Three Anglican priests, one of whom comforted families and recovery workers after the 1998 Swissair Flight 111 disaster at Peggy’s Cove, N.S., were recognized recently for their roles as volunteer chaplains with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
Two of the chaplains, Canon George Ferris of Paris, Ont. and Rev. Malcolm Wilson, of Moorefield, Ont., who is retired, were presented with their awards live on CTV’s Canada AM morning show by assistant commissioner Freeman Sheppard, the commanding officer of the RCMP in Ontario.
The third volunteer chaplain to be recognized, Canon John Roberts, who was unable to make the television show, is also full-time chaplain in Brampton, Ont. at the Ontario Correctional Institute. The longest serving volunteer chaplain of the three, Mr. Roberts has been a volunteer chaplain with the RCMP for 11 years. He is a critical instance team leader and is certified in critical instance stress management.
Because of this special training, and his experience, Mr. Roberts was asked to go to Peggy’s Cove to help the 7,000 people – including navy, police, firefighters and fishers- involved in recovery efforts following the crash of Flight 111. “We’d do debriefing one day, and then the next, we’d look after the families,” he said in an interview.
One group particularly traumatized, he said, was the telephone operators who had to contact family members to come to the area and identify personal items of the deceased. “The family members would latch on to the telephone operators and treat them as information sources and lifelines. So the operators needed a lot of support,” he added.
Mr. Wilson, who also has critical incidence and stress management training, volunteered to go to New York City as part of a rotating chaplaincy arrangement following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre. He stayed on a Red Cross boat in the harbour and reported to the Port Authority Police headquarters, which were moved to Jersey City after the disaster.
While only there for a one-week shift, “this will be going on for months,” he said. “You’ve got the deaths of 6,500 people and all their families left behind. You’ve got thousands of people needing support with their grief.”
RCMP chaplains are charged with the care of officers and their families, and often help when there are family disputes, divorces, or alcohol abuse. “They use us as a sounding board. They’ll talk to a chaplain because they trust you. There is no paper trail with a chaplain, and they now know this and know that we don’t disclose anything we are told to the wrong people,” Mr. Wilson said.
Police officers are a different breed, the chaplains say. “Cops won’t talk to you unless they think you know something about the job,” Mr. Wilson said.
Retired from the RCMP himself, Mr. Wilson says police officers “assess you very fast. In this country all I have to do is give them my regiment number and they’ll talk to me.”