Noel Wygiera first started as a chaplain for the RCMP four years ago, after four young Mounties were killed in Mayerthorpe.
He was consulting with an RCMP officer and the officer’s future bride about their wedding plans. In the midst of the conversation, the situation at Mayerthorpe came up and Wygiera asked the officer how he was coping with it, to which he replied “Fine.”
But after 20 minutes spent talking about the wedding, as it turned out the RCMP officer had more to say on the topic and seemed to appreciate Wygiera’s capacity to listen.
That was in Fort Macleod and from that initial conversation, Wygiera approached the superior officer at the detachment who agreed that a chaplain would be a good idea.
Now Wygiera, who just moved to Red Deer in September to serve as the Anglican priest at St. Luke’s Anglican Church, will share the duty of chaplain to the Red Deer RCMP with Rev. Drew Burnand, who is the minister at Knox Presbyterian Church.
Burnand offered to serve as a chaplain for the RCMP in Red Deer at around the same time as Wygiera did in Fort Macleod. Two of the young mounties gunned down in Mayerthorpe were from Red Deer, including Constables Brock Myrol and Anthony Gordon, and as a result the tragedy hit home that much more locally. Burnand also serves as chaplain to Red Deer Emergency Services.
Since he started four years ago, Burnand has gone on upwards of 100 trips with RCMP officers, sitting with them on Friday overnight shifts from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., getting to know them and the job they do. He said it’s a chance to see what the City of Red Deer is like through law enforcement eyes and pick their brains about how their career has affected them.
Burnand said police officers often do many more jobs than they are required to do, acting as social workers, marriage counsellors, truant officers and surrogate parents.
“What surprised me the most is how busy they are. If they’re not dealing with issues the paperwork is over the top,” Burnand said. “It is a quick way to burn out.”
Burnand said RCMP officers are often treated with a great deal of disrespect by the public, with people having an immediate hostility towards them.
“I’m bothered by what appears to be the trend in Canadian culture that says it’s open season on Mounties,” Burnand said. “These men and women have sworn to protect us and our property and they don’t deserve bad attitude, hostility or condemnation.”
It all adds to the stress of the job for RCMP officers. Burnand said police see the worst of the worst and work doing a job that can be life-threatening. He said the role of a chaplain isn’t just religious, but it is to recognize the stresses in officers’ lives.
Burnand is in the midst of doing a pilot project with the Red Deer RCMP on emotional survival for law enforcement that will look at what officers face over time and how they deal with it. He said conditions like post traumatic stress disorder are best addressed sooner rather than later so that officers can recover rather than embedding the experience.
“The job description is to nurture the relationship with members and their families in anticipation of an event we all hope never occurs,” Burnand said.
“I am there to help pick up the pieces for people who are picking up the pieces in other people’s lives.”
Wygiera said the informal motto for RCMP chaplains is, “We loiter with intent.”
He said it can be difficult to get to know officers who as part of their job criteria are suspicious by nature. Wygiera said he knows he has been accepted by the RCMP officers when they start mocking him to his face.
He doesn’t see his role as an Anglican priest as just working in the church and having it open to the public, but he believes in taking the opportunity to go out with people in the community and be compassionate to them.
In his voluntary role as an RCMP chaplain, focusing on the Red Deer rural detachment, Wygiera hopes to let officers know that he is there to listen if they need him.
Wygiera said often after officers have to deal with something grisly they’re likely to just suck it up and not talk about it. However, Wygiera said as a chaplain his role is to make himself available to officers and to encourage them to talk about the problems they’re having and the things they’ve seen.
Cpl. Kathe DeHeer, with Red Deer City RCMP, said the chaplain program is a very important part of the member wellness program.
She said RCMP officers see things on a regular basis that the general public would be disturbed by. She said the hardest thing for many RCMP members is when they have to deal with a child fatality, especially if the youngster is the same age as their own children.
DeHeer said the chaplains go out on the road with RCMP members, see what they’ve seen and how it affects members and as a result are able to develop that trust so that officers are comfortable talking to them.