The flag outside Goderich, Ont., town hall has been lowered to half-mast as the local community mourns the loss of Mayor John Grace, who died on Tuesday following a boating accident near his fishing resort near Pickle Lake, Ont., about 300 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay.
Town officials confirmed the news of Grace’s death in a statement, saying he “enhanced the fabric of the town and enriched the lives of many, far beyond our community.”
“John was committed to his family and the community. He was a man of the people through and through,” the statement continued.
“John was a bright light, and he will be dearly missed. Our sincere condolences go out to John’s wife Wendy, their three boys, daughter-in-law, and grandson.”
Few other details have been released by local officials, however, Ontario Provincial Police have confirmed that a Goderich man, identified as John Grace, 64, was the victim of a boating accident on Lake St. Joseph on Tuesday.
Police said they were contacted around 11 a.m. CT on Tuesday and told that a boater who had gone out on the lake was roughly 40 minutes overdue returning, according to Sgt. Juliane Porritt of the OPP’s Pickle Lake detachment.
Emergency crews located the boat capsized on the lake and began a search for the operator of the vessel with the help of Nishnawbe Aski Police, an emergency response unit and a marine unit.
After approximately seven hours, the vessel’s lone occupant was located deceased “within the vicinity of where we believed them to be based on currents,” Porritt said.
“We had horrendous weather up here yesterday. Sunny but very windy. So the waves were five to six feet in height. Absolutely dangerous conditions,” she said.
In a subsequent media release, police said they had received a report that a barge transporting fuel had capsized on the lake.
Police said they, the Ministry of the Environment and the Ministry of Labour were investigating the incident.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of the Environment said in an emailed statement that a bulk gasoline tank on the barge was carrying around 1,800 litres of gasoline at the time the boat capsized.
No spilled gasoline was observed by the Canadian Coast Guard, who is conducting a spill assessment, the spokesperson said.
In a separate emailed statement, a Ministry of Labour spokesperson said a ministry inspector had been assigned to the case.
Grace and his family have operated a fishing lodge on Lake St. Joseph, Old Post Lodge, for more than 30 years. The lodge, located roughly 35 km south of Pickle Lake, opened in 1986 out of a former Hudson’s Bay Company trading post, according to the lodge’s website.
Grace had previously worked at the company’s store in New Osnaburgh on Mishkeegogamang First Nation starting in 1976, according to the website. Six years later in Pickle Lake, Grace met his future wife Wendy Dell, who was working as a school teacher.
“Having been so taken with the north it seemed appropriate that I would fall in love with a northern girl and in a few short months we were married in Wendy’s hometown of Red Lake,” the Old Post Lodge website states.
A post Wednesday on the lodge’s Instagram page mourned Grace’s death, saying, “He was our North Star and we all have been left trying to make sense of life that will continue on without him.”
Grace is survived by his wife Wendy, sons Jonathon, Jordan and Joel, grandson Finn, and countless friends, the post reads.
“Old Post, Mishkeegogamang, and Pickle Lake all took up a very large part of John’s heart. He loved this place and all the people he worked alongside, and created enduring 40 year friendships with,” it continues.
“Please hold him in your hearts today and bear with us as we try and steer our way through this bewildering and heartbreaking time.”
“It’s a very remote area. It’s very remote,” said Porritt of Pickle Lake.
“When we’re talking about services, the community as a whole chipped in to help us yesterday because we have two officers working.”
The township’s detachment has 10 officers on staff with two on shift at a time. “It was a matter of a lot of resources and a lot of community support and it’s quite a loss for our community,” she said.
Born in Goderich, Grace entered local politics in 1998 as a councillor for the town, and served as the deputy mayor from 2007 until 2014. In 2018, he ran for mayor and was elected with roughly 50 per cent of the vote.
In late June, Grace filed to run for re-election in the upcoming fall municipal race.
“John was a strong leader and decision maker, who worked tirelessly for the Town of Goderich,” the statement from Goderich officials reads.
“John helped to navigate the community through the 2011 F3 Tornado and the rebuilding of the downtown, and most recently provided leadership through the COVID-19 pandemic, along with many other challenges that Goderich has faced.”
Tributes and remembrances continued to pour in Wednesday afternoon after news broke of Grace’s passing.
Members of Huron County council held a moment of silence at the start of their meeting Wednesday morning, according to local media reports.
“He’ll be sorely missed and not just by his family and his friends, but certainly our community is going to miss him,” Goderich Deputy Mayor Myles Murdock told Global News.
“He loved this community and that’s why he was in public service for 21 years. If you look at his accomplishments over that timeframe and what he was in charge of, of accomplishing, you’d say we’re really blessed that we had him around so long.”
Murdock highlighted Grace’s role in the construction of the $20 million Maitland Recreation Centre and the Maitland Valley Medical Centre for the town of nearly 8,000.
“If you’ve been up to our town and you’ve seen our waterfront, you’d say in large part that’s John’s doing,” Murdock said.
“Last but not least, was the, you know, post-tornado in 2011. He was in charge of the committee for the rebuild for the downtown core. And if you’ve seen it, you’d be astounded that in a two-year period we went from, I think there was one tree left to what we have now.”
Other local mayors are also paying tribute to Grace, including Stratford Mayor Dan Methieson, who in a tweet called John “a visionary leader and a great guy.”
“My sympathies to his family, friends & the community of Goderich. May John Rest In Peace, may we all reflect on his many contributions & give thanks.”
In a Facebook post, South Bruce Peninsula Mayor Janice Jackson described Grace as a “kind and hard working Mayor who loved his community.
“John and I kept in touch throughout COVID as we beach Mayors stuck together during those trying times,” the post reads.
“On behalf of my Council, our staff and the Town of South Bruce Peninsula, I want to extend our deepest condolences to Mayor Grace’s family, his Council and his Town. Rest peacefully John.”