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Sgt. Bill Smith Reminisces on His career and the Training that Poisoned Him

Sgt. Bill Smith joined the RCMP on July 4th, 1973 in Harbour Grace, his hometown. He grew up with an interest in policing after a cousin married a Mountie and she encouraged him as a boy to think about it as a career. She sent him books on the Force and it piqued an interest in him.

After high school, he went to Trades School and graduated in the Electronics program. When he turned 19, he fulfilled his dream of being an RCMP Officer. He eventually went to University and graduated with a Degree in Electronic Engineering.

While he was in Ontario doing cell phone training, he was told by the instructors that he would not have to worry about cell phones because they wouldn’t take off in Newfoundland and Labrador due to the province being so big and the population so small. They warned the towers would not cover it all and it would not be profitable. Smith laughs, “This is a great example of how wrong experts can be.”

Going to Depot was the first time he left Newfoundland and found it very lonely, “It was my first time away from home. I found the physical hard, especially swimming. I was never a good swimmer, so I had to dog paddle.”

His first posting was in Goose Bay where he was able to police in several communities in the Big Land. On one occasion he went to Davis Inlet, locals had taken over the Government Store and trashed the place. “We went in two at a time for a month and I was in the third group. The other two groups came out needing stiches. So, I said that wasn’t going to happen to me.”

When Sgt. Smith got off the plane a local fellow from the community told him who and where home brew was being made. Smith obtained the needed warrants and went to the first house and threw out the home brew then continued down through other houses. “Every time I would throw out the home brew that person would tell me where the next batch was. In all I think I went to nine houses.”

After that, Smith finished his shift, went home, and returned to work the next morning. “When I went to the Government Store the next day the manager asked me what I had done the day before and I told him about throwing out the home brew. He told me before I came in, the locals bought up all the sugar and yeast and left for Sango Bay. There was hardly any one left in Davis Inlet, and they didn’t come back until I was gone!”

While in Davis Inlet Smith was also notified by a teacher that her teaching assistant’s brother had gone out on the Labrador coast and was overdue coming back. He was told the brother was one of the most reliable people in the community and if he did not come back there must be a problem. Sgt. Smith put together a search party of himself, the teacher and the assistant who was a local girl and claimed to know the land.

“At first, I was very impressed with the local teaching assistant who seemed to know what she was doing,” claimed Smith. “She put her hand up to her head and start reading the stars. Eventually I realized we were lost, and she had led us twenty-five miles outside of town. We had been going in circles all day.”

Smith was able to find his way back into the community about two a.m. that morning and as they were driving in, they met people on a dozen skidoos searching for them. The brother returned found safe and sound shortly after Sgt. Smith had left to look for him.

One of the highlights of his career was working in Special I during the famous Ireland’s Eye drug bust. RCMP seized 25 tons of hashish valued at $225-million and arrested 16 people in what proved to be the largest bust in Newfoundland history. The bust was the culmination of several months of investigation by RCMP in Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Quebec.

“I received a letter of commendation from the United Nations for that,” he states proudly. Smith had just transferred into Special I from Bell Island and had little training in the unit. “I did the technical work, wire taps etc.” He was posted to Special I at Headquarters for ten years from 1987 to 1997.

Sgt. Smith retired on August 5th, 1997 after suffering for many years from various ailments including IBS, and Crones Disease. They inflamed the lining of his gastrointestinal tract making it hard for his body to digest food, absorb nutrition, and eliminate waste in a healthy manner. It became debilitating and difficult to work or be in confined quarters with others as he was often required to do.

In December 2018 he read a CBC news story concerning members who trained at Kemptville, Ontario and now suffered lifelong diseases like his. Some even developed cancer and died.

Sgt. Smith had trained at the Canada Training Centre on four different occasions, each time for three weeks. It was later found out that the Kemptville building was riddled with contaminants.

The building, now demolished, was used for nearly 20 years as a training facility for a covert Royal Canadian Mounted Police squad tasked with spy operations. Inside, agents learned how to crawl into tight spaces and drill holes through walls to secretly install surveillance equipment. The military had stopped using the building because of issues there.

“We would crawl through inches of rat droppings to install wires,” recalls Smith. “The building was full of mould. You could smell it as soon as you walked in.”

Now, some of those officers are wondering whether the building might have been responsible for their own health problems — and for the deaths of some of their colleagues. The RCMP used the building from 1988 until it closed in 2006. The training centre housed a school used mainly for recruits of the Force's Special I unit, whose members are called upon to install electronic surveillance equipment during undercover investigations.

According to the CBC report, what some RCMP officers didn't know back then was that the building was not just dirty but also contaminated. Tap water contained lead levels 14 times higher than permitted limits, according to a 2005 report done for Public Works, the federal department in charge of real estate assets, including the Canada Training Centre. The kitchen facility used by trainees and staff did not meet public health standards. Utensils, pots, and pans were stored in mice-infested drawers and cabinets.

According to inspection reports produced between 1997 and 2007, there was asbestos in building materials, including the ceilings and floor tiles, roof and siding shingles, drywall tape and plaster. Silica was used in concrete and bricks throughout the building. Mould was also found, including toxic spores.

Tests also revealed excessive levels of lead as early as 1997, according to the documents. Sgt. Smith had no idea his training exposed him to toxic agents. An inspection report raised severe issues with the facility. "The health and safety of our personnel are in jeopardy by using the existing facility," wrote an RCMP occupational health and safety officer in 2005. "For reasons too numerous to count, this facility should not be used for future training," the officer wrote.

After conducting tests a few months later, a firm specializing in hazardous environments issued a similar warning. "Due to the water damage, the basement has been deemed to be a high-level mould contamination area and cannot be accessed unless wearing appropriate personal protective equipment," its report stated. The building was closed in 2006 and demolished the following year.

Sgt. Smith was never told about the contaminants from the RCMP or sent the proper paperwork to fill out. His condition started after his training in Kemptville and he still suffers from theses issues today. He has joined a Facebook group of other members with similar conditions who also trained there.

He retired in 1997 but wanted to stay, “When you’re working in confined places with mostly women, it becomes embarrassing when you have to go to the bathroom ten times a day.”

He now lives on a strict ‘Surviving Mould Diet,’ to maintain a quality of life and is seeing his doctor about his condition.

In 2018 he had a horrific accident. He was burning boxes of old files he had kept over the years and tried to use an accelerator to help the fire. When he opened the container, it blew up and he caught fire. He spent forty-five days in a coma and suffered burns over his body. He was lucky to survive. “I still have disabilities due to the explosion the tendons in my arm and leg were injured and is very painful”

He says if he had to give advice to new members, he would tell them, “Be careful in the public and also within the Force.” His medical conditions rule his life now. “You have to be responsible for your own safety.”

For more RCMP stories you can buy "In Search of Adventure - 70 Years of the RCMP in Newfoundland and Labrador" here

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