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Diotte remembered as gentle giant and mentor

May 15, 2014, Pickering, Ont. – Ajax Fire Chief Mark Diotte was a big man with a big heart and a huge love for his family and the fire service.

May 15, 2014
By Laura King

The 55-year-old husband and father of two daughters died May 7 of complications from brain and lung cancer; he was remembered this morning in a full-honours fire-service funeral at The Gathering Place in Pickering.

Hundreds of firefighters and fire officers from across Durham Region, the Greater Toronto Area and other parts of southern Ontario marched to the church, led by the OFM honour guard.

Diotte’s sister, Kim, read a letter Mark had prepared in which he asked family, friends and colleagues to celebrate his life rather than mourn his passing.

Ajax Fire and Emergency Services chaplain David Jones said Diotte was determined that those who attended the service avoid excessive solemnity.

“Just ask yourself, he said to me, that big goof, what would he do? Roast me.”

Daughters Natalie and Bridgette spoke of Diotte’s integrity – he taught them to always tell the truth “even if it meant getting in trouble” – and his dedication to his family and the people with whom he worked.

“My dad taught me that life is about relationships,” Natalie said. “My dad was all about people and he really cared about them.”

Both young women smiled and brightened when they told guests that Diotte played Barbies with them – often, it seemed! – when they were little girls.

“And he never complained about not being Ken,” Bridgette said, to the delight of the more than 500 firefighters and fire officers in attendance.

Although there were light moments during the 80-minute service, Diotte was remembered mostly for what best friend and Toronto Deputy Chief Matt Pegg called his “come-and-see-me” style of leadership.

Diotte didn’t believe in managing through e-mails or texts, Pegg said; he preferred the old-fashioned, face-to-face approach.

“I’ve come to understand how powerful it really was,” Pegg said of Diotte’s way of doing things. “And it can be summed up in four words: Come and see me.”

Speakers talked about Diotte’s size – not only his six-foot, seven-inch frame, but his big laugh and his big heart.

“He was big not just in physical size, but in everything he did,” said daughter Natalie.

“He laughed big . . . but most of all he loved big.”

Ajax Deputy Fire Chief David Lang said Diotte was a compassionate leader who taught him and others to listen more than they speak.

Everyone who spoke at the service talked about Diotte’s penchant for researching a topic – very, very thoroughly – and then having others research the topic – very, very thoroughly – before making a decision.

Indeed, Diotte was a detail guy – so much so that he had planned the service; he had also set up future projects to advance cancer prevention studies.

Ajax Deputy Chief Michael Gamba presented the flag that draped Diotte’s casket to Mark’s wife, Jennifer. Retired Pickering Chief Bill Douglas presented Diotte’s medals to daughter Bridgette; retired Ajax Chief Randy Wilson presented Diotte’s uniform hat to daughter Natalie.

A private family internment took place at Duffins Meadows Cemetery.

Diotte was diagnosed June 7 with brain cancer and subsequently, with lung cancer. He told a community newspaper in October that he had gone to the doctor with a sinus infection, undergone a CAT scan, and “that’s when my journey started.”

At that point, Diotte told the paper, had experienced 41 rounds of radiation – 35 on his chest and six on his brain.

Diotte was elected a vice-president with the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs in 2013, having taken on the legislative portfolio; his term ended earlier this month, on May 7 – the day he died.

In mid-March, Diotte told friends and colleagues he had lost his “war with cancer” and had limited time. Diotte died 11 months to the day after he was diagnosed.

Diotte had been a firefighter since 1980, when he started as a volunteer in Pickering; he was hired full time in 1983, joined Ajax in 2006 as deputy chief and became chief in 2010.

Diotte presumed his cancer was work-relate and had submitted a WSIB claim.

He was, younger daughter Bridgette said, her hero.

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Hundreds of firefighters and fire officers marched to The Gathering Place church in Pickering Thursday morning to honour Ajax Fire Chief Mark Diotte, who died May 7.
Photo by Laura King