Tribute to a Legendary Instructor

Jun 23, 2017 | Motorcycle Safety

man and women standing behind an older motorcycleIt marked the end of an era at the Ottawa Safety Council (OSC) when, prior to our annual banquet, Ian Firth announced that 2016 was his final year of teaching motorcycle safety. The longest serving instructor in the history of the program, Ian joined in 1981 and was heavily involved for 36 years, his final year being the fiftieth season of the program Stuart Munro founded in 1967. Although the records prior to 1987 are spotty, we know that during his tenure Ian personally introduced more than 800 students to the basics of riding via the OSC-developed Motorcycle Rider Course and its successor, the Canada Safety Council’s (CSC) “Gearing Up” program.  Ian also lead classroom sessions, co-ordinated courses, and served on the Motorcycle Advisory Committee from 1986-2001.  Ian served as the CSC Supervising Chief Instructor in 1989-90 during the era when the OSC was responsible for all of Eastern Ontario.

In addition to his efforts with the OSC, Ian resurrected the Society of Ottawa Area Riders (SOAR) in 1997 by bringing the club presidents together.  This umbrella group seeks to co-ordinate the activities of the various motorcycle oriented clubs and groups in Ottawa and the surrounding area; while it was operational as far back as 1984 it had become inactive prior to 1997.

In 1990, the OSC faced a crisis when they lost their primary training site, the National Research Council parking lot on Sussex Drive, due to a major renovation of (old) Ottawa City Hall whose underground garage served as a storage area for the course motorcycles. At that time, Ian was employed by Computing Devices Canada (now General Dynamics), and through his contacts secured permission to use their parking lot in Bells Corner for Gearing Up training purposes, an arrangement that continues to this day.

When the Ontario government introduced Graduating Licencing in 1993, it made little provision for motorcyclists looking to fully upgrade their licences five years hence. The MTO put out a belated call for help in 1997 to the various training programs in the province, and Ian responded by developing and deploying (with Pat Cluff) a proprietary OSC course and MTO approved testing regimen. To date, nearly 1500 students have completed the OSC’s M2 Exit program (M2X) to become fully licenced riders; 2017 will mark that program’s twentieth anniversary.


Perhaps Ian’s most impactful contribution to the OSC was the stability he provided for its programs. During the first twenty years of the program, 200 instructors were recruited, with most moving on to other endeavours after two or three years. In response, Ian became heavily involved in “train-the-trainer” (recruiting and training new instructors), introducing over 35 motorcyclists into the OSC fold across six cohorts of new instructor training over the years. In the thirty years following, although recruitment dropped to 130 new instructors, the average teaching career now exceeds seven years. MTP leadership speculated that the change was due to an increased emphasis on commitment and professional standards, both of which Ian championed. When questioned about this Ian’s response was clear: “No, it was not by design.”

He went on to explain that the motorcycling world was vastly different then. One factor among many was a much younger demographic. Most of the instructors at that time came from within the industry, working either full or part-time at one of the many shops that then graced Ottawa. They would work a full shift at the shop, then head over to the course site, as most of the courses were still held in the evenings, once a week for six weeks. While there were some weekend courses, instructors were called by invitation only, as the OSC provided volunteers with a five dollar stipend for lunch! Ian’s commitment to professional standards was certainly instrumental in fine-tuning the program into the professional organization it is today. In recognition for Ian’s contributions, the OSC bestowed the Frank Carver Award for his third time in 2016 (simply unprecedented!) for his dedication to motorcycle safety.


A Personal note from Frank . . . 


Growing up in Montreal, like many youths, I had dabbled in riding in my teens and early twenties and managed to escape the experience intact. After moving to Ottawa, on the advice of some workmates I decided to take a training course (who knew such a thing existed?) in 1984, for which Ian happened to be the classroom leader and range co-ordinator. The empirical evidence suggests the training program worked for me, and I was impressed enough that in 1987 I did a “Victor Kiam” and put my name on the instructor prospect list. When called, I was pleased that Ian was still involved with the program; although I didn’t remember his name I did recall that I was the only one who got his sense of humour during our sessions three years earlier.  Over the many years since we certainly have not seen eye-to-eye on everything, but we could always settle our differences at the end of the day over the traditional milk and cookies. In light of that and more, for quite a while I have been referring to myself (quite smugly) as “Ian’s Lewis”; fans of the show will know that “Inspector Morse” made its debut on ITV in 1987 – what are the odds?