A Tofino fisher recently delivered a much-needed, delicious, donation to local firefighters who have been hit hard by the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
When Tofino Fire Chief Brent Baker ran into his friend Johnny Nikiforuk of Tonquin Fishing Charters last month, the pair had a socially-distanced conversation about the goings on in town, including the economic hardships brought by the absence of tourism in a tourism-based economy.
Following that discussion, Nikiforuk lived up to his locally legendary fishing reputation by teaming up with his partner Rhea Reimer and kids Makayla, 11, and Carter, 6, to pull a couple hundred pounds of fish out of the water and onto the tables of the local fire crew.
“I figured this was an easy route for me to donate something back for all their hard work,” Nikiforuk told the Westerly News. “It saves these people spending their last few cents on groceries and it just seems like something good to do.”
“It keeps the flow going and it’s how I was brought up. My dad gave everything he could and we’ll continue to give to friends and family and people like the fire department,” Nikiforuk said.
Baker told the Westerly that many of his crew own businesses and work in the town’s usually thriving tourism industry that has been wiped out so far this year by the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving roughly 90 per cent of the 26-member team unemployed.
“There are a lot of people without work right now…We’re doing what we can to take a few different steps to make sure folks have some food on the table and make life easier to pay some bills and those sorts of things,” he said. “I ran into Johnny and we were brainstorming ideas on how to put a bunch of food onto a bunch of peoples’ tables and give them one less thing to have to think about…When you can make life easier for people, you do it.”
He added that the fire department’s call volumes have been reduced by new provincial regulations stemming from the coronavirus, but the stress that comes with the possibility of being called to an emergency at a moment’s notice has increased.
“At this point right now, if that pager goes off, we have to think about a whole new set of possible repercussions: exposure and those sorts of things,” he said. “So, there’s definitely increased stress with that, but people are remaining very positive.”
He said he was looking forward to delivering Nikiforuk’s bounteous display of gratitude, processed through a philanthropic partnership with West Pacific Seafoods, to the members of his team whom he hasn’t seen in over five weeks as the crew has been unable to practice together due to social distancing requirements.
“It’s going to be an opportunity to connect with our extended family from a distance,” he said
“There’s not the same level of connection among the department. Our officers are creating training environments online to try to keep people engaged and continuing their learning while having to maintain our distance from one another as well as the fire hall.”
He added the donation was another example of a fire department that’s blessed with enormous support from its community.
“There’s a huge sense of pride for what we do. When somebody like Johnny steps up like this and offers their unwavering support, it really shows you that there are people out there that truly get what we do and the time commitments and the sacrifices that individuals on the fire department make for the community,” he said. “It’s really nice to have somebody come out and look after you the way that you are willing to look after others.”
He said he hopes Nikiforuk’s generosity swells a giving wave over Tofino.
“I threw a problem out there to somebody who had some ideas and they found a way to make it work…I’m hoping this will spark more ideas from other people on what they can do to help somebody else out, because we all need it. Many of us don’t like to ask for it, but now is the time where we can really support each other. Show us what you’ve got,” he said.
“This is Tuff City and this community is made up of incredibly strong, incredibly intelligent business owners and leaders. There’s lots of challenging things going on out there right now and, I think, when people hear stories of hope and support, it is contagious and it makes people want to go out and reassess what they’re doing on a daily basis and how they can support their neighbour or family member or coworker; either in person or over the phone.”
Nikiforuk expressed similar sentiments and said he was happy to have a reason to take his family out fishing.
“It was a good reason for us to go out there and have a great time,” he said, adding his daughter Makayla “was jumping for joy” when she pulled in a halibut.
“It’s an outdoorsy place. You can’t be sitting inside your house moping and waiting for the phone to ring or a reason to get out there, you just make a reason.”
The Tofino-born fisher grew up around his grandpa’s boat and had earned his 100 ton fishing masters by the time he was 19. He pursued a captains career running boats in Vancouver and fishing for salmon, urchin and herring up and down the coast for roughly five years before returning to Tofino where he worked for local barge company Wichito Marine.
He launched his own sportsfishing business in 2008 and began building up a list of satisfied clientele.
“It takes years to be fairly successful and fairly booked up, you don’t just get into the game and think that you’re going to stand by for the phone to ring,” he said.
He added that he stopped working on tugboats and focused exclusively on his charter business two years ago and his is one of many local businesses facing tough times navigating the tourist-void.
“It’s never too tough to give. We’re saving our pennies and we’ve made cutbacks wherever we can…We’re just looking forward to a partial season here, hopefully. People come from all over the world here to fish,” he said. “We’re really hoping the town’s going to start to get things rolling here because a lot of people are depending on it.”