It’s a long way from the precarious waters off the west coast of Cape Breton to Province House.
It’s also a good distance from Little River in Cumberland County to the provincial legislature.
But the gallant efforts of Elijah Watts and Sophia LeBlanc during the most trying and stressful of times brought them to Province House on Wednesday to receive the Nova Scotia Medal of Bravery.
“Without hesitation, Sophia and Elijah responded instinctively and took action, they exemplified true valour,” Justice Minister Mark Furey said. “This is an award that neither of them sought out but when faced with challenging and dangerous circumstances, they acted to try to help others.
“What makes this recognition so much more deserving is that the Nova Scotians we are honouring today did not benefit from any formal training or past experience.”
Watts, then just 18, was lobster fishing with his dad on the Gulf of St. Lawrence off Colindale, between Port Hood and Mabou, on the morning of May 12, 2018, when the nine-metre Ocean Star II ran into trouble and capsized. Watts, his father Hugh, the 39-year-old captain of the Ocean Star, and helper Glen MacDonald, 58, were all thrown overboard. Elijah Watts managed to swim to shore but not before staying in the frigid, rough water to do everything in his power to save the others.
Donald F. Beaton, chief of the Port Hood Fire Department, said when the volunteers on the fire brigade arrived at the scene, Elijah had already taken the bodies of his father and MacDonald ashore. The tragedy happened in view of the house where Hugh Watts, a longtime fisherman, lived with his wife, Sarah, Elijah and siblings Madeline, Malia, Gabriella and Samuel.
MacDonald lived in Port Hawkesbury and in Port Hood during the fishing season.
Sophia LeBlanc of Amherst, who turned eight this week, is the youngest of the 42 recipients in the 12-year history of the bravery award.
'I saved my family'
On. Nov. 11, 2018, Sophia was travelling from Amherst to Oxford with her mom, Candice Hicks, in the family van along with siblings Ethan and Elise, then 4 and 2.
The van lost control and plunged over an embankment, coming to rest nose down partially in the river. Hicks suffered broken bones in her forearm and a shattered wrist but, with Sophia’s help, mother and daughter were able to free themselves from the van.
Ethan, unconscious, and Elise remained suspended in the vehicle. Sophia was able to unbuckle her sister from the car seat and get her out of the van, then climbed onto her mother’s back to vault up the embankment to the roadway to flag down passing vehicles for help.
“I saved my family,” Sophia told reporters quietly after the ceremony when asked why she received the award. “It’s cool.”
After receiving her medal from Premier Stephen McNeil, Sophia sat through the remainder of the event next to Watts. She fumbled and played with the medal, one time dropping it on the floor, where Watts leaned down and retrieved it for her. But Sophia said she knew what to do with the medal when she got home to Amherst.
“I am going to put it in my room where I can always see it,” she said.
By the time the ceremony in the Red Room ended, Sophia was ready for the reception downstairs.
“I’m hungry,” she told her mother.
Hicks found it difficult to contain her pride in Sophia’s accomplishment at such a young age.
“My kids were all in the back of the van and you think of movies where you see the car fill up with water,” Hicks said of the van catching a rut on the side of Highway 204 and rocketing off the road.
“That’s all I could think of because we were headed right for a river. Luckily, it landed kind of half in the water and half out.
“She (Sophia) managed to get out. No one could see us. She said I was screaming like a crazy person. I was panicking and yelling for help. You could tell she was scared but she said, like, what do we do now. She got my daughter out and she climbed up my back.”
Sophia’s heroics were first recognized by the RCMP with a ceremony at the detachment. Eventually, she was nominated for the provincial award.
“For something that scary, it just turned into a positive thing for her,” Hicks said.
'Certainly a hero'
Watts chose not to speak to reporters, the enormity of the award and the circumstances that led to his selfless actions obviously still weighing heavily on him.
“Elijah deals with it quietly but in a good way,” said Haley MacFadyen, his girlfriend of two years. “He’s had a hard time but it is something that he deals with on the inside. Something like today might be a little bit hard for him, but it’s nice to recognize him.
“Today he got his bravery medal and it’s a big day for us because it reminds us what he went through and of Hugh, too, his dad. It’s a special day.”
Beaton, the fire chief who is also a neighbour and close friend of the Watts family, described Elijah as a super guy.
“What he did that day is out of this world,” Beaton said. “Most teenagers run, rather than going back in the cold water and helping. For what he did, he is certainly a hero.”
Maybe equally as courageous, Elijah went back to the family business of pulling a living from the sea. He finished the 2018 lobster season with another boat and bought his own boat for the 2019 lobster and crab season.
“He went right back on the water, which is the best thing to do,” Beaton said.
“He did an amazing job,” MacFadyen said.
The premier thanked the pair for their bravery.
“People like Elijah and Sophia make our communities stronger and inspire us all,” McNeil said.