I watched Florian's Knights, and talked to the New West firefighter who's in it
The documentary provides an up-close look at mental health within the context of firefighting
Capt. Bill Shokar, a New West firefighter, rides his motorcycle. He makes an appearance in the film Florian’s Knights/supplied
Editor’s note: this story contains details regarding mental health and suicide. If you or someone you know is struggling, call 310-6789 or 1-800-SUICIDE. You can also find more mental health resources through this page.
It was one evening in early February when I was scrolling on social media and saw a video I instantly recognized: phone-shot footage of Pier Park burning. I played it back over and over again and took stock of the fact there was a name attached to the video: Bill Shokar.
There was no doubt in my mind that what I’d seen was the pier burning. When the fire happened in 2020, I’d been a radio anchor for CityNews Vancouver, but I was also living in New Westminster, and the fire was tough to watch on multiple levels: we radio reporters and news anchors had to cover it, and as was the case for many in the New West community, it was an important space where my husband and I lived, played, relaxed, and enjoyed our city. It was hard to watch these bright red and orange flames dancing on—and at the same time destroying—our beloved waterfront.
I’d seen that video dozens of times as we worked on follow-up stories to the fire: it was our lead news story for about 12 hours after we’d first heard the park was burning. Kids were crying in the background as resident after resident talked about how stunned, shocked, and heartbroken they were at the destruction of the pier.
While the pier was—and still is—destroyed, you can probably count this fire fight as a victory for someone like Shokar, who wasn’t on shift, but responded to the fire that night because he lives nearby.
No one was hurt. No one died. And that hasn’t always been the case in his 20-year career as a fire fighter.
“We do see a lot of stuff. It’s just part of the job,” Shokar, who currently holds the rank of captain, tells The Anchor, “It’s unavoidable. But I think there’s definitely been a shift over the last, not many years, but I’d say maybe half a dozen years in terms of [mental health] programs that are available either through WorkSafeBC, to our provincial union organization.”
Shokar is one of a number of firefighters from across North America choosing to blow the whistle on PTSD on the job, in a documentary called Florian’s Knights. Florian’s Knights is the name of the peer group—and motorcycle club—that Shokar was once part of.
“I kind of heard through the grapevine that there was this motorcycle club in the Lower Mainland of active and retired firefighters who ride bikes as a coping strategy for PTSD, or for the effects of the job,” explains Panayioti Yannitsos—he’s the director of the film. “That piqued my interest because I hadn’t really thought about the implications of firefighting … it wasn’t in my direct consciousness. So, to learn that there’s this really unique angle of these guys who ride motorcycles, I was really curious how that played out because I also thought of bikes as being … loud, noisy machines.”
This documentary offers an exceptionally raw look at the lives of firefighters in cities like Vancouver, Detroit, Toronto, and New York City. There’s no sugarcoating the visuals: firefighters on the job rushing in and out of buildings as flames lick their gear; in another case, crews work as fast as they can to try and save the life of someone on the street who appears to be having a seizure after overdosing.
Firefighter Rod MacDonald (ret.) is the man whose face is featured on the Florian’s Knights poster. During the movie, MacDonald takes out a map and a red pen and circles a number of scenes he’s attended throughout Vancouver, where people were badly hurt or died. One of the stories includes the death of a little boy/Florian’s Knights trailer on YouTube
As noted in the documentary, being exposed to trauma as a firefighter day after day can weigh heavily on the mind. In the film, Shokar said he chose to say “yes” to getting involved, and being vulnerable, because it was time.
“I had kept quiet about my own personal story for approximately 14 years. But as time went on, a part of my journey and healing process was—as is with many people as I’ve come to find—is sharing my story as a way of reaching out to others that might be in a similar situation,” he says.
Shokar was hired as a firefighter in 2003. In 2004, his brother took his own life. In the documentary, he speaks about a call that would, unexpectedly, weigh heavily on him.
“You know, I went to a suicide. Similar age as my brother. And the same manner as my brother committed suicide,” he says in the film, taking pauses every so often to collect himself. “As you can tell, it had quite an impact on me. You know, the job really does take a toll on people. And there is no handbook for that.”
In the next shot, you see Shokar on a bike: the visuals are stunning, the sound of the motorcycle humming. “Just, get out on the open road. Nothing compares to it.”
That’s when it becomes obvious Shokar had been a part of Florian’s Knights and its Lower Mainland group.
Addressing the controversy
Florian’s Knights, which runs about 140 minutes, was not without scrutiny when it came out: while it did cover mental health topics and PTSD, it also covered the beginnings—and eventual ending—of the Lower Mainland chapter of the Knights.
The name of the Knights makes reference to Florian, the patron saint of firefighters.
“If you watch the documentary, there was a lot of innuendo and a lot of misinformation around what we were doing as a group, and it’s unfortunate that a lot of decision makers and people that do hold a significant amount of influence and power have kind of shunned the movie,” explains Shokar, referring to articles in which the founder of the Lower Mainland chapter is seen in photos posing with members of the Hells Angels. The photo in question shows Nick Elmes, who was a Burnaby firefighter, posing with three people who appeared to be members of the Angels.
The documentary chronicles Elmes’ reasons for starting Florian’s Knights—it also looks at why the photo was taken, and the fallout that came afterwards.
Yannitsos adds the movie has been up against two stigmas.
A shot of Erik Bjarnason on his bike. Bjarnason was a North Vancouver firefighter when he lost nine fingers to frostbite while climbing Mount Logan in 2005. In the film, he talks about the adjustments he had to make, and how the Florian’s Knights helped with his mental health/supplied
“First being mental health and reporting [the experience of it] and opening up. I think it’s so important for people to understand how groundbreaking it has been to get involvement from departments in Detroit … in New York City. This is at the highest level, some of the most storied fire departments in history, that decided to offer up testimony regarding the effects of the job.
“The second thing we were up against is motorcycle culture and what it means to be in a motorcycle club, and there’s no doubt about it that in many cases, this is a grey area for the public. I’m not here to speak about any other motorcycle club but the Florian’s Knights, and from what I witnessed on a day-to-day basis, having spent three years with these individuals, this was a peer support group, that was undoubtedly in the life-saving category—as in, it helped members of this club move on and cope with some of the most traumatic experiences that a human being can face.”
‘I can only ride one bike at a time’
In the documentary, a number of group members are left to pick up the pieces as they make the decision to disband the Knights.
Has this deterred Shokar from riding?
“I can only ride one bike at a time,” Shokar says with a smile, “that’s the only sad part, but I do ride. I don’t ride during the winter, I’m a bit of a fair-weather rider, but for a lot of motorcyclists like myself, Christmas comes around April, and we insure our bikes, and get back on the road. It’s a long winter,” he says.
The documentary also makes the argument for supporting wind therapy. There are a variety of ways to enjoy wind therapy—one of the more common forms being through motorcycles. At one point, several of the participating riders are hooked up to EEG machines that fit under their helmets. The EEG records as they ride. Shokar, who did not participate in the EEG testing, says he wasn’t aware the study was happening.
“I never thought of it as a kind of tranquility or [as having] some type of therapy attached to it,” he says.
The documentary reveals the study went on to be published in a scientific journal.
“[Riding is] almost a form of meditation … I personally didn’t know that study was happening until I actually saw the first screening of the movie, and it was kind of an ‘aha!’ moment for me.”
As for Shokar’s favourite rides? He’s fond of taking his bikes north towards Whistler, and especially enjoys the Duffy Lake area.
When asked if firefighting has made strides in the mental health realm, the New West firefighter says there’s so much more work to do.
“I think it’s a bit evolutionary and it’s also kind of part and parcel with the new crop of employees being hired are also a bit more aware of some of the pitfalls that come with our occupation. About 10 years ago, we went through a really bad spell of first responder suicides, and that really shed a lot of light on the issue itself.
“The resources available, that’s step one. Step two is just normalizing the fact that people do have struggles, that people do have issues. And just trying to make it part of everybody’s regular maintenance regime. If you have a bad back, you go and see a physiotherapist or a chiropractor, or a massage therapist. If you have a bad tooth, you go to a dentist. Well, if you’re feeling lost, you need to go get that checked out. And that’s the goal: just make it part of everyday life.”
And while the spotlight is on firefighters across North America, Yannitsos says there’s a message for everyone in this piece.
“This movie can speak to anyone going through the stigma of mental health in today’s day and age. And we made all these little snippets [including the video of Shokar and the Pier Park fire] … to show the humanity. That that exists, and it builds the story, and you get to witness the triumph over the course of the film.
“It validates anybody who has found, potentially, an unconventional coping strategy that helps them get through their day-to-day life. It really is an inspiring story because for so many years, you had guys who rode motorcycles and knew why it worked for them, but never really felt validated outside of the biker community.
“Many individuals would be in a different place without their bikes.”
You can watch Florian’s Knights by purchasing it through providers like YouTube, Amazon, Apple TV, and Google Play Movies.