Content warning: this piece contains references to violence, suicide, child abuse, death, and mental illness.
Listen to the story:
Chris Dyke is a large man.
At 6’4″, 250 lbs, he carries his size well. A 16-year veteran of the RCMP, Dyke projects the quiet confidence that accompanies the job. His hair is peppered grey and shorn closely on the sides, and his blue eyes soften an otherwise stoic appearance.
I don’t know it yet, but Dyke is a nice guy.
He has me in a full mount, splayed flat on my back with his full weight on my chest.
When I buck to escape, he clasps his feet behind my knees and drives his hips down. Despite my attempt to remain calm, I’m struggling to breathe, and things can only get worse.
Dyke’s next moves are methodical. He crosses his hands over my neck and grabs my lapels, setting up a cross-collar choke. There are two crucial things to understand here:
First, I am wearing a gi (gē).
Since its inception in feudal Japan, the trademark jiu-jitsu outfit has seen numerous iterations. But overall, its basic composition remains the same. The gi comes in three parts: a stiff jacket, drawstring pants, and cotton belt. Each element is made of a thick and durable canvas capable of withstanding incredible force. You cannot tear free, and every inch presents a possible grip.
The jacket traditionally comes in shades of white, blue, or black. It has no buttons or zippers. Rows of material weave a knot around the collar, forming a thick lapel. There is no give. In the hands of a skilled practitioner, the gi transforms into a weapon.
The second thing to understand is the nuance of a choke.
Chokes typically fall into two categories: air chokes and blood chokes. When applied effectively, a cross-collar choke is the latter. It does not rely on restricting airflow to the lungs (although, as explained above, it is damn hard to breathe). Instead, it strangulates the carotid arteries and jugular veins, preventing oxygenated blood from entering the brain. A blood choke can render a person unconscious with deceptive speed.
Dyke tightens his grip on my collar and applies pressure. Almost immediately, my toes tingle. I lift my hips and squirm left to right, straining to create space between us. It is futile. Within seconds, I tap my hand against his three times in rapid succession, a signal that says, “I concede. You win. Please don’t kill me.”
Dyke is a gracious opponent. He is off me before I finish the tap.
“You’ve really improved since your first class,” he says, panting. I laugh, inadvertently launching a spray of spittle from my mouthguard. I catch my breath, and my vision returns. I am fine —actually, I feel pretty good. There is still a minute-and-a-half left in the round, so we reset, slap hands, and square up again.
Jiu-jitsu is a grappling art — a mix between judo and wrestling. It focuses on submissions, primarily in the form of chokes and various joint locks. Practitioners commonly refer to it as the art of simulated murder, or affectionately, the gentle art.
Jiu-jitsu techniques have garnered esteem in the martial arts world because they are highly effective at restraining opponents, but the sport extends beyond physicality. Those who practice reap profound mental health benefits.
In 2021, Adler University published research exploring the relationship between jiu-jitsu and American war veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. The study identified jiu-jitsu as a powerful tool for alleviating PTSD. Participants reported stronger emotional, physical, and social connections, and an improved ability to manage their symptoms.
The International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation (IBJJF) is generally recognized as an official arbiter of the sport. It keeps a registry of recognized practitioners and professors (the term professor is equivalent to “master” or “sensei”), hosts jiu-jitsu competitions, and develops the sport’s rules. There are other organizations, but for the sake of simplicity, this article references IBJJF.
The IBJJF’s General System of Graduation handbook includes eight official levels of proficiency within the sport, each with a distinct belt and ethos. The first five levels are white, blue, purple, brown, and black. Children under the age of 16 wear a different assortment of belts, ranging from white, to green and black. The journey from white to black sometimes takes more than a decade to complete.
At the time of writing this, I am a four-stripe white belt, and those are mostly a consolation prize. They more or less function as a signal to higher-level jiu-jitsu players, informing them I have demonstrated an ability to submit before somebody breaks my bones, removes my shoulders from their sockets, or chokes me into unconsciousness.
Since August 2021, I have been training jiu-jitsu with a small group of men in Stonewall, a bedroom community roughly 15 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg’s perimeter. I’ve taken to calling our group the Legionnaires because we train in the local Royal Canadian Legion Branch #52. This is not an official designation but rather my nickname for us. Officially, we are a subsidiary group of the larger Don’t Survive Thrive Academy in Winnipeg, a dedicated jiu-jitsu gym headed by Professor Daniel Cobb. Many of our members train under Cobb in Winnipeg and supplement their training with these satellite classes, but my experience is predominantly limited to the Legion’s four walls.
My professor is a former IBJJF World Masters gold medalist named Larry MacKinnon.
At 47, MacKinnon exudes a youthfulness that seems to defy his age. He is confident, well-kept, and wears his dark hair cropped in a tight crew cut. On the mats, he speaks with the plain language and intelligence of a person with nothing to prove.
“Everything in my life is better because of jiu-jitsu. My relationships with people are better because I am a calmer, more centred person,” MacKinnon says. “In the beginning, it was, ‘I want to learn how to fight,’ and then it became about the comradery and mental health.”
MacKinnon is a recent RCMP retiree and a proponent of jiu-jitsu’s mental health benefits — particularly for people who have PTSD.
“With PTSD, so much is out of your control, so you want to have control of what you can, and I think jiu-jitsu kind of helps with that. So, that’s what I might tell a cop who I know, or I think, might be having PTSD,” he explains.
Every Monday, Wednesday, and Sunday, the Legionnaires gather in the social hall of Branch #52. We need at least five participants to justify paying an instructor to travel from the city. On a good day, we amount to more than ten people, but most often, we scrape by with the bare minimum. We exchange our pleasantries, don our gis, and get to business, transforming the space into a makeshift gym.
Many of the Legionnaires work in law enforcement, either as police or correctional officers at the nearby Stony Mountain Penitentiary. Most work shifts, alternating weekly between days and nights. The rest of us are tradesmen, salesmen, soldiers, and students. I am in the latter group and weeks away from completing a college journalism program.
In the realm of public opinion, there are hardly two more demonized professions than cops and reporters.
As a 25-year-old aspiring journalist who lives in his mom’s basement, I fit nicely into the stereotype of millennial, fake-news hack. But these men are nothing like the jack-booted militants that people in law enforcement are regularly mischaracterized to be.
Regardless, our professional lives have little bearing here, and I think we all prefer it that way.
If the topic were to come up, I might tell them I respect what they do.
My father, Cpl. Howard Morley Searle, was a second-generation lawman who joined the RCMP at 17, following his father’s footsteps, S/Sgt. Nicholas John Gratton Searle.
Tall, dark, traditionally handsome, and meticulously groomed. My dad wore Levi jeans, cowboy boots, and a thick moustache like Tom Selleck. Being a Mountie was his identity, and he bore the title with pride. As the head of the Major Crime Unit in Dauphin, he oversaw roughly 8,000 kilometres in Manitoba’s Parkland region.
He assumed the position in 2004 after his superior died by suicide inside their office. Dad was on a northern fishing trip with my brother and uncle when he heard the news. The RCMP chartered a floatplane to fly him home, and he returned to work the next day.
“That was the last day off he ever had,” my mom would later say. “He’d never admit it, but I think it gave him PTSD.”
After the tragedy, he remained at the office for days. He was “containing the scene,” he told her.
That man’s desk became my father’s, and from the outset, gunpowder and grey matter tainted the promotion he’d long sought. For years, he bore witness to the vilest acts of human depravity, the worst of which often followed him home.
All this to say: I have witnessed how difficult, highly scrutinized, and seldom celebrated a career in law enforcement can be.
The Legionnaires have a variety of experience. Some, like me, are newcomers, drawn to class by curiosity or referral. Others boast nearly a decade of training and carry the accompanying skills and scars.
Mostly we are men, although occasionally there are women, including one of our instructors, Mary Sanders, a purple belt with a penchant for dry humour and a devilish grin. At 35, Sanders is slim and athletic. Her hair, which features a streak of silver, is nearly always pulled into a ponytail and secured with a purple scrunchie. She commands our class with ease.
Sanders warms us up with a variety of drills and exercises. Upon her command, we pound across the mats on our knuckles and toes like a pack of gorillas. Then, we sprawl like crocodiles and stalk forward, touching our knees to elbows. Finally, we slide like shrimp, crunching our bodies into crescents, lifting our shoulders off the ground, and propelling ourselves backward. Among her favourite demands are cartwheels (if you want to make a group of adults uncomfortable, ask them to do cartwheels). Sanders seems to take particular pleasure in watching us flounder.
These exercises felt unnatural at first (when I started, I couldn’t remember the last time I had done cartwheels or if I’d ever pretended to be a gorilla), but with time, that subsided. Each drill incorporates a dynamic movement that applies to jiu-jitsu.
Every class involves a new technique. Our instructor demonstrates the lesson, and we spend the better part of an hour drilling it. Finally, we attempt to put it into practice by rolling, a jiu-jitsu term that describes a spar between two opponents.
When the Legion staff arrive to shut the lights and doors, they brace themselves with a cautious hand against the doorframe. Some keep nervous smiles while others stare in astonishment at the bunch of us. Their shock is not lost on me. Here is a group of grown men, battered, sweat-drenched, and wild-eyed, rolling about on the floor. From a bystander’s perspective, it’s a scene worthy of a smirk or scowl. Most often, the class runs overtime. We plead for one more round — one final tutorial. None of us are eager to leave our sanctuary and return to reality.
As the Legion staff watch on, we line up before our instructor in a series of horizontal rows. The most skilled players stand in the front, and the rest follow in descending order. I stand at the back with the white belts. If we are wearing our gi, we pull the jacket taught across our bodies and re-tie our belts. When everything is in order, we bow to our instructor in respect and gratitude before exchanging handshakes with one another.
Two years after my father assumed the Major Crime mantle, a toddler was murdered in Bowsman, MB, a tiny community roughly 20 kilometres north of Swan River. At the time, 315 people called the village home, among them was Venecia Audy.
On Aug. 14, 2006, three-year-old Venecia weighed only 27lbs. She was undersized, undernourished, and had been severely physically and sexually abused. A medical examination upon her death revealed horrific injuries. When her mother, Melissa Audy, phoned 911 the night of Venecia’s death, she said the child sustained the injuries after tumbling down a flight of stairs.
In the proceeding years, the RCMP charged Melissa with second-degree murder and later her former boyfriend, Jason Allen Kines, with first-degree murder. Their convictions hinged on bite mark evidence which the investigative team was convinced would irrefutably connect them to the homicide. Ultimately, it was not enough to prove their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Instead, the pair served a roughly one-year sentence for the lesser crime of failing to provide the necessities of life.
The circumstances of Venecia’s life and death were beyond gruesome, enough to carve a permanent scar into the psyche of even the most hardened first-responders. My father, despite his resilience, was no exception. The case consumed him. He and his colleagues spent months poring over medical reports, witness statements, and photographs, committing each horrible detail to memory. In the end, their effort was in vain — Venecia’s murder remains unsolved.
Resolved cases did not seem to disturb Dad, but the unresolved cases haunted him.
The years between 2004 and 2011 marked a dark passage for our family.
Dad worked more than ever and was emotionally absent when home. He was never a heavy drinker, but his alcohol intake increased, and he began to spend long periods of time alone, either out in his shop or on the quad exploring the farmland surrounding our rural property. “Patrolling for dope fields,” he’d say.
There were many bouts of frightening, unwarranted, and instantaneous rage, cancelled plans, and general misery.
Sometime around 2009, he suffered a stroke followed by an esophageal cancer diagnosis that quickly metastasized into brain cancer.
He died in 2011 when I was 13 years old. A series of CT scans revealed as many as 12 tumours. I remember staring at the laminated black and white tomographs in a stupor. Insidious gray bulbs peppered his brain like 12-gauge scattershot.
Dad started smoking again, a habit which he’d long shaken.
It was over shortly after that.
I can’t say with any medical certainty his job contributed to his diagnosis. Research into the connection between stress and cancer is varied and inconclusive. But I know the endless overtime, late nights, crushing responsibility, and trauma did nothing to help.
He neglected to see a therapist until the final months of his life, and I imagine she functioned more as a death doula than a clinician. I don’t think there was a person on Earth he felt he could be vulnerable around.
The Legionnaires train as a team, but jiu-jitsu is a solitary sport, and when it comes to rolling, it is one man or woman against the next.
A roll is — in essence — a fight, although not the kind that leaves you bloodied and dizzy. Jiu-jitsu differs from other combat sports because there is no striking. Instead, players grapple for dominant positions, attempt to control their opponents with leverage, and attack or defend against submissions. The technique allows practitioners to compete against one another with total effort at low risk of harm.
Still, a certain level of danger and discomfort comes with the territory. After a few months of training, surface-level injuries become so commonplace they hardly register. These include bruises and bumps, swollen knees, sore ribs, and friction burns on exposed skin.
Of course, the risk of more severe injuries pervades all sports and jiu-jitsu is no exception. Accidents happen, even with the most disciplined of training partners. The threats of broken limbs, displaced joints, torn ligaments, and chipped teeth are omnipresent. Skin infections like staphylococcus and ringworm are also common, although I’ve been fortunate to encounter neither.
For long-term practitioners, the outlook can be grim. Grip fighting — the practice of controlling, attacking, or defending against an opponent by clamping onto their gi—can lead to osteoarthritis in the hands. Cauliflower ear, a permanent disfigurement of pugilists and grapplers worldwide, commonly transforms ears into hardened pulp. Knee, neck, and back injuries have the potential to become persistent afflictions.
A jiu-jitsu veteran often wears a cheerful grimace. I’ve seen knee braces bulging beneath gi pants and hooked hands wrapped in sports tape like mummified claws. When a person reaches this point in their jiu-jitsu career, it seems injuries do little to dissuade them from practicing.
On paper, it hardly seems like a fair exchange, but the return is difficult to capture in words. Training is therapeutic. It provides a venue for mental release without the stigma and introspective demands of a clinical setting. There is an undeniable element of escapism.
“After class, when you start going back to deal with… whatever is going on in your life, you’ve burned off so much tension and anxiety in rolling. You’re physically sweating it out,” MacKinnon explains.
On the mats, there are no debts, demands, or obligations. Nobody cares what you look like (as long as you don’t smell), the only work is physical, and disputes are easily and unequivocally settled. During a roll, the immediate threat of strangulation supersedes all other concerns. There is solace in that.
“It’s a sport where you can learn control and trust. You’ve got to trust your partner is not going to kill you,” MacKinnon says. “With jiu-jitsu, you are being rough with each other, you’re submitting, you’re getting submitted… You’re all kind of more vulnerable because you have a shared experience.”
The core five or six of us who train consistently in Stonewall have developed a rapport over several months. We are not necessarily friends (although our banter is pleasant) but have cultivated a trust that falls outside the realm of typical relationships.
Aside from small talk, I know little about my fellow Legionnaires, yet I entrust my life to them weekly. If my training partner secures a triangle choke or armbar, I rely on them to relieve the pressure before maiming me.
They’ve earned my admiration, not through their power to submit me but their ability to protect me. Jiu-jitsu has facilitated a social connection that allows me to be vulnerable without years of emotional investment. The closeness I feel is governed by trust and respect rather than affection. These men may not be my best friends, but they’ve safely tested the limits of my shoulder joints, and that’s worth something.
In late January, I put the question to the Legionnaires: why do you do jiu-jitsu?
“To protect my wife and children from the enemy,” Jordan Dibley whispered, deadpan. For a moment, he scanned the room as a muscle tensed near his temple. Suddenly, he broke into a wry grin, “I’m just kidding, man. I don’t know.”
“I like to wrestle with men in pyjamas,” Brent Kubish quipped. A crack of laughter broke out.
Kevin Cochrane and Chris Mitchell, two of our more experienced players, both considered my query with their heads cocked as if the real question should be: why wouldn’t you?
Sanders — who seemed to share the same introspection as me — had the final word, “It’s trust,” she said. I sensed a murmur of agreement.
Recently, I stumbled upon a Christmas card composed by my father — an annual family update typewritten on two sheets of yellowed copy paper. He typed it (I think) sometime in his early thirties. Long before the suicide, Venecia Audy, and his cancerous death sentence.
He wrote about his motorcycle trips, scuba diving, and my brother Ben’s karate classes. It was light-hearted and full of his trademark humour.
This was the man I loved, not feared.
The man who, in the summers, “borrowed” the inflatable Zodiac boat from the RCMP detachment and set it loose on Lake Dauphin. My brothers and I would imagine we were Navy Seals and roll off the dinghy’s rubber sides.
Every winter, he drove us to the nearby Asessippi Ski Resort and coaxed us down the black diamond trails, pretending to skewer snowboarders with his ski poles as we passed them by.
When I was a child, we watched scary movies together while he pressed farts through the fabric of his stinky green chair.
As I grew older, those moments became fewer and further between. I could not understand it then, but I recognize now how his trauma manifested later in his life.
My father’s experiences are not a reflection of every person in law enforcement, but they exemplify the situations first-responders may encounter.
His career was not an anomaly.
Between 1995-2020, Statistics Canada recorded 1193 homicides in Manitoba. The number of violent crimes across that period measures in the tens of thousands.
This data does not account for the divorces, fallen friends and colleagues, PTSD (diagnosed or undiagnosed), fires, accidents, or suicides first-responders may confront over 25 years (for reference: that’s the same amount of time a WPS member must work to receive their full pension).
I think it is fair to say the victims of these crimes (and their families) are the most impacted. But first-responders (and their families) become collateral damage.
Behind every emergency dispatch, investigation, and conviction stands a first-responder or member of law enforcement. These are not soulless vampires or tyrannical robots, they are people with lives, families, Zodiac boats, stinky green chairs, and — potentially — trauma.
Let me be clear: I don’t know why the other Legionnaires train jiu-jitsu, and I don’t presume to.
In my own life, I look to my dad as a cautionary tale of what could happen if I don’t take care of myself, mentally and physically.
Three times a week, I visit Branch #52 to get strangled, twisted, tossed, and thrashed. My ribs hurt, my body is covered in bruises, and my knuckles now click when I clench them.
After practice, I feel amazing.