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Faith Like a River

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Faith Like a River December 16, 2016  |  By Kevin Vickers
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I live in Miramichi, a very rural, isolated part of New Brunswick. I have a home up in the northwest of Miramichi. It’s where deer go to die. I jumped in my truck this morning at about 7:00 a.m. and I drove up to Hatch Brook, which is about a mile down from Smoker Brook. This is where I went as a little boy, fishing for trout in the river. I stood by the river this morning and I asked, “Why did they invite me here, and what am I going to say to these people?” And I just stood there by the bank of the river and I listened to Hatch Brook flowing into the northwest Miramichi and a voice said, “Kevin, just tell them your story.”

So I’m going to tell you my story.

I was born into a very Catholic family. My dad, Bill Vickers, took me down as a child to Antigonish, N.S., to see St. Francis Xavier University. Apparently I was about a year and half old and there was a Monsignor Cody there. He put his hand on my head and told my father, “Kevin will be a man of great peace. The river will run red with blood and Kevin will bring peace.”

When I look back on my life—and most recently October 22, 2014—it’s been quite a ride. I always think of my father and the things that he told me. As far back as I remember, my father came to my bedside each night and he would say prayers. The one prayer he said to me every night was, “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace. Where there is hatred, let me sew love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.”

I often think of my time growing up as a young boy, the importance of our faith and our Catholic service, the Catholic Mass we went to every day. My dad always instilled in me that the most important gift that I could receive in our faith, in our belief, was the sacrament of Holy Communion. I always had a great reverence for the clergy, and there was a priest that I met early in life who was probably my best friend until he left, Father Brent Roderick. His influence can be seen throughout the course of my life; and in fact, when I was a young boy, I thought I would become a priest. When I went to school and the teachers asked me what I was going to be, I would assertively tell them that I was going to become the Pope.

But that was not to be. I went to school one day and three members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were walking in their red coats, and that was it. I knew exactly what I was going to become. I became a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. My first posting was right here in Toronto. Then I went out to Waterdown, where for three years I was doing investigations against organized crime. I wasn’t much of a Christian then and… Let me just stop right here and say to people of all faiths here tonight—to the Muslim people and the Jewish people and the people of all faiths here—peace, peace be with you.

When we talk about faith and we talk about religion and we talk about Christianity, I think there’s some different fault lines. When I left Toronto, I was going to be stationed in the Northwest Territories, and I went home and made a smart move: I married my high school sweetheart. She was Anglican. I was Catholic. And, of course, that was going to be fine because she was going to follow me, right? That was until her father said there was no way that he was going to that service if that was going to be the case. So we agreed that we would get married in the Anglican Church, and we did that up north when I began my career with the aboriginal peoples of Canada.

I was quite bitter back then, and I guess I’m still bitter today, that my children followed my wife Ann in the Anglican Church, and now my grandchildren are of that faith. So, I guess my message here is this, you know in our faith and our Christianity or whatever tradition that we belong to, there can be challenges for all of us to accommodate and to be inclusive. Up North, in the Northwest Territories, I met a priest, Father Amru, and he and I became very close friends. I learned more then about values in life and about our country and in particular the aboriginal people of Canada.

I remember one day having to go up to Snare Lake, about 100 miles north of Yellowknife, dressed in my red serge, my Stetson, my brown boots. The first thing I had to do was go down to the Royal Bank and get a briefcase full of five-dollar bills because everyone who belonged to Treaty 11 receives a five-dollar bill once a year—they still do this—for having ceded their territory north of Yellowknife. So, I went into Yellowknife, got my briefcase full of five-dollar bills, met up with the deputy minister coming in from Ottawa, went down to a float plane, and off we went to Snare Lake, N.W.T. We arrived; I set up on a picnic table with the briefcase, and the whole community lined up. Everybody signed their name and I gave them their five dollars pursuant to Treaty 11. Afterwards we were invited into the community hall and there was all kinds of food there—moose meat and caribou, lake trout, white fish—and the deputy minister was invited to speak.

The deputy minister told them how lucky they were to belong to Canada. Now they had education, now they had health care, now they had all these wonderful things that Canada had to offer. I was sitting off in a corner in the back of the room and there was this 91-year-old lady, Monique Arrowmaker. Monique had a cane and I could hear her—thump, thump, thump. It took her about five minutes to get to the front of the room. She reached down into her bra and pulled out a medallion. Now, when Treaty 11 was signed, there were 11 medallions made and her father was given one, being a signatory to the treaty. She said, “My father signed that treaty. That was a treaty of peace and friendship, that as long as the rivers flow, the sun rises, this land is our land. Thank you very much for your five dollars. Thank you very much for coming here to see us today. You’re always welcome; you’ll always be treated well. But this land is our land.”

I knew then and there that Canada has a very serious challenge in its accommodations with aboriginal people. And again, I always will remember Father Amru, who had taught them and gone out and learned their language and was very apostolic in teaching them about Mass and serving those people in our Christian faith and Holy Communion.

My career progressed in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Some of you know about my success in getting men who were alleged to have committed homicide to admit their crimes to me. In fact, I’ve taken 17 confessions from men who killed people. I attribute my success in that to my father and to the values that he taught me, always respecting the dignity of people. Each time I would go into an interrogation room, I always would say to myself, regardless how repulsive the crime, that I’d respect the dignity of the person.

After about the eighth time, members of the RCMP wanted to come and watch me interrogate suspects. I remember this one particular case: the accused’s name was Michael, and about three hours in, it wasn’t going anywhere. But we got into a conversation about his son and tears came to his eyes. We talked more about that, then he told me about being sexually assaulted as a young boy. Once we got that off the table, the actual homicide came about. I walked out of the interview room, and there’d be about 12-15 RCMP officers there; and this is what they’d say: “You got the scumbag. You got the piece of human sewage. You got the dirtbag.” And all other kinds of profanities. I just stood there and said, “Guys you just don’t get it.”

As I did with all the people I interviewed and successfully got to confess to the crime, I always stayed in contact with them during their pretrial detention. I’d bring them coffee, I would talk to them, I would bring them books or whatever they wanted. Michael’s trial came; he had a very reputable lawyer from Winnipeg, hired by his dad, who had some money. In court, the lawyer came at me: “You would have said anything, you would have done anything to get my client to confess to this crime.” He attacked me. I mean, it was just up one side and down the other in front of the judge during voir dire until his client, Michael, looked up and said, “Leave Kevin alone.”

I became an inspector of the RCMP. I went down to New Brunswick in 2000. I faced a place called Burnt Church. There was a huge crisis there with regard to the lobster fishery between the Acadian people and the aboriginal people of Burnt Church. Not long after I arrived, the police went out and arrested a whole number of young aboriginal men for fishing lobster out of season. They had fished lobster this way for centuries. It’s just our society, our ways, that imposed time limits with regard to the fishery. The people of Burnt Church were expecting [trouble so] they brought in warriors, aboriginal warriors, from different places in the States, and they blocked the highway. The very first night they did this, they closed the highway. I was able to get our guys to set up a detour around the barricade; and I sent down two of our aboriginal members, RCMP members, in plain clothes and got them to take two big jugs of Tim Hortons coffee and donuts.

Well, the next day Premier Bernard Lord and members of some communities wanted my head. They said the rule of law was being violated. They said, “These guys are breaking the law. Why not enforce the law?” I was told again that there are many tools in the tool box for a police officer, but the last tool that you ever want to use is enforcement. There’s facilitation, respect, education, communication, dialogue—all kinds of tools. Enforcement should be a tool of last resort. At the end of that week, the aboriginal people took the barricade down themselves because I would not allow my officers to engage in enforcement. I was the only one allowed in the community of Burnt Church. ’

But I remember one night there was going to be a particularly violent confrontation. I drove into Burnt Church and there was a member of the warriors with them. They got in the police car and we had a dialogue, a conversation. I wasn’t agreeing with what they wanted to do, and so I don’t know why I did this. I mean, you can’t invent this stuff. I said, “We’re going to pray.” So there I was in a police car full of violent men and I started to say the rosary. Sure enough, they started responding. I was crying and they were answering. Now, we didn’t solve anything that night, but there was no violence. I’ll never forget that. It was a crisis. It was the aboriginal people of Burnt Church against white society; and there I was, the only guy allowed on the reserve, and I’m in the car praying. And the warriors prayed with me.

How we solved the problems in Burnt Church was through education not enforcement. We did some research and we found that when the Acadians were expelled from Nova Scotia, Wolfe and Montcalm were fighting it out on the Plains of Abraham. Wolfe heard about the Acadians coming up into New Brunswick. He dispensed Colonel Murray with three naval ships to go down and get rid of the Acadian people. Murray wrote back to Wolfe on the Plains saying, in obedience to your orders, we’ve sailed into Miramichi Bay. We’ve got rid of the Frenchmen in two of the communities; but in the third community we could not find the Frenchmen for the Indians have hidden them from us. But we burnt everything into the ground, including a beautiful stone church, Burnt Church. I was able to read that letter to them saying, “The reason that you survived as a people was because of the Indians of Burnt Church.”

I went on and up to Ottawa, becoming chief superintendent, just after 9/11. The Muslim people of Canada were feeling very, very targeted and the whole issue across the country and media was racial profiling. So I reached out to the Muslim community. I have a great friend in Ottawa, Momeen Carja, and we did a series of round tables and came up with a policy called Bias-Free Policing, under which police officers’ actions would be based on the actions of people versus their colour or creed. During that time, I often went to Mass and I will often remember reflecting and asking God to help me give direction on those issues.

I left the RCMP soon after. The reason I left was that I saw values being exhibited by senior managers that were not consistent with my values. Especially attitudes toward women and the organization. And then I was asked if I would be interested in going to the House of Commons as director of security. I went down to Parliament, and walking up the Hill, the first thing I saw was a father and son playing Frisbee on the lawns of Parliament; and I said to myself, I want to protect this place.

A year later, there was an open competition for the position of Sergeant-at-Arms. Many people don’t realize what the Sergeant-at-Arms does, but it’s a huge responsibility. Over 1,000 employees look after the operations that support the running of Parliament, the buses, the mail, all the members offices, the renovation of the buildings and, of course, security. So anyways, it was a high-level interview over performance management, performance measurement, performance indicators, priorities, and then they asked me, “Why do you want to become Sergeant-at-Arms?” I thought for a minute, and I told them that I had an Aunt Ann Marie who taught me poetry. One of the poems she taught me was Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall.” I started, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, That sends the frozen ground-swell up under it… Before I built a wall I’d ask to know, What I was walling in or walling out, And to whom I was likely to give offence, Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, That wants it down....”

I looked around the table and I told them, “If you make me the Sergeant-at-Arms, there will be no walls built around Canada’s Parliament buildings.” I looked around the table and they all had tears in their eyes; and I said to myself, “I’ve got the job.” And I did.

Canada’s Parliament is such a special place. And while October 22, 2014, was a tragic day, I’m just hoping that we have the wisdom and the foresight to always keep that place open. That building is not a government building, that’s the House of Commons, that’s your building. Don’t let anybody ever stop you from going there.

So, October 22.

There’s a gentleman at home, Hubert Barnaby, from Hill Ground, one of the reserves, where it’s illegal to fish with a net at nighttime. But Hubert used to take me as a young boy; and I remember the wardens would come with their lights, and Hubert would get me to hide under the ferns in the forest. The ferns would be so thick that when they shined their flashlights down on the ground to find us, they couldn’t penetrate the thickness of the ferns. I can remember reaching out and almost touching the fishery officers’ boots as they walked by.

There was a second—just a second—on October 22 when I was on the side of that pillar and the suspect, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, was on the other, and I had a flashing memory of Hubert and me under the ferns. I’ll always remember that.

I’m not proud of what happened on October 22. I’m not proud of my actions. But I’m going to tell you something that I am proud of. My mother called the following day, and she said, “Kevin Michael, I think you should come home.” I said, “Mom, I’m fine. Everything’s good,” although just a few hours earlier I had woken in the middle of the night crying—the night after the event. Then the following day, my mother called again and said, “Kevin Michael, I think you should come home.” I said, “Mom, I’m fine.” She said, “Yes, but your son, Andrew, and your daughter, Laura, who are adults, they may need you here.” I said, “Mom, they’ll be fine; everything’s good.” Friday, she called again. Saturday she called. “Kevin Michael, I think you should come home.”

So, at noon, I called the acting clerk, Mark Bosc, and I said, “Mark, I’ve got to go home.” I’m driving home; it’s 1,000 kilometres. I’m in northern New Brunswick at about four in the morning, driving across the Renous Highway, and I think of the 17 killers I’ve taken confessions from. And then I’m thinking of the man I shot three days before at the House of Commons. And I asked myself, What am I going to do? I said, When I get home, I’m going to pray for him.

I arrived home at 4:30 in the morning. I phoned our family priest, Father Leon Creamer, and asked him if it would be possible to come up at 11:00 and say Mass. He said, “Kevin I’ll be there.” I phoned my daughter, who lives in Moncton, and she was awake, breastfeeding my four-week-old grandson. She said, “Dad I’ll be there.” My dad has a couple of sisters, Margaret and Charlotte, 88 and 83, who are Catholic nuns down in Saint John. I woke them up in the middle of the night and said, “Father Creamer is coming up to say Mass at 11:00.” They said, “We’ll come.” They had a 3½ hour drive ahead of them.

I went to bed and when I got up, I called my mother and said, “Mom, I’m home.” She was ecstatic. I phoned my son, who’s a police officer, and my sister, Mary. At 11, we all met in my log home in northwest Miramichi, not far from Patch Brook. In the Catholic service, we do readings from the Bible, and then after the readings, we have prayers, intentions of faith, and my mum, always reminding me of my dad’s values in respecting the dignity of people, said a prayer for Cathy Cirillo, Corporal Nathan Cirillo’s mum. Then she said a prayer for the mother of the man I shot, Suzanne Zehaf-Bibeau. Sitting there with my four-week old-grandson, my three-week-old grandson and my six-year-old granddaughter Reece, I reflected on my faith, and I thought how the first person Jesus allowed into the kingdom of Heaven was a convicted criminal crucified alongside Him. It’s probably one of the proudest moments of my life as I sat with my three grandchildren that I said a prayer and asked God’s forgiveness for the man I had shot.

Today, society has become full of hatred. I mean, this man shot and killed Nathan Cirillo in a cowardly act of violence: Why would you pray for him? I’ve had a great deal of reflection about that and God and Christianity and religion, traditions, faith. And I realize tonight what you people from Cardus are trying to do with Faith in Canada 150.

But if there’s a message I could give you, an example I could give you, that I think encompasses what you really want to do, it’s that last April I was invited to Los Angeles to receive the medal of valour from the Simon Wiesenthal Center. So I went, and a medal of valour was given posthumously to Sergeant Zidan Saif, a policeman from the Israeli Druze community. He was shot and killed by two terrorists on November 18, 2014. He and his wife, Renal, had not been married long and had a four-month-old. She came to get the medal for her child. But during the acceptance speech, I’ll never forget this, Renal said to the audience, “I do not hate these men. I do not seek revenge. I ask only for their forgiveness, for I want [my child] to know the power of forgiveness and the weakness of hate. These men were instruments of evil.

So I leave that with you. But I can’t close without saying the power of faith, the goal of Faith in Canada 150. We have a great country, but it can do better. I’ve learned that 1 in 10 Canadians live in poverty. That’s 10 per cent of our population living in poverty. So regardless of your tradition, regardless of your faith, I ask all of you to reflect upon that, and as we move forward as Christians, Jews, Muslims and people of all faiths, that we dig down and think: that’s just not acceptable. Canada can do better; we can do better with our faith, with our traditional beliefs. That comes from my heart.

I still don’t understand, Father Raymond, why you would invite a poor boy from northern New Brunswick to an audience like this, but from the bottom of my heart, thank you very much.

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