A bow for Wally: 85-year-old fiddler pulls at the heartstrings of paramedics

A team of paramedics who responded to a routine call about a senior who had fallen ended up striking up an unlikely friendship with a spry 85-year-old in need of a new bow for his fiddle.

The B.C. Emergency Health Services paramedics were called to the room of Wally Firth at the end of September after he fell while reaching for his bow.

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When paramedics Daron McDonald and Gavin Aimoe and paramedic student Vihn Pham arrived at Firth’s room in The Glenshiel seniors’ residence, to find that Firth was not seriously injured, they learned the remarkable story of a man who has worked as a fur trader, a commercial pilot, a broadcaster, a member of Parliament, an Indigenous-rights advocate and a music teacher.

After regaling them with a few life stories, Firth played some pieces on his fiddle for the paramedics. After one, he quipped: “I’m 85 years old and I still don’t have a half-decent bow.”

Firth told the paramedics that other than the fiddle and bow, he has few personal possessions in his room because in his Métis culture, he was taught to give to people in need. Firth’s ­passion for music was palpable and the paramedics left wanting to help a man who, over the course of his life, had used music to spread joy to others.

McDonald said he and other paramedics visit care homes all the time, but because their call volume has increased so much, they often don’t have time to sit and chat with patients. That can be hard for patients, who have limited visitors due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.

“It’s not that we don’t want to stay and chat — we just don’t have time,” said McDonald, who has been a paramedic for 11 years. “It just turned out this guy had an amazing life story. We had this instant connection with him.”

Without using Firth’s name, McDonald posted a few details about the encounter and his desire to get a new bow for a man who lived and breathed music.

David Symons, the educational representative for Long & McQuade Musical Instruments, saw the post and sent a message to McDonald that said: “Is this request for Wally Firth?”

Symons has known Firth for 12 years, about as long as Firth has been in Victoria. He was a regular customer at the music store, buying instruments mostly to donate to people in need, particularly to musicians in the Northwest Territories.

“He truly gets unnoticed considering what he’s done for this country and everyone around him,” said Symons, who arranged for the paramedics to pick up a nice bow to give to Firth.

Firth often calls Symons when he wants to donate high-quality guitars, often given to him as gifts, to schools around Greater Victoria. “I’ve given away a lot of instruments,” Firth said.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, Symons had to tell Firth to hang onto the guitars until Long & McQuade could resume its student music program.

Several years ago, Symons tapped Firth to speak at his son’s career day at Spectrum Community School, knowing Firth’s exciting resume would intrigue students.

Firth was the first Indigenous politician from Canada’s North to win a seat in the House of Commons. He was first elected in 1972 as an NDP member of Parliament for the Northwest Territories and was re-elected in 1974. The prime minister at the time was Pierre Elliott Trudeau and the NDP leader was David Lewis.

Symons said that, as a high school student in Ottawa, he would see Firth in the House of Commons on television, wearing a cowboy hat and standing out from the other predominantly white politicians in three-piece suits.

Born Walter Firth on Jan. 25, 1935, in Fort McPherson, N.W.T., Firth started out working as a fur trader for the Hudson’s Bay Company, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. He remembers beginning as an apprentice, then being promoted to manager and posted in Wrigley, N.W.T. “That was the best year I ever spent in my life,” he said, noting he met amazing people in the fur trade.

He also worked as a radio host for the CBC in Yellowknife and as a commercial pilot.

“I owned three different airplanes at one time. I flew across Canada many times,” said Firth, sitting outside his seniors’ residence wearing a blue ­button-down shirt, a charcoal blazer and holding his violin and new bow. “I’ve had a crazy life.”

Firth said sometimes he would fly himself to Ottawa when the House of Commons was in session. He said when he was an MP for the Northwest Territories, he represented the largest riding in the world at 1,350,000 square miles.

Firth has no children, calling himself “an old bachelor,” and says he has been playing the fiddle for more than 70 years.

“It was a very important part of our culture,” he said.

He was inspired by his father — both would often play at community dance halls where people would dance the country waltz. “His whole body would get into the music,” Firth said of his father. “This style of music, you don’t learn to read music, it gets in the way. You need to learn the tune.”

Over the years, Firth has played the saxophone, piano and guitar, but said due to his age and sore limbs, the fiddle is the only instrument he still plays.

He was delighted when McDonald, Aimoe and three other paramedics showed up a few days after their first visit with the new bow. He played several songs for the ­paramedics and other residents in the seniors’ home.

“Oh man, I was so amazed at what they did,” he said. “Music has been very important to me all my life.”

kderosa@timescolonist.com

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