on the Sunday announced they should get married. Barb accepted on the Wednesday!

V.   Mike’s Story:

In school, I did well in math, and science. I skipped a grade in junior school and admit the regimented setting of school was not really for me, thus the choice to join the police force immediately following my completion of grade 13.

When I was fourteen, my father was killed in the line of duty. It was early Saturday morning, February 27, 1972 – over 50 years ago now. I spent that night at my Aunt’s house. I often visited as a teen in order to be around the horses, and the experiences there inspired me to want a property with horses, away from the City. I remember waking to the transistor radio speaking of a police shooting at an apartment building near my home in Toronto. Two men were dead, a criminal and a police detective, while another police detective was fighting for his life. Detective Michael Irwin. My Dad. Within twelve hours, he died from his injuries – a gunshot wound to his head.

I find pictures of my fourteen-year old self looking back at me from the pages of newspapers from time to time, on anniversaries of the murders or when there’s been another Ontario officer killed in the line of duty. This summer when Toronto police constable Jeffrey Northrup was shot and killed in a downtown parking garage my mother was interviewed once again, and there was a grainy old picture of me walking behind my father’s coffin at his funeral those many years ago, my sister to my right and my mother and younger brothers ahead of me. In the police community, we promise to never forget those killed in the line of duty.

My father was 38 years old when he died, father to four, and friend to many. A good role model.  He and his partner responded to a call about an intoxicated male who had been firing shots at cars on the DVP from an overlooking apartment building. The event is described in painstaking detail in a February 24, 1973 article in The Canadian Magazine. A party at the perpetrator’s house, with the perp’s behaviour becoming more concerning as the evening progressed. Drinks flowing, a gun brandished, although friends thought it must just be an air rifle. When my father and his partner responded, the assailant stepped out and fired at them.  The third officer engaged in a chase, and ultimately shot the perpetrator in the apartment stairwell.

This left my mother alone to raise four children: Cathy age 16, me age 14, John age 12 and Stephen age 11. She had a pension fixed in 1972 dollars to raise them.  She realized she would have to take a job that would seriously impede her ability to care for her still grieving children, or, engage in a battle with the government to achieve cost of living increases to the pension for police widows and widowers. She chose the latter, to her great credit, and to the benefit of those widowed partners of police officers who came after her.

Along with my father and me, many other family members have served to protect the citizens of Ontario. I have brothers (one retired now), nieces, nephews and cousins working for the OPP, Toronto, York Region and other Police Services throughout Ontario. My sister was a civilian employee of both the Toronto Police Service and the OPP, and my brother-in-law was an RCMP officer (retired). We are part of this segment of society that goes to work every day for the good of everyone else, often putting our own lives or health at risk. Police officers are often undervalued until there is a problem that nobody else can or will deal with.

One good thing that comes with age is the wisdom that comes from all the experience life throws at you. My wife Barb and I have had a good life so far, despite the challenges. We’ve been successfully married for 45 years, we have a supportive circle of family and friends including healthy kids and grandkids. So far, the toughest thing for me to confront was not being able to work since the age of 43. This did not suit my workaholic nature. It has been a struggle to get by with a reduced income from pension and has depleted our savings. While most of my peers were still paying into a pension, I was drawing out of mine. 

Since my injury in 1982 there’s always been a need to advocate for myself: for appropriate work, for workplace accessibility, for compensation for the cost of renovations to our home. I calculate I’ve lost several hundred thousand dollars in lost income, and had many other out-of-pocket expenses including legal fees, travel costs, carrying costs on renovations to make my house barrier-free which took years to recover from WSIB.

VI.   In 2018:
Barb and Mike made the decision to sell their Harcourt Park home, it’s rugged and remote location presenting increasing challenges for Mike, and the ongoing financial pressures of disability favouring a downsizing. They purchased a property next to their son and daughter-in-law and commissioned a pre-fabricated home which they have added to with lift, ramp and a large car-port to accommodate for Mike’s scooter to move around the property inside and out. It’s a retirement of sorts, for Barb and Mike both in their 60s now, although they are energetic and active as usual – helping out their children and grandchildren and spreading wisdom and support to their circle of friends.
Having their son and daughter-in-law right next door would greatly support the unknown future ahead of them as they age and face potential health deterioration. Or that was the plan until on December 03, 2021 the next heart wrenching challenge was the very unexpected death of their son from a rare illness.  Once again life threw Barb and Mike a truly difficult curve, they understand death is part of the circle of life but the death of a child is not the expected natural order.  Loss is loss for everyone who experiences it, it requires time to adjust.  As Barb said, it is like waves on the ocean, there are all sizes and heights, you ride them out as best you can.  Mike agrees and adds it is important to move forward every day, even if it is like molasses going up hill on a glacier in January.  This will cause them to re-work their plan both for physical/emotional support and financial as they move forward.  Their daughter and her family live not too far from them, so the plan is stay where they are. 
Living remotely without the ability to drive caused another change, this time for their daughter-inlaw. In September 2022, they are helping her to ready her and Michael’s home for sale.  One more major adjustment to be made for Barb and Mike as life moves on.

VII.  Another Kind of Hero:

Being a police officer was the job that I chose.  I was happiest on the road. I’ve always loved helping people. I willingly accepted the Oath of Office as a police officer, to serve and protect. I always tried to perform my duties to the best of my ability, in a fair and unbiased manner.  The role of police officer requires one to face and do things that most people would not imagine in their worst nightmares. To perform their duties, officers must be able to put aside personal feelings and face their own mortality when they plunge deep into situations most people would run from. When a fellow officer is killed, it is a blatant reminder to all officers of their own mortality and a reminder to their loved ones of their biggest fears.

This may sound harsh but nevertheless I need to say it: after an officer is killed in the line of duty, his or her family will be looked after for a short term but will then be put aside by the police community until the next time an officer is killed. At that time, because of the reminder, there will be a short outpouring of sympathy and reaching out to the families of the slain officers. We remind ourselves those lost are not forgotten, dredging up old images of solemn funeral ceremonies as if that’s what the family of slain officers need: to be held crystallized in grief. When probably what was needed was more practical – financial support to raise children, and friendly phone calls and invitations to dinner not just in the weeks but in the long lonely stretch of months and years ahead.  

In my experience, the situation confronting an officer injured in the line of duty, and his family, can be even worse. If the officer can return to duty they will be welcomed back into the fold. If the injury allows them to perform light duties, they will be back but usually in a less visible role, so other officers will not have the constant reminder of their own vulnerability. Severely injured officers will be shunned by their former colleagues, and in addition will suffer the indignity of having to engage in an adversarial system to obtain compensation for their losses. Policing is a way of life, with a strong feeling of camaraderie amongst all police officers worldwide. The loss of this sense of belonging in this community can be as devastating as the injuries themselves. Right when you really need support, to help cope with the injuries and rehabilitation, the increased stress, and financial worries, you find yourself alone facing the unknown.  My motivation for putting my experience down on paper is not to criticize active officers, but to shed light on what happens beyond the line of fire, with the hope we can all individually and collectively provide better support to the bereaved and injured, to help them move into their changed lives in the best way possible.

VII.  Unparalleled Resilience:

(This note added by family friend Thornley Bay when she did the final edit September 21, 2022)

 Life has it’s ups and downs for most of us, sometimes an incapacitating event will occur that takes time and support to recover from.
In looking at the 45 years that Mike and Barb have shared, (and going back to Mike at 14 years old losing his father to a violent crime) one has to observe that their journey has been far more tumultuous on an unblazed trail than any of us will ever have to endure. How fortunate for us.
The fact that they still move forward at all, let alone with the resilience, determination and perseverance that is second nature to them, is a testament to the people that they are. Their lives have been gruellingly tough, but never have they acted as a victim.
The strength, selflessness and fortitude that they display, along with their positive and rational approach to life should be a guiding light to the rest of us.
Not everyone will have the good fortune to experience these kind souls first-hand and call them friends, but everyone can benefit from their story of unparalleled resilience and optimism. Their story is far from over, but we can all hope that the road ahead is smooth and clear.