The Search and Rescue Association of Alberta is restructuring how it governs and disciplines hundreds of volunteers on 35 teams across the province.
Some members say the administrative change would have helped a troubled search and rescue team in northern Alberta, which has been plagued by internal allegations of sexual assault and harassment.
Technical Search and Rescue Grande Prairie is under investigation by SAR Alberta for the allegations, as well as an online chat group used by certain members to share racially charged and sexually explicit material.
SAR Alberta president David Kaufman said the association might have handled the situation in Grande Prairie differently had policies allowed.
But he said the review of policies was not prompted by the investigation, which started last year.
“Independent of any of the investigations or concerns that may have started to unfold much later, it was important for us to deal with governance because paperwork is always a challenge for a volunteer organization and we were trying to improve the situation,” Kaufman said.
“It was very important to us to create a more formal governance structure.”
Currently, SAR Alberta can suspend a search and rescue group, but cannot dissolve it. The individual teams are self-governing and their codes of conduct, though encouraged, are not mandatory.
The association last year contracted NorQuest College in Edmonton to study how the volunteer organization is structured and run in Alberta.
A draft of the findings will be shared and put to a vote at an annual general meeting for search and rescue teams in Alberta, which is scheduled for April 27 in Drayton Valley.
‘Noblest of intentions’
During the yearly gathering, SAR Alberta board members will also meet with directors of the Grande Prairie TSR group with the intention of concluding the investigation, Kaufman said.
He confirmed the team’s former president, Dennis Walker, resigned from his position in late 2017.
Walker was the administrator of the private chat group under investigation by SAR Alberta, according to members of the online conversation.
Grande Prairie RCMP also investigated Walker based on an allegation of sexual assault in 2017. The investigation closed in January 2018 with no charges laid.
Walker is charged with sexual assault, stemming from a separate incident in April 2017 that involved a search and rescue volunteer from another Alberta team.
In response to a request for comment, Walker referred CBC News to his lawyer Chris Millsap.
Millsap, a criminal defence lawyer with Liberty Law in Grande Prairie, said Walker will not comment on the case until it has been ruled on in court.
“Mr. Walker denies all of the allegations made against him,” Millsap told CBC News.
Kaufman declined to comment on Walker’s situation. He also did not elaborate on the SAR Alberta investigation into the Grande Prairie search and rescue team, stating the file is still open.
“The volunteers of search and rescue work with the noblest of intentions,” Kaufman told CBC News.
“If there are any individuals within that framework that are hurtful or can cause problems to anyone, either on the teams or in the community, we want to be able to provide a framework to allow that type of behaviour to be highlighted and for that type of behaviour to be stopped in its track.”
‘We’re willing to own mistakes of the past’
Grande Prairie’s TSR elected a new president, Christina Fobes, in February. Fobes started volunteering for the group two years ago.
“Our team was not the best that it could be,” she told CBC News.
“We’re willing to own mistakes of the past and we’re willing to move forward. We want to move forward because it is an invaluable resource in this community and we do a lot for this community.”
Fobes and the team’s board of directors are working with SAR Alberta to review its policies, she said.
The review is separate from the ongoing investigation, Fobes said. She confirmed the investigation deals with allegations of sexual assault and harassment, as well as the private chat group.
The group, set up on the WhatsApp messenger app, included Fobes and at one point at least 17 other members.
A chat log shows some members used the group to share sexual or racist jokes, pictures and comments.
The culture that existed at GP TSR no longer exists and it will never exist again.– Christina Fobes , Grande Prairie TSR President
“It is our commitment to move forward from the past, to ensure that the public is safe, to ensure that our membership is safe, to ensure that they’re heard and ensure that they come into a safe environment,” Fobes said. “The culture that existed at GP TSR no longer exists and it will never exist again.”
‘They were enabling this culture’
Former TSR member Josiah Gill said the Grande Prairie volunteer group hasn’t done enough to take responsibility for past conduct.
Gill left the team and his position as its logistics director in February, after running unsuccessfully against Fobes for the role of president.
“I lost trust in the board and I felt like I could not support the organization any further,” Gill told CBC News.
He had previously reported both the chat group and Walker to SAR Alberta, which he said triggered the investigation.
Gill was a member of the chat group and said he was added without first giving permission. He decided to remain as a member so he could track conversations for his report to SAR Alberta, Gill said.
He wants the members who shared offensive content to be dismissed from TSR Grande Prairie for blurring the line between professional and personal communication in an inappropriate way, he said.
“It is deplorable, the fact that they were participating in this app,” Gill said. “I believe the culture is why the sexual harassment happened … I feel as if they were enabling this culture.”
You need to behave in such a way as if people are watching, because they are.– Josiah Gill, former Grande Prairie TSR member
Gill said he was disappointed to learn how little SAR Alberta could do about his concerns.
He is now lauding the association’s move to assume more powers over search and rescue teams in the province. Gill said he believes the culture within his own team wouldn’t have deteriorated had the association had the authority to step in sooner.
“This would have been dealt with, this wouldn’t be an issue and this wouldn’t be an embarrassment,” he said.
Until SAR Alberta has the teeth to discipline team leaders within the organization, Gill said he hopes the directors of his former group will put the interests of search and rescue missions above all else.
“It’s time to smarten up, it’s time to behave yourself, it’s time to take responsibility for what you’ve done,” Gill said. “You need to behave in such a way as if people are watching, because they are.”
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Sherwood Park is a large hamlet in Alberta, Canada within Strathcona County that is recognized as an urban service area. It is located adjacent to the City of Edmonton’s eastern boundary, generally south of Highway 16 (Yellowhead Trail), west of Highway 21 and north of Highway 630 (Wye Road). Other portions of Sherwood Park extend beyond Yellowhead Trail and Wye Road, while Anthony Henday Drive (Highway 216) separates Refinery Row to the west from the balance of the hamlet to the east.
Sherwood Park was established in 1955 on farmland of the Smeltzer family, east of Edmonton. With a population of 70,618 in 2016, Sherwood Park has enough people to be Alberta’s seventh largest city, but technically retains the status of a hamlet. The Government of Alberta recognizes the Sherwood Park Urban Service Area as equivalent to a city.
Sherwood Park, originally named Campbelltown, was founded by John Hook Campbell and John Mitchell in 1953 when the Municipal District of Strathcona No. 83 approved their proposed development of a bedroom community east of Edmonton. The first homes within the community were marketed to the public in 1955. Canada Post intervened on the name of Campbelltown due to the existence of several other communities in Canada within the same name, so the community’s name was changed to Sherwood Park in 1956.
The Sherwood Park Urban Service Area is located in the Edmonton Capital Region along the western edge of central Strathcona County adjacent to the City of Edmonton. The majority of the community is bound by Highway 16 (Yellowhead Highway) to the north, Highway 21 to the east, Highway 630 (Wye Road) to the south, and Anthony Henday Drive (Highway 216) to the west. The Refinery Row portion of Sherwood Park is located across Anthony Henday Drive to the west, between Sherwood Park Freeway and Highway 16. Numerous developments fronting the south side of Wye Road, including Wye Gardens, Wye Crossing, Salisbury Village and the Estates of Sherwood Park, are also within the community. Lands north of Highway 16 and south of Township Road 534/Oldman Creek between Range Road 232 (Sherwood Drive) to the west and Highway 21 to the east are also within the Sherwood Park urban service area.
Originally posted 2018-04-17 09:16:31. Republished by Blog Post Promoter