There are two images that are most likely to come into your head when thinking about St. Albert’s Victor Fernandez: the firefighter and the community activist behind Canadian Aid for Fire Services Abroad or CAFSA.
Both of those are apt but there’s one image from his life’s photo album that probably would take many by surprise.
“I was a ski bum,” he stated. “Every opportunity that I had, I took it.”
As a young man still living in his native Santiago de Chile, he would travel the long distance to Alberta’s mountain ranges. “We have reverse seasons. When it’s summer here, it’s winter in Chile. We go back and forth.”
The 57-year-old doesn’t ski much any more, however, preferring to focus his energies on his charity’s endeavours. All of that time spent in downhill sports must have prepared him in some way for all of the uphill battles that he’s had to face since then.
He was born Victor Hugo Fernández Meyer to a Spanish father and a German mother. He took his name from the famous French Romantic author of Les Misérables and Notre-Dame de Paris (known in English as The Hunchback of Notre Dame). His mother loved the writing so much that she insisted on paying tribute to him through Victor. Those stories of maintaining one’s noble dignity and triumph over adversity certainly have infused themselves in his character.
Nothing has ever come easy for the ever-humble Fernández but he has a seemingly indomitable spirit to keep working at whatever comes his way. His childhood education was at the prestigious Internado Nacional Barros Arana private boarding school in Santiago. Despite the rigidity, he graduated with more than just his education; he earned some major life lessons from it too.
“It was very structured. I was exposed to discipline … very early in my age. You still have to function.”
He has indeed mastered the art of functioning, conceiving and achieving lofty goals within such structured environments. Being a firefighter, after all, means a life full of rules and regulations. Even though he retired from active duty last May, he has spent his entire adult life working to save lives around the world, and he has never stopped.
St. Albert Fire Chief Ray Richards said that the gap left in his departure has been noticeable.
“Victor was with us for 30-plus years. Any time somebody with that kind of experience and knowledge leaves the department, it’s always missed.”
The call of duty
Fernández remembered that service to others was something he first saw in his own family.
“My grandfather was a fire chief in a small town. I used to wear his firefighter helmet. He took me to his fire station,” he recalled. “I never thought I would be a firefighter but then I grew up and thought, ‘I want to do this.'”
He started as a volunteer firefighter with Company #18 in Santiago. ‘Bomberos’ must finance their own buildings, equipment and training. In fact, they also must pay monthly dues to their stations. This insight stayed with him throughout his years, inevitably leading him to start his charity.
He founded CAFSA 14 years ago by arranging for the donation of two helmets. Over the years, he has managed the acquisition and transportation of millions of dollars worth of donated firefighting equipment, including gear and trucks, to countries all around the world. It’s all about honour and doing what’s right.
“Do unto others as you would have it done unto you,” he often says. This is the English version of the Latin motto ‘Ab Alio Spectes Alteri Quod Feceris’ that can now be seen on his coat of arms, bestowed on him and his family last year by the Canadian Heraldic Authority to forever signify Fernández’s honour code and the strength of his family.
Education is also a very important part of what this man does in his work and in his life. He has a masters degree in sociology. He speaks four languages including Spanish, English, French and “a little Portuguese.” He loves that his children – daughter Balbina and son Vincent – are taught in this country’s two official languages, and still have Chile’s native language to come home to.
“It’s very important to me because you look at the future, these kids will have the whole world. My greatest gifts to the world are my kids.”
But the man doesn’t simply strive to learn; he’s also committed to teaching. He also travels on his own dime to train the firefighters who receive CAFSA’s donations to make sure that everything and everyone gets the respect that they deserve. Fernández doesn’t just deliver the goods … he makes sure that they get used well.
“I do not do things for personal profit, but for personal growth, which is my profit.”
“Victor was always very good about ‘no sense giving you equipment if you don’t know how to use it,'” Richards said. “If you think about it, not only did they get the equipment … they also got the much-needed training. You can’t even measure the difference he’s made in these communities’ safety.”
Safety and concern for others have always been his priorities.
It was back in the mid-1990s when he first met his wife, Marlenys. He was the fire chief for the isolated Moa Nickel mine in Cuba and she was the civil engineer in charge of the plant. He was chosen to establish a 24-hour emergency medical and fire system for the mine area, including teaching and supervising more than 30 emergency workers in the emergency medical responder course. They would be responsible for the safety of more than 2,000 employees at the site.
“She wouldn’t talk to anybody. I told the guys, ‘she will talk to me.’ I am very proud of that project. I put on rescue, two fire trucks and an ambulance, finished the project, took the money, took the girl, and ran!”
He brought her to St. Albert, his home now for more than three decades. Together, they have an immaculate home filled with many beautiful pieces of art and his collection of memorabilia.
But he never stopped faithfully serving the community the whole time, and not just this community. “I work for the citizens,” he said. “My home is Earth.”
After Moa and his early experiences with Company #18, he figured out a solution to helping more people than he ever thought possible. He started CAFSA essentially as a massive recycling and non-governmental humanitarian aid effort all rolled up into one. It’s a win-win setup that still requires a monumental amount of energy to keep going.
“When creating something, you have to step up.”
Step up indeed. His new project has thrown him a challenge that he’s never had to face before. CAFSA is preparing a shipment of equipment plus three fire trucks to Bolivia. The project is in a bit of a holding pattern because Bolivian law won’t allow the vehicles, as they are more than 20 years old. This is not a setback to Fernández; it’s only another challenge. He’s working with that country’s government to change the law to allow the donations to pass through.
It is not a quick process.
“It’s slow. I’m a hopeful kind of guy. At least we can sit down and say we tried. To change history, you don’t change it from one day to another,” he said, later adding, “I always did my best, my very best. I never quit.”
There have been numerous missions over the years. No one can calculate the people that have been helped or saved along the way.
Even though he’s retired from the fire department, he isn’t one to slow down. He’s now employed with Superior Project Management Services, the company that has offered warehouse space to CAFSA ever since it had to vacate its previous offices at the city’s former RCMP station.
Cameron Quilliam, the company’s president, said that he saw the need and he knew that he could fill that need. Helping Victor is like helping millions.
“He’s doing some fantastic work. He’s just a very honourable man. That’s one of the reasons that we’re doing what we can to donate some warehouse space to make that happen for him. I fully intend to be supporting it for quite awhile because I think he’s doing great things. We all need to do what we can to help out.”
He added that this city’s firefighters often have schedules that leave room open for second jobs.
“Victor never did that. His second job was CAFSA. He was out there trying to better the world and collect up this fire equipment that, in Canada, is just junk.”
Fernández never sees junk, only value that’s still hidden. It’s all about respecting the world and the people who live in it. He learned early on in his life that doing good starts from being good.
“Honour for me is very important. It comes over everything. You can’t buy it. You can’t go to school to get it. If you come from a family with love as the main objective, you do lovely things. That’s what I’m trying to teach the kids.”