Chris Charbonneau

Last fall was a tumultuous time for many in the Valley, with multiple cherished and loved members of our community dying by suicide. It shook our towns and broke our hearts, leaving many wondering what we could have done. How we didn’t know. Where could we turn to now.

As we move into the same time period, the darker colder days taking hold with the added uncertainty of how COVID will impact us this winter, it’s at the forefront of our minds and hopefully making us realize how important it is to reach out, to talk, to support. 

This month, in line with our Self-Care Issue I reached out to an individual who has dedicated his life to supporting and helping people, whether through his job as a Respiratory Therapist (RT) or as a volunteer with the Fellaship Men’s Support Group.

Originally born in Elkford, where he lived until he was 13, Chris Charbonneau and his family made a move to Campbell River on Vancouver Island. Having been exposed to the power bug, upon graduating he, 
“ski bummed for a bunch of years. I did six months in Australia, ski instructed, and then decided to become a backcountry ski guide,” he tells me. “That’s when I moved back to Fernie and worked at FWA for almost ten years, then at White Grizzly Cat Skiing north of Nelson.” Chris and his now wife Tyla knew they wanted to make Fernie home, so made the choice to go back to school to ensure they could afford to live in the Valley. 

“Coming from a family with bad respiratory disease, and being asthmatic myself I was introduced to Respiratory Therapists early on. It was the first career that popped into my head, and I knew it was a way I could help a lot of people,” Chris says. 

The couple moved across the country, “coast to coast” for education and work, which made them realize there really isn’t any place like Fernie and decided to move back ‘home.’ “We’ve been back here for three to four years now. There wasn’t an RT position at the Elk Valley Hospital at that time, so I was commuting from Calgary until I got on with Cranbrook’s High Acuity Response Team. When they created a role here to service the Valley better, I applied and got the position.”

It wasn’t long into this job that the world was hit with the COVID-19 Pandemic.

“We did a lot of preparation and were worried for the community and our at risk folks. It was interesting while also very stressful… being on lockdown. A whole lot of waiting for the wave to crash over you… but it didn’t. Now we know more about how to manage the disease, and have seen how the Valley behaves and feel very prepared.”

Chris has also witnessed how the pandemic has affected people mentally. “I’ve noticed it with friends and family - the stress of isolation, managing kids at home for months, the fear of the unknown and the virus,” adding that he also has concerns as many who are already struggling have this added burden. “Talking about self-care can feel cliche… but it is so important,” Chris adds. It is the reason he wanted to be part of the team to create a men’s support group. 

“Men can become more isolated than women. Lone-wolfing it, isolating and pretending we don’t have feelings. For me, it’s helped to be part of a group where I can drop the mask. We have a meal and chat and offer a safe space, which is super important as guys often don’t want to look weak or be judged.”

Originally Fellaship met every 2nd Monday from 6-8pm at “their place” - 1592 10th Ave, behind the Women’s Resource Centre in Fernie. The group is non-religious, and evenings include a shared meal with everyone helping out and time to chat afterwards. “You don’t need to bring anything, just yourself. Meetings are on a drop-in basis,” their facebook group (@fellashipmensgroup) states. 

“Due to COVID we can’t meet in person, which is tough. We meet once a week via zoom. If you don’t have the means to access the internet, we can help organize for you to have that access,” Chris says, adding that they have had good success stories. 

Chris was also part of the team that created the Suicide Task Force. “Last fall there were so many suicides and our community was just rocked and we all had a sense of helplessness,” Chris, his wife Tyla and their friend Eveliene Eijsermans decided they wanted to do something. They hosted an information night in February, with a packed house and many watching on Facebook live, demonstrating just how much this initiative is needed. Ev is now the lead of the task force, with Chris focusing on FellaShip, which he feels is evolving into a great community. “It will continue to grow, COVID is making it tough as we like to get out to volunteer and be involved with the community,” he tells me. Volunteerism and connectivity are proven ways to uplift not only others, but yourself and that’s what FellaShip is all about.

As we end our conversation, we agree that now is the perfect time to check in with friends, to take care of yourself, to get out and be active. “If you need or want counselling, seek it. There is so much stigma around it but seeking support for mental health is as important as seeking support for your physical health!” 

1. When did you first arrive in the Valley and what brought you here?
Oh my gosh, we came in 2000 to take a Level 1 Avalanche course. I remember being in Rotary Park, practicing our beacon searches and snowflakes the size of loonies were falling. 

2. Who did you first meet?
Wendy LeMoine, I went up to the hill to ask about a job as a ski instructor. 

3. Do you remember your first general impression of Fernie?
It’s weird for me as I knew it as a kid, it’s always been magical with unbelievably deep snow. “It snows here everyday,” I thought. 

4. What keeps you here?
There’s no place else like it in Canada for community, for outdoor amazingness. After travelling the whole country, there literally is no place like this. 

5. Do you have a favourite Fernie pastime?
Skiing, baby. 

6. What time of the year do you love most in Fernie, and why?
For me, it’s like a week ago. Early fall, larches are just turning, you can smell a bit of the cold in the air, there’s the anticipation of ski season, and you’re still biking like crazy. 

8. How do you start your day or what is one of your daily rituals?
I get up, make a matcha and check the stock market! 

9. Tell us something people might be surprised to learn about you.
My favourite pastime is gardening. 

10. Quote to live by:
Audacity complements courage, hesitation fear.