One late afternoon in early April 2021, Stéphane Boudreau and Catherine Audet answered an emergency call for help.
Two canoeists were stuck in the frigid waters off the coast of Miguasha, Que., swimming for their lives.
That morning, Mathieu Bélanger and five friends had set out on a canoe trip on a sunny and calm Baie-des-Chaleurs.
But the bay turned stormy midday and the boaters were suddenly in trouble, Bélanger’s uncle, Pierre Bélanger, said.
“The wind picked up pretty fast and the canoe flipped and Mathieu and (a friend) were in the water — cold water, the water was at two degrees — could you imagine?” said Bélanger. “So they swam…. (But) they were stuck between the big waves, 10 to 12 feet high, and the cliff for hours.”
Although four of the canoeists made it to shore, Bélanger’s nephew and his friend Kelly-Ann Dickie, were stuck in the water beside the cliff until Boudreau and Audet rescued them.
“(Boudreau) heard the call from the emergency and right away answered,” said Bélanger.
The couple made it out to the cliff and rescued both canoeists, but Bélanger’s nephew, Mathieu, later died in hospital from hypothermia.
Bélanger remembers his nephew’s deep love of nature and the open water.
“I was in Toronto and they called me at night saying that Mathieu had an accident and he died and they said that he was rescued by Stéphane Boudreau,” Bélanger recalls. “Stéphane called me right away in the morning and just FaceTime me… And then he said to me, you know crying, ‘Pierre we did all the best that we could do.'”
A year and a half later, Bélanger says the community continues to mourn Mathieu’s loss. The ashes of the 39-year-old father of two were buried just last week.
As part of the effort to move forward, Bélanger says it was important for him to help Audet and Boudreau with the damages their boat suffered during the rescue.
“The boat was hitting the cliff,” said Bélanger. “It’s very sad you know after what they did, their punishment is to pay a bill of $40,000.”
Bélanger says Boudreau already paid $10,000 for some initial repairs. When he heard that the municipality would not pay for the damages as originally hoped, Bélanger organized a fundraiser through Go Fund Me.
So far they have raised more than $5,000.
“What they did, it was something that not too many people would do,” said Bélanger.
Recognized for their bravery
Weeks after the incident, Audet and Boudreau, both from Carleton-sur-Mer, Que., were awarded the Medal of the National Assembly for their act of bravery. They also received messages from Sûreté du Québec and the coast guard.
“The effort was amazing, absolutely amazing,” said Ted Savage, director of search and rescue for the Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary in the Gaspésie Bas-Saint-Laurent.
“A lot of emotion for us, those of us who do this (work) consistently and also some regret … Anyone who’s gone through something like that, there are lingering effects and it’s tough.”
Savage notes he has since become friends with Boudreau, after he became a member of their organization and trained with the rescue team.
“These are two people that are indicative of the very best of who we are and they responded to a challenge and put their own lives on the line. You just can’t do anything but admire that.”
The dangers of rescues close to shore
Savage, who is also a volunteer firefighter and an officer in charge of the Marine Rescue Unit says the rescue Audet and Boudreau responded to was particularly tricky.
“The difference between trying to deal with a rescue in-shore, close to shore and a rescue which is out on the sea, it’s kinda like summer tires (versus) winter tires, you really need the right thing for the job that you are trying to do,” said Savage.
“In cases like what I went through, which is not dissimilar to what Mr Boudreau went through, you make a decision to do your best,” he said.
“You do what you think you can do without getting yourself killed… In many cases, rescue services may not be available in the area that you go boating.”
Preventing tragedy moving forward
Savage notes that not every municipality has the capacity to offer water rescue services. He says it is “at the mercy” of local authorities and whether there are volunteer activities available.
“The vast majority, for example, of firefighters in our country and in Quebec are volunteers, 90 per cent. It’s the same for trying to cover a coastline,” said Savage.
“Like my responsibility is from the other side of Rivière-du-Loup around the corner to Gaspé and back to Carleton. It’s an impossible task. It can’t be done.”
In addition to education on water safety and best practices, Savage says there should be a willingness to develop partnerships locally to develop search and rescue resources.
“So that they can actually respond to something like this,” said Savage.
“Local partnerships like what we have in Rimouski, in Matane, in Gaspé, in Carleton, we enjoy tremendous support from our local authorities… And without that local support and injection of funding, it just wouldn’t happen. So there are recipes that work and they should be examined.”