When the New Hazelton police cruiser crested the hill to join the Youth Career Discoveries forestry camp, a wave of apprehension washed over the kids.
Whispers of "why are the cops here?" passed from person to person, underscoring the fear and mistrust of police that still exist in rural northern communities like New Hazelton, B.C.
The RCMP officers did not come to reprimand or lecture the young campers. They simply came to hang out.
"The officers took the time to sit around the campfire and listen to kids' stories," says Karla Rockwell, director of human resources and youth initiatives at Gitxsan Development Corporation (GDC), which ran the camps. "Kids aren't going to respect you just because you're a police officer, you have to put in the time."
The Youth Career Discoveries program began in 2014 with the goal of helping high school students build skills to get jobs after graduating. The camps focus on teaching skills related to the B.C. resource sector, such as construction and forestry, where most of the job opportunities exist.
New Hazelton is nestled in Gitxsan traditional territory, so most of the kids involved in the program come from Aboriginal communities. GDC is a holding company that operates on 33,000 kilometres of Gitxsan indigenous land in northern B.C. The company also funds several youth initiatives, including Youth Career Discoveries.
"There are a number of barriers Aboriginal youth face, like high unemployment, depression and family issues," says Rockwell. "We wanted to do something that would impact the community and build up the youth."
This past summer, Rockwell approached Sgt. Antonio Hernandez, New Hazelton detachment commander, about getting the RCMP involved.
"I thought it was a great idea, it was something I wanted to do as the new detachment commander," says Hernandez. "I wanted to change the culture of our office, focusing more on community events and engagement."
Over the course of several weeks this summer, six New Hazelton police officers participated in the camps, which drew about 50 kids from the small town.
Officers like Cst. Kevin Hopkinson came to share stories about their careers: why they joined the RCMP, the rewards and challenges, as well as what they deal with day-to-day. Hopkinson also shared some of his experiences planting trees before joining the RCMP.
"It was interesting to watch the kids transition from day one to the end of the camp," he says. "We had a big bonfire, and everyone was sitting in a circle talking about their life experiences…it was almost like a healing group, kids talked about the issues they had, and how the camp helped them overcome hurdles in their lives."
Hopkinson described one boy who had attended the forestry camp and seemed to have trouble fitting in. By the end, the boy realized that others could appreciate him for who he was. He left the camp with a few new friends, and a newfound self-confidence.
Hopkinson did more than just talk to the kids; he went out to teach, play, listen and bond.
"He was crawling around in the woods on his belly, he played capture the flag and manhunt with the kids," says Rockwell.
Hopkinson stresses the importance of breaking the "police stereotype" among youth in communities like New Hazelton.
"Being able to meet a police officer in plain clothes shows that we are people as well, and we can communicate with them on their level," he says.
Sgt. Hernandez has also made this the goal of the detachment.
"We want to change the perception that the RCMP has more to offer than just police work, and we want to reach out to communities to find out what their needs are and what we can do to help."
GDC plans to continue several youth initiatives in 2016, including the camp; Hernandez and Hopkinson both say they would gladly participate again.
"It's amazing what can happen in a week when officers put in the time to start building relationships with these kids," says Rockwell. "You could see the wheels turning in the kids' heads and by the end of the summer a few of them said 'I want to be a police officer!'"
Reprinted with permission from the Pony Express (No. 5, 2015).