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Camp helps rebuild a long-lost trust

Police and First Nations come together in sport
Youth from the Tsleil-Waututh, Squamish and Musqueam First Nations attend the camp each year, with 118 up for the week this summer.

POLICE officers with the North Shore's Integrated First Nations Unit got a chance to take off their uniforms earlier this month and don a new wardrobe: one of camp counsellor.

Starting Aug. 2, members of the North and West Vancouver unit led the third annual Project ESCAPe, a week-long outdoor excursion for First Nations youth. Set at Camp Jubilee on Indian Arm, the event is helping teach kids life skills - while at the same time rebuilding some bridges that were eroded a long ago.

"There's a whole historical mistrust between aboriginal communities and especially the RCMP, and I think as with any community, it's really good to build those kinds of relationships," said Carleen Thomas, manager of education

for the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation who, together with the Squamish and Musqueam First Nations, help fund and send youth to the camp.

Along with the usual camping activities the excursion features canoeing, kayaking, archery, high-ropes, rock climbing and outdoor survival training.

Founded in 2009, ESCAPe was the brainchild of North Vancouver RCMP Const. Joey Starr, who said he based the idea on a similar camp he took part in as a Mountie in Mission.

Starr, a member of the First Nations unit, said he knows he's on the right track by the response he gets in his day-today job. By fall, teenagers will flag him down to ask him about next year's camp.

"You're not just a cop who might be looking for them; you're someone who they had a water fight with, someone they have sat next to at a campfire and chatted with about what's on

their mind that day. It just totally changes the dynamic," said Starr, who was joined this year by West Vancouver Const. Jeff Palmer.

The two officers didn't do so well in that water fight, admitted Palmer. "(We got) ganged up and teamed up on," he said.

The project is growing. This year, ESCAPe saw 118 students aged 7-16 attend. That's a more than three-fold increase over the camp's first iteration in 2009, when just 36 came out.

The endeavour received about $60,000 in funding this year, which includes $10,000 from the RCMP's Mounted Police Foundation in addition to funding from each of the First Nations, some corporate sponsors and Camp Jubilee itself.

Starr said organizers hope to add to that figure next year and expand the project with more focused leadership camps.

Thirteen-year-old Joelle Johnston was among the campers this year. She has attended every one of the camps so far. The expeditions, she said, have given her a sense of achievement.

Joelle overcame a fear of heights to do a high-rope obstacle course through the forest canopy, and had her mettle tested on one especially harrowing kayaking trip.

"My first year, I got sick, so I had to go back. I kayaked on the way back, and just doing that stretch really gave me that accomplished feeling," said the Collingwood student. "I learned that I can do more than what I think I can do."

Starr said those kinds of skills come in handy later in life. "We're teaching the kids to try new things, to challenge themselves, so that in time when they go out for education and for work, they're going to be more inclined to do that kind of stuff; (They'll be) used to challenging themselves."

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