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Training For Trouble

by Andrew F. Maksymchuk


“Don’t puke on the grass!” yelled the physical training instructor. I turned my head toward the pavement. “Don’t barf on the pavement!” shouted the same instructor. To hell with you, I thought to myself as I let it go halfway up Passchendaele Hill on Canadian Forces Base Petawawa. By the time my regurgitation ceremony was over, the group I was with had slowed to a walk at the top of the steepest hill at the army base northwest of Ottawa.

The year was 1975 and I was one of 27 members of the Ontario Provincial Police who had been selected to train for a new tactics and rescue unit created by the OPP to deal with possible terrorist activity in Ontario during the 1976 Olympics. The unit’s creation was prompted in part by a number of events, including the October Crisis of 1970 and the 1972 terrorist massacre of 11 Israelis at the Olympic Village in Munich, Germany. It was also prompted by studies that showed violence could be minimized or even eliminated if a specially trained tactical unit could respond quickly to armed confrontations.

While Montreal would host the ’76 Olympics, the yachting events were scheduled for Lake Ontario off Kingston. The OPP would help by providing security for the yacht races and its competing sailors. It was agreed that the military training for the tactics and rescue unit would last five weeks and include firearms, ordnance, rappelling, camouflage, concealment and movement, problem-solving and dim-light observation.

The men selected for training came from every corner of the province. Indeed, we were strangers to each other and our backgrounds, interests and abilities differed substantially. The only common denominator was that each of us, at one point in our policing careers, had been involved in a life-threatening situation.

Everyone in the group held the rank of constable with the exception of myself and one other corporal. I was a month short of my 33rd birthday and had just over 11 years of police service, including a posting to Central Patricia in Northern Ontario (Policing The Wilds, March/April). I had passed all the selection criteria–the interviews, psychological tests, physical tests–and had convinced myself that I was as fit as a 20-year-old, but I was mistaken.

The military unit selected to train us as a special police unit was 3rd Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment, and those first few days at Petawawa felt as if a big door had closed between us and our regular employer. We were entirely at the mercy of the Canadian military training instructors, and it became very clear that they could do with us as they saw fit in both rewards and punishment. Almost all of us lacked any knowledge of military training and we were convinced the instructors would be rubbing their hands with glee to have such control over civilian cops. Our run in a wide assortment of civilian clothing proved we wouldn’t be treated with kid gloves.

However, we soon came to realize that our instructors were skilled, intelligent and highly motivated members of the Armed Forces who had been around long enough to know people and how to deal with them.

In his opening statement to us, the battalion’s commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel David B. Ells, said he hadn’t asked for us to be on the army base. In fact, he said he didn’t really want us on the base, but since we were on the base he would make the best of the situation. We later learned that the popular colonel frequently used this type of tongue-in-cheek method to deliver his message of base conduct. He made it very clear that our little drop of blue in a sea of green would not be receiving any preferential treatment, and that we had better follow the rules.

Besides running, our training included swimming, which most of us enjoyed. One morning we arrived at the pool to see several soldiers standing equidistant around the pool’s edge. Something was up. Coveralls and old boots were tossed to each of us and before we knew it our arms were handcuffed behind our backs and we were ordered, five at a time, to jump into the deep end. We were told that if we didn’t panic, kept our heads tilted back and relaxed, we would be able to float with our faces above the water. We were in for only six minutes, but it seemed like a lifetime.

The sight of military personnel standing ready with long, hooked poles didn’t foster a calming effect, but everyone kept their cool, including one member who found he wasn’t at all buoyant. In order to overcome this problem, he permitted himself to sink until his feet touched the bottom of the pool. This enabled him to thrust his body upward for another breath.

The intensity of the training increased daily. One of the military’s most highly trained snipers, Sergeant Joe Skerry, took us through cover, concealment and movement techniques. We were taught night vision tricks and a myriad of other skills. From Sgt. Jim McMoran we learned the fine art of proper rifle shooting in just about every conceivable weather condition. A welcome sight during these exercises was Warrant Officer Keith Wyonch with his supply of hot hay-box meals and elaborate coffee break snacks.

One particular memorable training session was conducted by Sgt. Wally Adams. As we sat on bleachers on the firing range, he rubbed what appeared to be playdough between his hands. He formed a long cord and wrapped it around a wooden post purposely set up for his demonstration. He then inserted a blasting cap and, while barely able to contain his excitement, touched the wires of the blasting cap to a battery. The resulting explosion cut the post in half and left us startled and amazed at its effects.

Adams then pulled small pieces of the playdough from his supply, rolled them into small balls and then tossed them in our direction. After a mad scramble to prevent the balls from striking any hard object, we were told by Adams how harmless C4 was without the electrical current. Prior to that demonstration, none of us had ever dealt with that type of material. However, before the end of our training session, the valuable lessons from Adams had demonstrated how easy it was to transport and conceal C4. We also learned how to use it to open locked doors or make doorways in walls.

I also recall how the stillness of the barracks erupted early one morning with shouts, thumps and the slamming of doors. I leapt out of bed thinking all hell had broken loose. My bedside clock read 2 a.m. I looked out the door and saw all of our instructors yelling for us to grab our gear and get into the deuce-and-a halfs. The trucks delivered us to a snow-covered field where we were told to make our way to an abandoned building in the centre of the field. We were to get there by using our training techniques and any topographical advantage we could find. The instructors explained that they would monitor and evaluate our movements.

After each of us put on our white parka and trouser shell, we began the slow, cold arduous task of crossing the field. Slowly but steadily we inched our way toward the old building, and after what seemed like hours we were within 25 metres of the dark and silent objective.

None of us was prepared for the tumultuous event that unfolded. Suddenly there were blinding flashes followed by deafening roars. Smoke grenades popped and spewed orange, green and grey smoke. I saw several muzzle flashes coming from the house and heard men shouting. We nearly crapped our drawers! The men in the house–all volunteer military personnel–were teaching us a valuable lesson: Nothing is as it seems. Take nothing for granted and expect the unexpected.

Our group had several rappelling training sessions with Sgt. Dave Janssen before we were given the opportunity to rappel from two Huey helicopters as they hovered 50 metres above the ground. Excitement filled the air when the birds thundered into view. We hurriedly tied rappel harnesses around our thighs and waist with short pieces of rope. Everyone wanted to be first in the air. By the end of the day, each of us had taken several exhilarating jumps. Unfortunately, we also had two injured members, one with a broken leg and the other nursing a twisted ankle.

Tactics and rescue operations demand superb skill, fitness, high motivation, split-second timing, cool judgment and teamwork. Twenty-five of the 27 police officers selected for the course passed. These men formed the nucleus of what would become an effective, well-equipped and well-trained tactical squad known as the Tactics and Rescue Unit, TRU.

During the course of the Olympic yachting events at Kingston, there were occasions when intelligence sources indicated potential problems. Fortunately, no major incidents occurred and the few minor situations were handled effectively. It might suggest that no acts of aggression had been planned, but it might also suggest that effective security and preparedness proved a sound deterrent.

Following the Olympics, TRU was divided into five, five-man units strategically located throughout the province. Each team had to be ready to respond to any high-risk threat if requested. I became the leader of the team based at Downsview, Ont., on the northern edge of Toronto, and quite often we took advantage of the facilities at CFB Downsview for our monthly training sessions.

Every six months all of the TRU units would meet for ongoing training at CFB Borden. These sessions were co-ordinated by our own training personnel, but we would occasionally tap the expertise of military personnel such as Lieutenant-Colonel Ivor MacLeod and Captain Ted Ryzcko at CFB Trenton. Eventually the training would include the canine unit, the underwater search and recovery unit and the hostage negotiating team. Meanwhile, equipment upgrades and familiarization continued on a regular basis.

Indeed, as TRU gained more experience, it received a number of requests for training from police services across Canada and the United States.

The members of TRU felt they were trained to handle the type of situation that unfolded on Wednesday, Oct. 12, 1977. Our unit got a call at 11:30 p.m. stating that a Collingwood police officer had been gunned down in cold blood, his service revolver still in his holster. Assisting the Collingwood police force was Detective Inspector Tom Lennon of the OPP Criminal Investigations Branch. He requested our TRU team to assist in the arrest of a suspect who was believed to be holed up in a local residence.

Four of my team members were available: Constables Bud Gardiner, Gus Riddell, Wayne Nethery and myself. We arrived at the Collingwood police station at 2:20 a.m. and were briefed on the events by Lennon, and then given directions to the house where the suspect was believed to be. The house was a two-storey duplex with living quarters on the main floor and bedrooms upstairs. A family of four lived in one half, our suspect was believed to be in the other half. We quickly went into a military reconnaissance mode, slithering unseen and unheard around both the front and backyards. We also put a man on the roof.

The family, which had to be evacuated, had recently moved into the house and were without a telephone. Nethery quietly borrowed a ladder from a neighbouring house and after padding it with clothing we propped it against the wall next to the upstairs bedroom window. Looking inside, Riddell spotted the husband and wife asleep in bed. He tapped on the window and held up his badge, but it took a few moments for him to explain the purpose behind our sudden invasion of the family’s privacy. Still, we managed to get the man and his family safely out of the house.

I decided that Gardiner and I would enter the house through the front door and make the arrest while Riddell and Nethery provided cover and observation. The door had a large window in the upper portion and the curtains had been drawn back. There were no lights on. While standing near the door, Gardiner and I closed our eyes for a few moments to improve our night vision. We then looked inside and saw two sleeping forms on a sofa bed across the room, kiddie corner to the door.

We were quite sure one would be our suspect, but who was the other? Were they pretending to be asleep, ready to fire at us when we made our move? By using signals and lip reading, we planned our next move. We tried the door–it was locked. Should we break the glass, reach in and unlock the door from the inside? That could mean the loss of a hand from a shotgun blast. The decision was made. Gardiner kicked in the door and I entered swiftly with him a split second behind. We ran a few steps and then jumped through the air to land on the figures on the sofa bed. The bed collapsed and before both people knew what was happening, they were handcuffed and on the floor.

A 21-one-year-old man was turned over to the investigating officers along with his 14-year-old female bed partner and a pile of bloodstained clothes. Eventually, the man was sentenced to life imprisonment with no parole eligibility for 25 years.


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