Recreational opportunities are not a luxury in the North: long nights, cold temperatures, and high unemployment can already make life in Northern Manitoba psychologically challenging. Even the gruffest woodsman will tell you that boredom is a killer. Boredom saps the will, contributes to depression and social isolation, and encourages petty delinquency among disaffected youth and grown individuals alike. Such is the case in Leaf Rapids, a former mining town whose population has all but collapsed since the local mine’s closure in 2002. Today, the population has shrunk to 453, and has left local youth with little to do.
For the small team of RCMP officers stationed in Leaf Rapids, ensuring a safe and healthy community involves more than the usual police beat. Spearheaded two years ago by Const. Cameron Moate and joined by officers Greg Redl, George Whelan, Mike Hogarth, Brooke Ostendorf, Kris Kohalmi, Shaun Sample, and Rahel Hamilton, Leaf Rapids RCMP have worked together to provide active and enriching programs the communities youth, hosting floor hockey, gymnastics, and archery for an average of 40-70 students, twice a week.
Redl, speaking on behalf of his fellow officers, explains how the program started: “When an RCMP candidate graduates from our program in Depot, part of his training in the field includes a community project, where they have to identify a need and come up with a solution to that need. Const. Cameron Moate, who graduated two years ago, noted that there wasn’t a lot for the youth in the community to do, and felt that was probably contributing to some of the property crime rates in the area. His solution to the problem was to come up with a youth activity involving the RCMP, and since floor hockey was something he enjoyed, he decided that’s what he would do, and we got on board.” Const. Brooke Ostendorf initiated the gymnastics program when she arrived a year later, filling a gender gap which emerged when the floor hockey program was first implemented: while no shortage of boys showed up to play hockey every week, the activity seemed to hold little appeal for the community’s female youth. Ostendorf drew on her background in university-level gymnastics and cheerleading to organize a gymnastics program more appealing to the majority of Leaf Rapids’ yougn women and girls, which has also proven to be exceptionally popular.
Redl himself also instructs students in archery, supplementing the Frontier School District’s Frontier Games: “One of the events is archery, and the school didn’t really have anyone who knew much about it.” George Pickett, a physical edcuation instructor at the Leaf Rapids Educational Centre, approached Redl to help teach the kids the fundamentals. The classes became a weekly event, hosted Thursday nights, as well as an occasional visit to local gym classes: Redlhosted four gym classes last week, teaching archery to Grades 4 and 5.
Being an RCMP officer places individuals in a unique position to be a profound role model for youth, and profoundly influence the way they will view society and authority for their adult lives. The program is more than a publicity stunt for local authorities, however, and the officers regularly involve other figures in the community whenever possible: “It’s to promote positive interaction between youth and RCMP, but also just to provide positive role models for kids who may not have that in their own life. We also invite other adults in the community that we think would be a good influence as well.” Last week, paramedics on rotation from Winnipeg were among those who were invited out.
The after-school programs aren’t the only programs which the officers take part in: many are regular co-ordinators of the local Terry Fox Run, and Redl noted that last week, Ostendorf was at the local school, reading to students as part of a literacy program. “Brooke in particular, the girls in town just love her. You can see them following her around in the mall.”
Redl is realistic about the effect their efforts have in the community. “We’re a small team up here in Leaf Rapids, and we’re a small piece of the puzzle.” Nonetheless, the programs have been a great success. He jokingly lamented the amount of kids who showed up to participate every night: “We usually like to get out and play some floor hockey with the kids ourselves, but the program has gotten so successful, we don’t get as much time on the floor.”