Elliot Lake inquiry may reopen old wounds

As the public inquiry into the collapse of the Elliot Lakes Algo Centre Mall gets underway this week, many support workers in the community are bracing themselves for dealing with the emotional fallout survivors from the tragedy may experience.

Counsellors aims to help people cope as attention refocuses on the Elliot Lake fatal mall collapse

An inquiry began Monday into last summer's deadly shopping mall roof collapse in Elliot Lake, Ont. Jeff Semple reports 2:51

As the public inquiry into the collapse of Elliot Lake’s Algo Centre Mall gets underway this week, many support workers in the community are bracing for the emotional fallout survivors from the tragedy may experience.

Ever since the mall collapse last June 23, crisis counsellors have been actively working with people who were witness to the tragedy that claimed the lives of two women and injured several others.

"For some people who may have been coping well up to now, [the inquiry] might bring [those experiences back] to them again," said Shelley Watt-Proulx, executive director of the Counselling Centre of East Algoma.

"For those people who have been struggling, but have been sort of keeping it together, this may be the point where they may think maybe [they need some help]."

She noted it’s hard to predict exactly how support will need to be rolled out, now that the inquiry has started, putting Elliot Lake back in the national spotlight.

"We’re trying to put some supports in place," Watt-Proulx said.

"We’re hoping that we’ll be prepared, but we’re really going into this blind. We really don’t know what we’re going to be dealing with."

Picking up the pieces

It’s not like counsellors haven’t walked this road before, however.

Residents of Elliot Lake felt helpless after the roof collapsed at their local mall. Many people continue to seek counselling help. With the launch of the public inquiry Monday, one counsellor said she thinks more will come forward for help with coping. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

When the community declared a state of emergency only hours after the mall’s roof partially collapsed, crisis workers were on the scene.

"In the first few days … our role was supportive," Watt-Proulx recalled.

Crisis support was provided by several partners — people who held hands and provided shoulders on which to cry as Elliot Lake residents wondered if there would be any survivors.

"We really transitioned throughout the week," Watt-Proulx said. "It was really wait-and-see."

When the rescue effort turned into a recovery mission, "the tone shifted," she said.

Tension turned to sadness and then, in some cases, it turned to relief.

"Life got back to living … it’s not normal, but it’s a new normal," Watt-Proulx said.

In the time since then, requests for counselling have "certainly increased."

"In the summer … people were looking for answers," she explained.

"People don’t expect buildings to fall on them. When a tragedy like that happens it shakes your whole sense of what’s real and what’s not real and your whole sense of security.

"So for people with pre-existing issues or maybe trauma histories that haven't been resolved ... I think it may have brought up a lot of feelings for people that they may not have been expecting."

Symptom relief

Watt-Proulx said she worries the inquiry may bring up more unexpected feelings in people.

"We expect that it may continue for a while," she said.

"I think it will increase demand for our services … and those of our community partners as well."

She noted that counsellors focus on helping with "symptom relief."

"We don't have the answers as to why bad things happen in the world, but maybe we can help with strategies that will help [people] to sleep better," she said.

"If you're sleeping better and eating better and getting some exercise, everything is put into a better perspective."