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Controversial Burnaby firefighters biker club featured in new documentary

The Florian's Knights Motorcycle Club was made up of Lower Mainland firefighters but dissolved after Burnaby founder appeared in photo with three Hells Angels and was fired

A Burnaby-based firefighters motorcycle club that made headlines three years ago after one of its founders posed for a photo with three Hell’s Angels has become the subject of a new feature-length documentary now available for streaming.

The Florian’s Knights Motorcycle Club (named after the patron saint of firefighters) was formed in 2016 and counted active and retired firefighters from Burnaby, Vancouver, North Vancouver and New Westminster among its members.

The local chapter broke up in 2018 amid a flurry of negative media reports and the firing of one of its founders, Burnaby firefighter Nick Elmes.

A photo had surfaced on social media of Elmes posing with three Hell’s Angels, including Kelowna chapter president Damiano Dipopolo, an old neighbourhood friend.

Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth was quoted in a Vancouver Sun story saying it was “disturbing on so many levels” for firefighters to be associating with members of the notorious biker club, and the province’s anti-gang agency said biker experts had been documenting the association between the Knights and the Hells Angels at various events that spring.

Elmes was fired after a City of Burnaby investigation.

Florian’s Knights, the movie

But it wasn’t the furor over the photo that caught filmmaker Panayioti (Pan) Yannitsos’s attention.

He started working with the club before the media firestorm erupted, and what drew him was something much more positive.

He says he was intrigued by the idea of a group of firefighters riding motorcycles to raise awareness about post-traumatic stress injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder among first responders.

He was also intrigued by the idea the Florian’s Knights had essentially formed their own peer support group – filling a void inside the fire service, according to Yannitsos.  

“There’s been a moratorium within the fire service for over 100 years on mental health,” he says. “Many departments around North America haven’t felt comfortable to bring this fact of life to the public.”

During three-and-a-half years of work on his film, which includes interviews with motorcycle-riding firefighters in New York, Detroit and Toronto as well as in the Lower Mainland, Yannitsos also became aware of another intriguing concept: wind therapy.

The phrase has long been used to describe motorcycle riding, and Yannitsos learned firefighters across North America and elsewhere around the world use it to cope with their mental health struggles.

In the film, he points to research conducted at UCLA that supports the idea of riding as an effective form of therapy.

“The motorcycle is my medicine,” retired Vancouver fire battalion Chief Rod MacDonald says in the documentary.

MacDonald is one of four former Lower Mainland Florian’s Knights who appears in the film. The others are Elmes, retired North Vancouver fire Captain Erik Bjarnason and New Westminster firefighter Bill Shokar.

In an interview about the movie posted online, MacDonald says he knew he was “damaged goods” when he retired after more than 30 years as a Vancouver firefighter.

One powerful scene in the documentary shows MacDonald marking a map of Vancouver with the locations of particularly disturbing calls he attended, including the scene of a car accident where a man had been decapitated.

MacDonald said he went into seclusion after retirement and the world was “getting pretty dark” before he found the Florian’s Knights.

“I have a feeling that they saved my life,” he says in the film.

‘Light at the end of the tunnel’

While the Lower Mainland Florian’s Knights disbanded after the negative news reports in 2018, a new chapter in New York City continues to thrive today.

The New York firefighters found the Burnaby-based club online in 2018 and decided to form their own chapter shortly before the Lower Mainland group broke apart.

Yannitsos’s documentary features a meeting between the two clubs at the September 11 Memorial in Manhattan.

While the film addresses the Burnaby Hells Angels controversy – including interviews with a retired Vancouver Police Department outlaw motorcycle gang unit officer who describes the Hells Angels as a violent, drug trafficking organization and “nothing you ever want to get close to” – its focus remains the mental health struggles of firefighters.

Yannitsos says he and his film crew spent time sleeping in fire halls and twice, in Toronto and Detroit, followed 24-hour shifts, filming every call. 

He says they earned the firefighters’ trust, and the result is a uniquely raw portrayal of their working lives and mental health struggles.

“Firefighters are being shown their profession in a way that they’ve never seen before, that they’ve only experienced and can’t communicate to their families,” Yannitsos says.

Since its release in September, the documentary has been shown in 40 markets, and Yannitsos says the response has been “overwhelmingly positive,” as reflected in hundreds of emails, messages and face-to-face comments from first responders.

When asked why he thinks the film has sparked such a response, he says it comes down to hope.

“I think because we came in through the lens of healing,” he says. “My objective wasn’t to come in here and blow the whistle on PTSD and how horrible the world can be. My objective was to show that there was light at the end of the tunnel.”

Florian’s Knights is now available on all streaming platforms for purchase at home.

Follow Cornelia Naylor on Twitter @CorNaylor




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