For many teens, getting up at the crack of dawn for a run, sitting in a classroom each morning and sleeping only a few hours a night is not exactly their idea of a fun spring break.
But for more than 20 years, that’s exactly how some South Island high schoolers have chosen to spend their holiday, by enrolling in a police camp for students in Grades 10 to 12.
Initially started by the Victoria Police Department, and since taken over by the Saanich Police, the regional camp gives boys and girls a taste of what it’s like to attend a real police academy. Each year 50 kids descend on the Albert Head cadet training centre in Metchosin for the week-long session.
“It’s something you can’t really even describe. It sounds crazy, but it was actually one of the best experiences of my life,” says Austen Whitehead, a Grade 12 student at Oak Bay secondary school who attended last year’s camp.
An interest in a possible future in law enforcement led Whitehead to apply for the camp. A year later, he’s been accepted into the criminology program at Camosun College, with an eye toward possibly joining the reserve constable program in Victoria or Saanich, once his post-secondary education is complete.
A typical day for campers sees them up at 6 a.m. for a run or other physical training. After breakfast, they spend the morning in the classroom, learning about different aspects of the law such as the Criminal Code, the Motor Vehicle Act and the use of force.
Of all the camp activities, however, likely the most fun Whitehead had was during the daily simulations, where the “cadets” would put their classroom learning into practice. Split into teams, the cadets are faced with scenarios where they have to use their newfound knowledge to solve problems and investigate crimes that real police regularly face.
In one such instance, Whitehead had to deal with a woman who had just been robbed by a masked man.
“All of a sudden, she’s like, ‘There he is,’ and points down to the other building, and the masked guy just starts running,” Whitehead recounts. “I chased after him as fast as I could and just tackled him.”
The simulations add a dose of hands-on experience to the camp, but they also allow the cadets to get a better understanding of what the job of a police officer entails.
That understanding played a large role in shaping the career of Saanich police Const. Jon Cawsey. As a Grade 10 student at Stelly’s secondary school in Central Saanich in 1997, Cawsey attended the camp, held then at Shawnigan Lake. Not only did Cawsey – the son of a Saanich police officer – discover a passion for police work, he became committed to volunteering at the camp in subsequent years.
“To give back to the police camp is something I truly believe in,” says Cawsey, who is part of the Saanich Police traffic unit. “The kids take so much from it, and the relationships you can build with them are great.”
Volunteers like Cawsey are what make the camp possible, says Const. Brad Walsh, a Saanich Police school liaison officer who acts as the camp’s director. All told, they number close to 100, including about 20 who commit for the full week.
“We’ve had people come from all the area departments,” Walsh says. “We’ve had them come from as far as Shawnigan Lake, we’ve had some from the military police. It’s pretty cool.”
The payoff – kids learning what police officers face on a daily basis – is worth the effort of all those volunteers.
“You grow pretty close to them over the week,” says Const. Dorothy Junio, school liaison officer with the Oak Bay police department. “It’s a positive experience for them to see police officers in a different light. They understand the job better.”
Adds Walsh: “It’s a big eye-opener for them, because they see us as people, not just as a uniform.”
One of this year’s cadets is Oak Bay High’s Isabella Panzer. The Grade 10 student has an interest in policing – forensics, in particular – and says the variety the job offers is part of the camp’s appeal.
“You’re always doing something different, it’s never the same. Even if you’re doing paperwork, it’s still all different cases,” Panzer says. “It’s never the same and it’s always like an adventure.”
At the end of the camp, the cadets graduate in a ceremony similar to that of their actual police counterparts. Not only is it a proud moment for the kids and their families, the staff enjoy it just as much.
“The amount of pride we feel for these kids who are now young adults … it’s a major highlight,” says Walsh.