Amongst the scents of sacred medicines, smudging and cleansing the circle that formed the welcoming ceremony at Shkagamik-Kwe Health Centre, a ‘strong heart’ was added to the Greater Sudbury Police spiritual team.
A proud member of Nipissing First Nation, George Couchie, whose Ojibwe name is Zoongiday, (Strong Heart), will be adding his spiritual wisdom and cultural understanding to the GSPS Spiritual team, a team of spiritual advisors in place to assist officers in processing on the job stress, as well as supporting officers on difficult assignments. Other members of the team include Father Ron Perron, Pastor David Spencer and Chaplain Sheila McKillop.
Couchie’s position on the spiritual team marks the first time an Indigenous person has been included.
“Traditionally members of the spiritual team have used the title chaplain,” said Pedersen. “As George is a proud member of Nipissing First Nation, and utilizes cultural and traditional teaching in delivering his training program, he will be using the title Shkaabewis. The traditional meaning for this is ‘helper’.”
“The spiritual team is available to counsel GSPS members in response to stress or family crisis, to visit with sick or injured members at their homes or in hospital, and advise me in all matters of a religious or spiritual nature involving the police service,” said Pedersen. “In community relations, in crisis situations, the presence of a trained chaplain or spiritual leader may be of benefit by accompanying our officers to assist in things like death notifications, offering prayers at special occasions, or providing assistance to victims of crime.”
Pederson told Sudbury.com that Couchie’s more than 30 years of policing experience, from North Bay Police Services to the OPP to the last few years training GSPS officers, “really does bring instant understanding and instant credibility. And so he's able to say things in a way that translates well to how the officers hear things.”
Couchie, who is also an author and former powerlifter, told Sudbury.com he was the first self-identified Indigenous police officer with North Bay police.
“I was the first Indigenous police officer with North Bay City Police that identified,” he said. “There were others, but they never wanted to identify until after they retired.”
He said he had many interactions with Indigenous people as an officer in North Bay, and that many were young people coming from the James Bay coast, survivors of trauma, and often, residential schools.
“They were survivors from the residential school, and as a young officer, I didn't know any of that,” Couchie told Sudbury.com. “And I look back on my career now and think, ‘I wish I would have been more compassionate when dealing with those young people’. And that's what I tell officers now, that we really need to be more compassionate when we're dealing with the public: not just the victims, but the accused, and also listening to those stories.”
Pederson said the empathy that Couchie brings to the spiritual team will be invaluable.
“Some of the training that George has delivered and continues to deliver our organization is all about empathy; it's all about the person behind the person that you see,” he said. “And it really is about being more compassionate.”
“I often say, there's nobody that in their childhood says, ‘I can't wait to grow up and go to jail; I can't wait to grow up and live with addictions’,” said Pederson. “These are people just like us, and right now we find ourselves in crisis and if our officers can be more compassionate in dealing with that, we can really become a community.”
Jenny Lamothe is a reporter with Sudbury.com. She covers the diverse communities of Sudbury, especially the vulnerable or marginalized, including the Black, Indigenous, newcomer and Francophone communities, as well as 2SLGBTQ+ and issues of the downtown core.