Naming the Crisis in a Saskatchewan Rural Community
Church activities during a time of trauma…
by Colleen Rickard as told by Rev. Leigh Sinclair
In July 2006 a shooting took place near the rural community of Spiritwood, Saskatchewan (population 1000). Three constables responded to a domestic complaint which led to a 27 km car chase, pursuing a 41 year old local man. Eventually gunfire was exchanged and two RCMP officers were fatally shot; the third officer was seriously injured. The shooter escaped on foot into familiar bush and pasturelands. Media and police from across Canada arrived for the manhunt. Police were unsure of the shooter’s whereabouts or state of mind and everyone stayed in town with farmers being escorted to go out to feed their cattle. After 12 days, the shooter turned himself in, thanks to a local family whom he trusted and had turned to. When this all happened, Reverend Leigh Sinclair, recently ordained, had been serving for about a year in Spiritwood’s shared Lutheran/United Church. She was away at a Lutheran convention when the call came about the shooting. Operating with few details she went home. The trauma to the town was two-fold. First was the violence and loss of the RCMP officers who had been very active in the community. Second, the crime had been done by a Spiritwood born-and-raised man. Townfolk had gone to school with him or had taught him, or played hockey with him or his father. Everyone felt they had been personally impacted. The Catholic church and the RCMP took care of the victims of the shooting. Rev. Leigh’s congregation swung into action, serving the shooter’s estranged family and the rest of the town. “We prayed,” said Leigh, “asking God for a miracle so that things would all end non-violently.” The answer came when the shooter walked out of bush and into his 4H leader’s farmyard. The couple told him he could come in and have tea. So around the kitchen table they talked and waited with him. When the time came with a decision made, they called ahead to the police and said they were bringing him in. The couple put him in the back seat of their car, covered him up and drove to town. He was out of Spiritwood by the time anyone realized he was in custody.” The shooter’s mom lived in Spiritwood. She was Lutheran, but not active. Elsie and her family welcomed Leigh with open arms and Leigh found herself being their voice and face in the media while the manhunt was on. “The RCMP media-people taught me how to make media statements” said Leigh. “And I was able to speak the actual words that Elsie gave me. I spoke on behalf of the town as well; most had never spoken in front of a crowd or a camera and they were grateful to have someone with my training to do that for them. They were also grateful that I kept listening to them so that I could reflect on everything they were feeling – everything from grief, shock, guilt and anger to the huge generosity that came from town to the RCMP. “Five hundred RCMP came to help search in our back yards. They slept on our curling rink floor and I watched the generosity from the town flood them. Women, for example, picked up the officers’ laundry and when they got up for their next shift, they found a plastic bag with cleaned and folded clothing ready for them. Elsie offered her gift of love too. She felt like she had lost a member of her own family because one of the officers who died had been there for her on the day she made one last trip to her abuse-filled home to pick up her things. So the first thing (besides their orders) that the officers received when they got to Spiritwood was Elsie’s wonderful cinnamon twists and buns. “I was overwhelmingly blessed by my community and particularly the congregation”, recalled Leigh. “They immediately said to me, ‘Go! Go out into the street. Don’t write a sermon this week. Don’t have office hours this week. Go and be wherever you need to be.’ At the first media scrum, I saw a couple from my congregation. They stood about a block away and held hands and wrapped me up in prayer.” Both RCMP and family were getting calls from the media for statements. “I felt such powerful emotions,” said Leigh tearfully. “Elsie and her daughter asked me to speak for them because they wanted to protect themselves and other members of the other side of the family. They were so grace-filled. I was very honoured to do that. And I witnessed such profound courage from them as they insisted that the real, deep-seated story be told - that the shooting was ultimately a consequence of terrible domestic violence. If this truth was covered up, then the story being told across the country would simply have been about people who hate the police.“ The dispute that preceded the shooting was linked to decades of abuse and to the shooter’s parents' drawn-out divorce. The shooter was a victim himself, growing up in an abusive home, learning to be violent and fearful of police. As a result, both he and his father were well-known to the police. “And it’s so hard,” said Leigh, “to tackle something like this in a small town where everybody knows everything but no one is allowed to say anything. So many people had poured love onto the two children who lived in that home --- teachers, 4H leaders, coaches, and others.