GANDER, NL – It was a profession Wilson Chaulk stumbled into it by accident.
The odds were against him from the beginning as he applied for a job as a correctional officer.
When his job application was due for submission in St. John’s, his car lost its motor. A friend who was an RCMP officer spotted him hitchhiking on the highway and offered him a ride.
When he arrived at the location to submit his application, Chaulk was told he was too late.
“I can be quite persuasive when I want to,” Chaulk said, and he convinced the clerk to place one additional application – his – on top of the other 1,500 from applicants vying for 20 open positions.
Chaulk got the job, beginning 28 years of service as a correctional officer in various facilities across Newfoundland and Labrador.
His first exposure to crime was personal.
The year after he finished high school in 1972, Chaulk worked at a gas station in Gander.
While picking up a quart of oil for a customer, the man grabbed Chaulk from behind and put a knife to his throat.
“I was scared – I was 18 and armed robbery wasn’t talked about it then. I was affected by it for many years after,” he said.
Coincidentally, Chaulk met the man who held him at knifepoint some years later at a crime prevention conference. He found out the man served three years for the armed robbery.
“I sat down next to him, introduced myself, and right off I said, ‘the past is the past.’ He apologized for what he did, and we talked about family and general conversation,” Chaulk said.
It is his ability to look beyond a situation that allowed Chaulk to handle the stress and high demands of working in correctional facilities.
Some situations required delicate handling, whilst others demanded a stronger approach.
“I could always separate the two — I was very fortunate to be able to do that,” Chaulk said.
“Once it was over, it was over. They don’t know Wilson Chaulk — what they get upset about is the uniform and what it stands for.”
Some officers were not able to distance themselves from work situations, or didn’t have the family support Chaulk depended on to remove themselves from work events when they went home.
With a sigh and a long pause, Chaulk reflects how he has seen “a lot of good correctional officers become alcoholics, drug addicts and some commit suicide.”
“When you are about 100 feet from a co-worker, and so helpless and there is nothing you can do, there is no worse feeling.”
- Wilson Chaulk
Chaulk’s toughest day on the job took place when a fellow correctional officer was held hostage for close to 24 hours.
“When you are about 100 feet from a co-worker, and so helpless and there is nothing you can do, there is no worse feeling,” he said. “When we got the co-worker out safely after negotiations, he was not the same person after.
“You need a good support network at home and at work – and I am not saying that those who had those issues did not – but not everybody can deal with these things. It is very important you have good support network. That’s the only way you can survive corrections.”
Chaulk has seen many difficult things in his career, but he has no regrets.
He says the job gave him a deeper understanding of – and appreciation for – life and people.
In his involvement with sex offenders and people in counselling, Chaulk’s curious nature led him to deeper understanding of issues.
“I have always had this curiosity of being able to take an individual, regardless of what he’s in for, and be able to go back from when was a child to follow his life and see how similar his life was to mine and which path each of us took,” he said. “Some of it had to do with the environment they grew up in, some came from fantastic families.
“I’m not condoning the crime — but there is more to the story than what you see. In my opinion, we definitely need more addiction centres and more mental health programs.”