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Women cry and hug beside a makeshift memorial near the scene of the multiple fatal stabbings in northwest Calgary on Wednesday, April 16, 2014. (Larry MacDougal/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Women cry and hug beside a makeshift memorial near the scene of the multiple fatal stabbings in northwest Calgary on Wednesday, April 16, 2014. (Larry MacDougal/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

A crisis-response specialist talks about the Calgary stabbings Add to ...

As executive director of the Canadian Centre for Threat Assessment and Trauma Response, Kevin Cameron spends his days trying to defuse crisis situations and help victims, families, schools and communities make sense of tragedies that seem nonsensical. He became immersed in this line of work after leading the crisis-response team sent in after a 14-year-old boy entered a high school in Taber, Alta., and opened fire, killing one and wounding another in 1999. In an interview with The Globe and Mail, the Alberta-based Mr. Cameron talks about the danger of imitators, and the importance of both immediate crisis support and follow-up care for communities struck by violence.

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Do tragedies like this happen too often?

Way too often. I do two things in my line of work. One is homicide risk assessment to hopefully prevent these things from happening, and the other part is crisis trauma response. We knew after the Pennsylvania stabbing [in which a 16-year-old stabbed or slashed 21 students with two knives in a school hallway last week] that the intense media coverage of that tragic event would mean that we would see the intensification of threats from others to duplicate that crime. And in the aftermath, there have been more knife-related incidents, including the office knife stabbing in north Toronto the same day. We operate under one standard: that the majority of offenders tend to be imitators, not innovators. Tragedies like this tend to spur on the imitators.

Why is it so important trauma experts are on site after a tragedy?

The world of crisis trauma response is not about grief counselling, which many people mistakenly think it is. If there has been a profound trauma, including shocking traumatic stimuli such as in Calgary, we understand when the human organism is impacted by trauma, it stores that trauma in the body at the cellular level, meaning you can’t think it away. So how we respond in the early phases, and the way we help people later on, that foundation becomes a springboard to eventual healing. The better we deal openly with trauma, and the effects of trauma, creates a willingness for people to talk. If discourse shuts down then we see situations like Fort Hood, for example, which had two shootings. Those tragedies show how untreated trauma is often behind violence. By effectively treating trauma, we can hopefully avoid more violence in the aftermath.

What should the University of Calgary do?

An institution’s job in a situation like this is to both support the individuals who have been directly exposed to the tragedy, as well as those affected peripherally. For instance, there might be a dorm mate who didn’t know one of the victims, who is nevertheless struggling because they had a knife pulled on them five years ago but never talked about it. So part of the work cut out for the university is triaging those immediately impacted, those peripherally impacted, and those who may not even be directly connected to the case but have had traumas in their past with similar elements.

What is one of the biggest challenges?

Immediate response is not the difficult part, believe it or not. Most schools, colleges and families respond similarly to the trauma. There’s shock, tears, distress. The complex work is in the weeks and months that follow. In Sandy Hook, for instance, when the dust settles, the media are no longer there, and the funerals have been performed – in other words, when those artificial supports are withdrawn and a community is left to deal with it on their own – that is when the real work begins. The tricky thing is keeping the institution open and approachable to staff and fellow students trying to sift through this. Many schools or colleges become traumatically closed and they simply stop talking about it because they can only function by denying it even occured. When that happens we often get a second set of traumatic incidences, because if people are struggling and no one is listening to them, we see more aggressiveness and violence.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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