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Joe MacDonald successful in relentless pursuit of having highway twinned

Barney's River Fire Chief Joe MacDonald walks with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Premier Stephen McNeil.
Barney's River Fire Chief Joe MacDonald walks with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Premier Stephen McNeil. - Adam MacInnis

Feb. 5, 2014 changed Joe MacDonald.

On that day at 12:45 p.m., MacDonald and other members of the Barney’s River Fire Department responded to a motor vehicle collision between a tractor-trailer and a van – an accident that MacDonald believes could have been prevented.

A 17-year-old driving the van was killed.

MacDonald isn’t a lobbyist. He’s the kind of guy more comfortable fighting a structure fire than speaking in public. But that day he decided he had to do something to help prevent the deaths along the undivided highway between Sutherland’s River and Antigonish.

As a first responder, MacDonald knew the best approach would be for the highway to be twinned. It would almost eliminate the risk of the head-on collisions that are often so deadly.

But how do you convince a government to spend millions of dollars on a project that studies claimed wasn’t necessary?

MacDonald started by writing letters. He wrote to Premier Stephen McNeil, to the transportation minister, to anyone he thought might be able to help.

He got other fire departments on board and started a petition to show the public was behind the project. Thousands and thousands signed.

“He did it very professionally and without any large fanfare,” New Glasgow Fire Chief Doug Dort said.

In the weeks and months that followed he would speak publically about the horrors of responding to accidents on the highway and the impact it was having not only to the families of those killed, but also on this first responders.

MacDonald’s wife Laura said it became something he worked on every day.

“He never quit.”

And on Tuesday, he accomplished his goal. Premier Stephen McNeil and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stood beside him and announced the project is going ahead and will be complete by 2024.

“It’s unbelievable to see this come true,” MacDonald said. “It’s a great day for Northern Nova Scotia.”

Those announcing the funds said it wouldn’t have happened without MacDonald’s efforts.

“Thank you for your dedication,” Trudeau told MacDonald. “You can and should be proud.”

McNeil also took time to commend him.

“It takes a lot to stand up and allow your raw emotions to be seen by every member of your province and your country,” he said.

But MacDonald did it with courage and determination.

“He put a human face to the tragedies that have happened on this highway and has given a voice to those who have lost their lives on this highway,” McNeil said.

As governments make decisions, Central Nova MP Sean Fraser said they look for what communities care about.

“Joe created in and of himself a critical mass of support,” he said. It showed governments that there was a real will to twin the highway.

“I have so much respect for that man,” he said.

Amid all the ceremony of the day, MacDonald thought about Christopher Karam – the teen who died on Feb. 5, 2014.

The Cape Breton teenager was supposed to be going to Memorial University to study engineering.

“It was a bright life taken away,” he said.

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