Vimy Grant, 14, died as the sun set on the first Friday in July.
Prince of Wales Bridge.
Prince of Wales Bridge.
Vimy wanted to play hockey for the Calgary Flames, but he had recently taken an interest in architecture. At other times in his life, he had talked about being a paleontologist, police office and race car driver.
Vimy first met his dachshund, Chesil, at the hockey rink two years ago. His parents brought the dog to the rink as a surprise.
A fenced off section of the Prince of Wales Bridge.
A fence at the Prince of Wales Bridge.
The Prince of Wales Bridge.
Five of Vimy’s friends, Theo, Felix, Jackson, Louis and Sam, all had red and black Vs tattooed on their ankles in honour of Vimy.
Vimy was close to his younger sister, Isla, 6, and would often watch children’s movies with her nestled together on the couch.
A boy full of mirth and mischief, kindness and confidence, Vimy Grant died as the sun set on the first Friday in July: He leapt into the water from the Prince of Wales Bridge and never resurfaced. His family and friends are now trying to come to terms with that terrible accident – and navigate their river of grief.
• • •
The city buzzed with the energy of a young summer’s evening.
A trio of friends — Vimy, Theo and Jackson — biked towards the Ottawa River to celebrate the first summer weekend in style. It was Friday, July 3 rd . The sun was high, heat was still radiating from the sidewalks, and the boys were happy to be together after so much COVID-enforced distance.
For three months, the pandemic had robbed the 14-year-olds of their adolescent lifestyles. Hockey, high jinks, school and sleepovers had been replaced by Zoom classes and online gaming.
It felt good to be on their bikes again, checking out girls, exploring the city.
They met more friends and decided to watch the sun go down from the Prince of Wales Bridge, a rusty rail crossing that has long been a magnet for intrepid teens.
“It was something to do when everything’s closed,” says Theo.
The City of Ottawa had fenced off entrances to the out-of-service bridge and warned people to stay away. But it just made the adventure that much sweeter.
The boys knew where to find holes in the fence on Lemieux Island. They pedalled to their secret spot and clambered onto the bridge. Its deck offered a panoramic view of the shining city.
They walked onto the north span that connects the island with Gatineau, and watched as a man dove, again and again, from the bridge into the river.
At some point, almost all teenage boys test their courage, take a leap into the unknown: in a schoolyard, at a hockey rink, on a bridge. They take more even risks, the research shows, when they’re with friends.
And while almost all adolescents will make a few bad decisions, almost all will be lucky enough to survive.
Vimy Grant was not one of them.
• • •
Vimy was named for the First World War battle that forms a vital chapter in the story of Canada.
His father, a Calgary-born member of the British marines, chose his son’s name to honour all those young soldiers who died at Vimy Ridge. “Ten or 15 years ago, a lot of people had forgotten about the First War,” says Justin Grant, a veteran of tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Vimy Stuart Grant was born Feb. 21, 2006, in Dorchester, England, near the family’s home on the country’s south coast.
Eilis Grant liked the strength of her son’s name, the way it knitted him to Canada. “I’ve never met another Vimy,” she says.
Justin and Eilis had known each another since junior high in Calgary, but their marriage fell apart the year after Vimy was born. Still, they made decisions as a family, and seven years ago, they converged on Ottawa.
Vimy was an easy child who loved dogs and people, nature and Hot Wheels. He collected stamps and coins and hockey cards. “Everybody said we’d have trouble with him as a teenager because he was so easy as a child. But we never did,” says Eilis.
In Ottawa, he went to a French-language public school, Omer-Deslauriers, for Grades 7 and 8. He was a popular student given to mischief: He liked to throw pens and rulers under the door of a neighbouring class to get a rise out of the teacher and entertain his classmates.
He was also unusually thoughtful. He sent his homeroom teacher, Madame Sara, an email in June at the end of this school year. “I just wanted u to know that I rlly appreciate that u took the time to help me, especially after school,” he wrote in text shorthand. “It rlly helped me and got me threw a few tests that weren’t even math or science. I don’t think I could have done it without you.”
Teacher Sara Jambakhsh says Vimy worked hard in Grade 8 after transferring into the demanding international baccalaureate program. She was touched by his note. “I saw him mature,” she says. “He was very special.”
Vimy was big for his age, 6-feet tall, with a strong nose, a broad smile and shoulder-length hair. His glorious hockey hair was often the subject of friendly jibes. Last Christmas, as soon as Vimy walked into his aunt’s Calgary home, his cousin Mason fired a broadside.
“You look like a girl,” Mason said.
Vimy didn’t miss a beat: “You look like an elf,” he told his much shorter cousin.
His friend Felix Smith saw Vimy only once without long hair, at summer camp. “I never noticed how humongous your nose was,” Felix told him. Vimy just laughed.
Outgoing and confident, Vimy was the kind of teen who looked adults in the eye and engaged them. “He was comfortable in his own skin,” says Duane Smith, Felix’s father. “You could carry on a conversation with him.”
He could also talk a blue streak. Once, while serving a four-minute penalty with his friend, Jackson, he was still in the box, talking, when the other team scored 20 seconds after the penalty expired.
Vimy loved soccer, football, martial arts and basketball, but hockey was his passion. He held court in the dressing room and loved throwing his body around on the ice. He was always smiling no matter how tense the situation.
“He never had a down day,” says his Bantam B coach, Mark O’Connor, of the Ottawa West Golden Knights. “If it was snowing outside, he’d find a reason why that was great. If we were running a 10K, he’d find a reason why that was a good idea.”
He’d do anything for his teammates: confront an opponent taking liberties in front of the net or stand in a garbage can to make them laugh. His friends liked leaning their sticks on the back of his oversized hockey pants, which would drop to the ice like a lead weight. Teammates gravitated to him.
“I think, inside, everyone wanted to be a bit like Vimy: that relaxed guy who could let go of their anxieties,” O’Connor says.
Other hockey parents marvelled at the way Vimy would hug his mother and father at the rink — right in front of his adolescent peers. He didn’t seem to care what anyone thought.
“He was always a very, very affectionate child,” says his mother.
Like other boys his age, Vimy was part man, part child. He had only recently stopped sleeping with his stuffed bear, Teddy, and moved it to a shelf, Justin says. This year, father and son started going to the gym together, and would often spend evenings at Napoli’s Restaurant, where they’d eat pizza, watch hockey and socialize with the regulars. The manager, Cathy, called Vimy “the boy with the golden smile.”
In March, the COVID-19 lockdown forced Vimy’s life online. He often stayed up late playing Fortnite with his friends. Eilis could hear him talking until four in the morning on Houseparty, a group video app.
When social restrictions eased in May, Vimy and his friends spent every day together as if to make up for lost time.
They played basketball at Felix’s house, threw the football around at the beach, and set off on aimless adventures: They would sometimes take a bus just to see where it went. “Even if we got lost, it was still fun,” says Theo.
Once, they decided to visit a girl in South Keys, but they missed their bus because Vimy was checking himself out in the mirror for 20 minutes while trying on hoodies. The boys had to walk six kilometres to connect with another bus.
“He was kind of a numnuts, but it made us laugh,” says Theo. “It was part of his charm.”
The boys slagged each other mercilessly. Vimy always reminded his friends that he was in the international baccalaureate program, which made him smarter. They would turn it over on him anytime he did something dumb. “Vim,” they’d say, “I thought you were in the IB program .”
The boys had to be careful because Vimy was still the strongest and could exact punishment. “We didn’t want him coming after us,” says Felix. “We’d run away screaming: He’d chase you and tackle you.”
Vimy never gave his parents reason to worry. They never saw any sign of drugs or alcohol in his life. He was happy. He was open. “He was honest and we trusted him,” says Eilis.
His curfew moved from 9:15 to 9:30 to 10 p.m. as he proved himself reliable. “Sometimes he was breaking a sweat to get in the door on time,” says Eilis, “but he always made it.”
Like all those with teenagers, Vimy’s parents sought to balance freedom and safety. “I didn’t like him being out on his own,” Justin says, “but I had that dilemma: If you let them do their own thing, they’re going to be stronger for it.”
Justin was worried enough that he quietly spied on Vimy and his friends one evening at Westboro Beach in the early summer. “I sat on the hill and watched them from afar: It was all good-natured fun.”
Westboro Beach was a regular destination for the boys. They’d end up there most nights to swim and to hang out. They bought a $25 inflatable raft from Walmart and took it out into the bay. Two of the boys could fit, but three would sink it.
“It was actually pretty successful,” says Theo.
Early in the summer, one of their friends introduced them to the bridge. The boys explored the tracks and watched as people, young and old, plunged into the river from its deck. Some climbed to the top of the superstructure and jumped.
“Oh yeah, no thanks,” Theo remembers saying to his friends.
But the next time they visited the bridge, the boys were not so awed by its heights: Theo and Jackson both jumped from the top.
Adolescent boys are walking, talking paradoxes. They’re brilliant and foolish, thoughtful and impulsive. They can exude bravado and insecurity in equal measure. They can pretend that what their friends say doesn’t matter when nothing matters more. They can risk their lives while fretting about curfew.
Vimy was scared of spiders — he hated going into his own basement — and didn’t like high places. But he wanted to jump from the top of the bridge.
Vimy tried to convince Felix to go up with him. “He wanted to do it with me, but I would never do that,” says Felix. “I’m terrified of heights. Just walking on the bridge, I would be terrified. Vim was scared of heights as well. I think that’s the main reason he wanted to do it with me.”
Vimy would later tell his friends he was determined to conquer the challenge of the bridge.
• • •
The Prince of Wales Bridge no longer matches the grandeur of its name.
For decades, its heavy stone piers have been ripe with graffiti, its steel trusses coated in rust. Entrances have been barricaded since 2016 to keep people away from its ramshackle temptations.
Built 140 years ago, at a time when the railroad was king, the bridge has amassed dense layers of controversy and tragedy.
Construction began in 1879, financed by the Quebec government, to complete a rail line connecting Quebec City, Montreal and Ottawa. The project was slowed first by a labour strike then by a fatal accident.
On May 15, 1880, a flat-bottomed scow used to bring lumber to the construction site cut loose from a tug boat. Two men were still on board the scow: One jumped into the water and swam to a log boom; the other man, Louis Berthiaume, hesitated. He stayed on the scow as it was carried downstream and tipped into the river swollen by spring meltwater. Berthiaume was carried over Chaudiere Falls to his death.
Despite the fatal mishap and other near misses — three scows went over the falls during construction — the bridge opened for duty in December 1880. It was the first rail link between Gatineau and Ottawa.
Initially known as the Chaudiere Railway Bridge, it was sold to Canadian Pacific Railway and renamed in honour of Albert Edward, the Prince of Wales, who would ascend the throne as Edward VII.
By 1920, the bridge was out of date: It was not strong enough to support new, heavier locomotives. The CPR had to substitute lighter engines before its trains crossed the bridge.
The chairman of Ottawa’s planning commission announced in 1922 that the bridge would have to be repaired or replaced. Noulan Cauchon argued that it should be converted to accommodate cars and pedestrians.
It marked the beginning of a lurching civic debate that continues to this day: What should be done with the Prince of Wales Bridge?
For a time, the CPR settled that question when it rebuilt the bridge in 1926 and renewed its role as a rail crossing. Only the piers went untouched in the $750,000 makeover.
For as long as it has spanned the river, the bridge has lured sightseers, commuters and thrill-seekers, and for almost as long, authorities have been trying, unsuccessfully, to stop them.
In May 1939, Ottawa magistrate Glenn Strike issued a warning to the public to stay off the bridge after nine men were arrested on its tracks. Court heard that trains often had to slow down so that pedestrians could climb onto girders to avoid them.
In August 1947, one train conductor was confronted by someone sitting in the middle of the bridge. The man stood up, waved and jumped into the river as the train approached; he swam a few strokes and disappeared into the rapids. The body of Aldoris Lafrance, 29, was recovered days later: That he had $151.80 and a fancy watch in his pocket only added to his mystery.
As the railway era faded mid-century, many in Ottawa wondered why the city was still organized around train tracks that streamed into its downtown station. National capital planners said the tracks should be consolidated, and the city’s rail bridges — the Prince of Wales and Alexandra — made into roads.
Tracks were steadily torn up, and the Alexandra Bridge was dedicated to commuter traffic when Ottawa’s Union Station closed in 1966.
That left the Prince of Wales Bridge once again as the only rail link between Ottawa and Gatineau. But trains were disappearing: The last passenger train crossed the bridge in 1981, and the final freight train followed two decades later.
Ever since, the increasingly decrepit bridge has been a platform for one scheme after another. A Gatineau group wanted it used for commuter trains; others called for it to be converted into a roadway to relieve bridge congestion; still others said it should be renovated for pedestrians and cyclists.
In 2005, the City of Ottawa bought the bridge and its rail corridors for $11 million based on the belief they could be used to link the O-Train network with a light-rail system in Gatineau. But Gatineau wasn’t much interested and then a series of reports found the bridge wasn’t suitable for such a role anyway. Last year, Mayor Jim Watson said the bridge would never be used as a transit link.
It means, one century after it was first raised, the question is once again on the table: What should be done with the Prince of Wales Bridge?
• • •
In a normal summer, Vimy would visit his Calgary relatives in July then attend hockey camp in August. But the pandemic cancelled his plans, and so he was home when Theo and Jackson texted him on the afternoon of July 3: They were biking on the trails behind Dulude Arena.
Vimy joined them — he was wearing flip flops and baggy red shorts — and the boys hammered up and down the trails on their mountain bikes. Later, they stopped in at Vimy’s mother’s house to grab something to drink. Both his parents were there, and as always, he gave them a hug before charging out the door again.
“Love you, mom.”
“Be safe,” she said.
The trio biked to a favoured spot on the Ottawa River where a tree bent out over the water. They splashed in the river for awhile then Jackson went home to water a neighbour’s garden. Vimy and Theo carried on to the Richmond Road Circle K where they met another friend, Thomas, and biked to a girl’s house nearby.
They still had a couple of hours to fill before curfew expired.
A plan was struck to go back to the bridge, so the four biked to the island and crawled through the fence behind the dog park. It was 8 p.m.
The Prince of Wales Bridge is actually two bridges: one that spans the river between the Ottawa shore and Lemieux Island, and the second, longer one that connects Lemieux Island to Gatineau. The four friends walked onto the northern span, where several clusters of people had gathered. One featured a diver who flipped and somersaulted into the river.
Thomas asked the diver if he would teach him a backflip. After the man demonstrated, Thomas executed a flawless backflip off the deck.
He used a rope to scale the pier back onto the bridge and, pumped by his initial success, Thomas tried a double backflip. This time, he made it halfway through the second rotation and landed flat on his back. “It didn’t sound too nice,” remembers Theo, “but he was OK.”
The sun was setting. The boys began to gather up their shirts and shoes to bike home when Vimy announced he wanted to go off the top of the bridge.
Vimy asked Theo to go up with him. “No way,” Theo told him. “I did that once already. I’m alright.” Theo had vowed never to go off the top again.
Then another young man on the bridge spoke up: “I’ll go up with you,” he told Vimy.
Theo says no one pressured Vimy to go off the top. Jackson, too, says no one made Vimy feel he had to prove anything to anyone: “I think he wanted to prove something to himself,” he says.
Vimy and the young man climbed hand over hand, foot over foot, up the diagonal girder to the top of the bridge, where there’s a small platform. The instructor showed Vimy how to jump up and out from the bridge. He waited in the water for Vimy to make his leap.
“Holy f—, this is high,” Vimy said as he sat on the platform, gathering courage.
Those who have made the jump say that once you’re on top of the truss bridge, it’s next-to-impossible to climb back down since any slip would send you crashing to the deck. The next best option is a pencil dive.
“You just can’t look down,” says Jackson.
“It’s a lot higher up there than it looks,” says Theo.
The top girder is about three storeys above the water: almost 40 feet.
Vimy’s feet rested on a small lip underneath the platform, which had room enough only for his heels and arches. His hands were on the platform beside him. His friends were anxious to leave: The sun was going down. Curfew was staring them in the face.
It was 9:10 p.m.
Vimy went for it. Theo says Vimy pushed off with his hands instead of using his legs to jump. It pitched his body forward as he dropped toward the river. He hit the water at an angle, face down.
“I knew he’d be hurt just by the way he landed,” says Theo.
Everyone waited a few heartbeats for Vimy to pop up and laugh about the escapade. But there was only the whisper of moving water.
“Go get him! Go get him!” Theo yelled to the instructor, who was close to where Vimy had landed. Nothing.
“That’s when I knew something was wrong,” says Theo. He jumped into the river.
Theo opened his eyes in the murk desperately searching for a glimpse of Vimy’s red shorts. There was nothing. The instructor floated downstream with the current, looking for air bubbles, for motion. Nothing. Theo dove down again and again near the bridge, looking for any sign of Vimy Grant.
The instructor’s girlfriend called 911.
Twilight turned to darkness on the bridge.
• • •
Losing a child is a damnable thing, a personal tragedy against which all others pale. Grief flows endlessly, like a river in the night.
“A sudden death, at that age, it’s the worst of the worst,” says Vimy’s mother, Eilis.
Justin was on the couch with Isla, his six-year-old daughter from a second marriage, when the police knocked on the door, and told him that his son was missing in the river.
“This is the worst part of my job,” the officer said.
A similar scene unfolded at Eilis’ door. She held out hope that Vimy was somewhere on the river bank with a broken leg, waiting to be found.
They both went to the river to look for him. Friends and co-workers joined them in the days that followed. Late on Monday afternoon, his body was discovered near Albert Island, north of the Canadian War Museum.
Vimy’s death set his parents on a winding, desolate journey. “Why do we have to go through this?” asks Eilis. “They were just being kids.”
Some days, Vimy’s dachshund, Chesil, is the only thing that can force Eilis out of bed: “No day is a good day,” she says. “It’s either bad or worse.”
Eilis has managed her grief by embracing her only son even tighter. It feels better, she says, to think about him. And so, every day, Eilis posts another picture of him on Facebook: There’s Vimy snuggling with Chesil; Vimy with his hockey medal in Syracuse; Vimy in his football uniform; Vimy in his Calgary Flames gear; Vimy at the outdoor rink; Vimy on the ice with the Golden Knights; Vimy hanging with friends; Vimy in his Adidas sweats.
There’s also Vimy’s card on Mother’s Day: “Love you so much,” it reads. “I miss you when I’m not with you even for one second. Thanks for everything.”
Justin has found that, unlike other tragedies in his life, he can’t compartmentalize Vimy’s death. “It’s just hard, everything about it,” he says. “Maybe with time, the memories will be enjoyable, but all they do now is remind me of loss.”
Their grief is salted with anger. Eilis says she can’t understand why it was so easy for Vimy and his friends to gain access to something as perilous as the Prince of Wales Bridge.
“Why should that bridge still be standing there? Why was it open every time they visited? It should have been torn down or cemented shut a long, long time ago,” she says. “This could have been prevented. This did not have to happen.”
Says Justin: “I want to see that thing closed or destroyed. Some Mickey Mouse fence that kids can get through? That’s not appropriate. That’s a dangerous river.”
Vimy’s friend Jackson says the city should tear the bridge down or turn it into a pedestrian crossing. “Just don’t fence it off because then it compels kids to go,” he says. “There’s no one there — so it’s a perfect spot for kids.”
Theo stayed on the bridge until 11 p.m. on the night Vimy disappeared as the police searched the river. “It still doesn’t feel real,” he says of his friend’s death. “I miss those 2 a.m. texts to hop on Fortnite. I miss his laugh. Hockey is hard not having him there. It’s still hard to imagine that life has to move forward without him.”
If Vimy had survived his leap, it would have become another shared memory, another bit of mortar in the boys’ friendship. Instead, it was an undoing, a deep and lasting fracture.
Theo, Jackson and Felix are among five boys who have all tattooed a red and black ‘V’ on the inside of their ankles to honour their friend, the boy called Vimy.
Felix says he misses Vimy’s big goofiness, his boundless energy and his physical presence: He was always someone you could talk to about things. School. Girls. Sports. Life.
“Not having that anymore, it hurts,” he says. “It was all of us together and now he’s not here. You turn around and you think he’s going to be standing right there.”
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020