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Leadership by inspiration

By Maureen Shaw

I had the privilege of being witness to true leadership last weekend in Nova Scotia. At Oak Island Resort about an hour outside of Halifax, approximately 75 family members from Atlantic Canada came together to celebrate the lives of loved ones who have died or suffered a life-altering injury as a result of a workplace event. They also came to the Threads of Life Family Forum to support and be supported by others on their journey of healing.

Threads of Life was formed in 2003 by Shirley Hickman. Shirley and Bob Hickman’s son Tim died when the Olympia Ice-resurfacer he was operating exploded and ignited, causing his death. When the couple began to “come out of our fog,” as Shirley tells it, they resolved that Tim’s life and his death would shine a light on families confronted with a tragedy to their loved ones at work. They wanted to focus on peer support for families and on awareness and prevention of workplace tragedies. (See Weaver of Hope - Canadian Occupational Safety, April 2013)

I was there in those early days and remember the pain, the stress, the enthusiastic conversations and then the growth — one step at a time. I also recall the passion and the way Shirley was able to move people to action. Her integrity, vision, commitment and humble but determined approach brought many to the cause. I was so proud hearing her speak at the International Labour Organization XVII World Congress in Orlando, Florida in 2005. The only speaker to put a human face on the many statistics being shown, the theories, and political speeches, she was also the only speaker to receive a standing ovation. The time for Threads of Life had truly come.

Fast forwarding to the weekend of May 30th to June 2nd in Oak Island, Nova Scotia, where families gathered for Threads of Life’s Family Forum event.

The families were identified by coloured ribbons: yellow signified a family member who has been impacted by a life-altering injury (I wore this); red signified a family member who has been impacted by a fatality; blue ribbon signified a family member who has been affected by occupational disease; and the Forget-Me-Not flower was for new families attending their first Family Forum.

The weekend began with dinner and a passionately committed speech by Shelly Rowan, vice-president, Prevention and Service Delivery, Workers’ Compensation Board (WCB) of Nova Scotia. The province’s WCB is the sponsor of the 2013 Atlantic Canada Family Forum. Rowan is also a member of the board of directors of Threads of Life.

She said the Family Forums are so vital to families who have suffered the injury and death of a loved one and that Nova Scotia, through the WCB, is committed to supporting Threads of Life.

I was very impressed with her personal commitment. She shared the entire weekend with the families — something not often done by leaders from organizations outside the ‘family.’

A reflections ceremony was led by Shirley Hickman and Vince Garnier — who was presented with the Volunteer of the Year Award. It was a very moving and inspiring ceremony. A candle was lit for the Mission and Vision of Threads of Life. The Mission candle continued to burn each time we were in the room. Each family lit a candle and placed it in front of a picture of their loved one. It was a time for us to honour lives forever changed and reflect on the reason we have come together.

“When we light a candle, it is not in memory of a death, but in celebration of a life shared.” It was also a symbol of hope for the future — a future of cultural change where awareness and prevention are paramount, for healing and strength.

The reflections ceremony also served as a beginning for people to take the next step in their journey. The weekend offers time for support, for sharing stories, quiet times and times for laughter. There were sessions and activities for the children and teens led by a certified grief counsellor and educator, and sessions dedicated for the men only.

Sessions were led by a certified grief counsellor, palliative and bereavement support specialist, and a local bereavement coordinator. There was also an artist who led a session on copper embossing — some people lovingly created images of their loved one or images they love.

I was so impressed with the caring of each family member and consideration for each other. They reached out to help, to hold, to cry and laugh. It was a lesson in trust: people opened up their hearts and souls, and trusted this would be okay and that they would be safe in doing so — and they were.

And so, many families have moved another step towards their journey of healing. In the process, so many have also shown qualities of leadership — to themselves, to their fellow family members, to the communities they come from and others they help back home and beyond.

For me as moderator, it was an honour, a privilege and a humbling experience. But also a joy, in seeing and feeling the best in the human dimension in a time of global turbulence. I saw that one person with a vision can truly begin a momentum of change — a movement built on love for one and for all.

An authentic leader inspires others to lead and that was shown as 1,400 families are helped and supported by hundreds of volunteers across the country.

Note: Family Forums will be held in Edmonton from Sept. 20 to 22, and in Ontario from Nov. 1 to 4. Contact Threads of Life through its website,, for more information.

Maureen Shaw

Maureen Shaw is the former president and CEO of the Industrial Accident Prevention Association (now amalgamated into the Workplace Safety and Prevention Services). She spent over 14 years as leader of the IAPA, transforming it from a traditional safety training organization to one that approaches workplaces as psychologically safe and healthy places for people and business to be prosperous. Maureen holds key positions in several national organizations, including the Mental Health Commission of Canada where she is a member of the advisory committee on workforce mental health.
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