By Canadian Ranger Master Corporal Chris Vernon
A Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) chaplain who counsels army members struggling with mental health issues says the pandemic forced the 3rd Canadian Ranger Patrol Group (3CRPG) to come up with innovative digital ways to reach members in distress.
Captain Michael Bowyer serves as the chaplain to 3CRPG, where many members are predominantly First Nation and serve in isolated northern Ontario communities with fly-in or ice road access only.
“If you have mental health issues in Barrie where there are resources, that’s one thing, but if you have a mental health issue in the Hudson Bay area, that’s another thing,” said Capt. Bowyer.
His work not only includes meeting and counselling individuals traumatized by the aftermath of colonization and residential school victimization, but also individuals who are dealing with the impact of domestic operations (floods, fire, search and rescues and social crisis).
At the height of the pandemic, several First Nation communities with active local Canadian Ranger Patrols north of the 50th parallel were placed in isolation, preventing Capt. Bowyer from being able to fly in and meet a member in distress, or fly them out for counselling.
However, when 3CRPG began using social media to keep in touch with members during the pandemic, it unlocked a fast and new avenue for Capt. Bowyer to provide assistance – anytime, anyplace. Many areas where 3CRPG operates have limited landline and cellular phone communications, yet social media is widely popular.
3CRPG is continually looking to improve mental health support for Canadian Rangers and staff, and social media is one of several tools Capt. Bowyer said he uses to start a dialogue with them.
“With social media, members in crisis can now contact me instantly, right away,” said Capt. Bowyer, who then can follow-up privately with the individual through landlines or other means of confidential communication.
Capt. Bowyer hosts weekly group online wellness chats live with members of the unit with the focus on mental health and wellness, and he said he plans to offer wellness chats this spring for members of the Junior Canadian Rangers youth program.
Another example of the tools used by the unit is the CAF Sentinel Program. Sentinels are trained to help identify signs of distress in their fellow CAF colleagues and are then able to gently guide them to support networks and resources, including the chain of command. Capt. Bowyer recently trained six 3CRPG headquarters staff at Canadian Forces Base Borden to be qualified Sentinels where these individuals could potentially assist Canadian Rangers.
The CAF also has several wellness apps members can access, including Respect in the CAF and the Road to Mental Readiness (R2MR) Mental Health Continuum.
“Knowledge and knowing is half the battle. Providing our members with resiliency training, education on the programs and resources, combined with the continuation of community visits are the core of 3CRPG’s efforts to support mental wellness for all its members. Through the use of these tools, we are better situated to assist our Canadian Rangers with contacting, and obtaining access to mental health care,” said Capt. Bowyer.
Canadian Rangers are a sub-component of the CAF reserve force, primarily serving in remote and coastal First Nation communities in Canada. Their role is to provide a military presence and surveillance in these areas, as well as assist with search-and-rescue, disaster relief, and other domestic operations as required.
Ontario’s Canadian Rangers are headquartered CFB Borden.