By Alex Rinfret–About 70 Masset residents, frustrated and disturbed about a continuing wave of break-ins and theft, turned out for a public meeting last Wednesday to talk about public safety, the justice system, and services for people addicted to drugs or alcohol.
It was the second public meeting in as many months on this issue. RCMP Sgt. Jim Vardy told the crowd that despite the formation of a “citizens on patrol” group as extra eyes and ears around town, the break-ins have persisted. As of May 16, he said, the number of break-ins reported in Masset and Old Massett had reached 89 – compared to 61 in all of last year.
If that rate continues, there will have been 239 break-ins by the end of this year, almost four times last year’s number.
The vandals break into homes that have been locked and homes where the residents are inside sleeping. Some of the crimes take place in the middle of the day, others at night.
The perpetrators appear to be men in their 20s who need quick cash to feed their drug or alcohol addictions, Sgt. Vardy said. Two of them were convicted in provincial court last week, but there are more.
Many community members said they felt helpless and victimized in the face of the random attacks.
Bill Bailey said it didn’t seem right that law-abiding citizens should have to sit in their homes with their doors locked and windows barricaded because of others’ bad choices.
“This person started the drugs on his own, no one forced crack down his throat,” Mr. Bailey said. “We’re trying our bestÂ… but we’re not allowed to do anything.”
“I got three doors,” he continued, “and I got three baseball bats. That’s how everybody in here feels.”
Gerry Stevens said it seemed to him like the perpetrators use fetal alcohol syndrome and drug addiction as “excuses” for criminal behaviour, and that the court system is unable to deal with the issue. Meanwhile, ordinary citizens pay the price.
“I’m into $18,000 for this crap,” he said. “I’m paying it, and I’m fed up. It’s got to stop.”
Provincial court judge Ed De Walle, who was on the islands for the monthly court session, attended the meeting at the invitation of Masset mayor Barry Pages. He spoke about some of the issues raised by the public and explained aspects of the justice system.
Drug addiction and fetal alcohol syndrome are not legal excuses for crime, he said. They are explanations and they are probably contributing factors, but they are not excuses.
Judge De Walle, who has 16 years experience as a provincial court judge and is based in Terrace, said he has seen many cases of a community being hit by a wave of break-ins, but he had never seen a response like Masset’s.
“I have never seen a community become as galvanized as this one,” he said, adding that he had been impressed after reading the minutes of Masset’s previous public meeting. “This is a concerning issue and it is a serious issue.”
There are no simple answers or easy solutions to the problem, he said. The people who commit crimes usually come from dysfunctional homes and have multiple issues and addictions. They can be sent to jail, he said, but that’s not the long-term solution people sometimes imagine it to be. At some point, the perpetrators will get out of jail and be back in the community.
There is some recourse for victims, he said. The judge can make a compensation order or a restitution order, which compels the perpetrator to pay for what they took, if the crown prosecutor requests this. The judge can also order the offender to work a certain number of hours at the victim’s business, for example, if the victim agrees.
However, if the offender has no money, which is often the case, obviously nothing can be collected, judge De Walle said.
The court process is not slower on the islands than elsewhere in the province, the judge said in response to other questions and comments. This was a surprise to some, who wanted to know why Masset only has court three days a month, and why some cases take a couple of years to move through the system.
However, judge De Walle said that the northwest area has a shorter “time to trial” period than any other region of BC, with the average case taking four to five months to reach trial if the defendant is pleading not guilty, compared to 18 months in parts of the lower mainland.
Lily Bell suggested to the judge that he hold court in Old Massett and invite the village to attend. Judge De Walle said that was certainly a possibility, and that court had been held once before in Old Massett.
Rev. Bell said all the people of Masset and Old Massett need to help each other. The problems the communities are facing have their roots in injustices done decades ago, she suggested, which continue to this day.
“Years ago, our people were mainly fishermen,” she said. “Someone said to me, you know, I felt so strange when I went out to those fishing grounds, it didn’t feel like I was on Haida land. There were hardly any Haida people there.”
Rev. Bell reminded the citizens of the residential school years, and said she can still vividly remember coming to the community hall in Masset for movies, and how the audience would be divided, with Haida people on one side and whites on the other.
Today, she said, the hall may no longer be segregated but Haida people still face discrimination. One of her relatives spent all day digging clams and was offered $56 for hundreds of pounds. Others go out to work at the fishing lodges, and aren’t paid enough, she said.
“We all need to help each other,” she said. “We all need help, not just our people. We all need to learn to treat each other right.”
The public also heard from Joanne Bezzubetz, Northern Health’s regional director of addictions and mental health, who came from Prince George for the meeting. Ms Bezzubetz said Northern Health has heard concerns from people all over the north about access to services and the need for prevention and treatment.
Masset now has its own resident full-time mental health and addictions worker, she said, although the position was empty for a while. This employee is supplemented by two other counsellors who are based in Queen Charlotte but travel to Masset eight days a month and two days a month.
Anyone can access the addictions and mental health service, Ms Bezzubetz said. Most of those using the service in Masset have been referred by their family physician, but it’s not necessary to have a referral, she said. Anyone can call the office and get an appointment, and there is no waiting list.
The fact that the closest detox facility is in Prince George was mentioned by several as a problem, and Ms Bezzubetz said that better access to detox has been identified as the number one issue in this region.
Accessing treatment is one hurdle, but people who successfully complete detox face more challenges when they return home, some in the audience pointed out. It’s not easy, in a small town, to avoid old friends and family members who are still using drugs or alcohol, and to find support for a new lifestyle. Some fall back into old habits.
Sgt. Vardy said the healthy communities committee that started up last year has identified substance abuse as a huge issue and has been talking about how to tackle it. Committee members are now working on a proposal for a treatment and detox centre, which would be built in a central location to serve all islands communities, and would be staffed by both professional and traditional healers.
So far, he said, they have heard a lot of support for the idea. But he cautioned that it is still very preliminary.
Almost the last member of the public to speak was Tarah Samuels, who works with young people in the community. She praised Sgt. Vardy for working with the youth group, and said she had heard many important things said during the meeting. Young people are struggling with the fact that there aren’t many of the traditional fishing and logging jobs, she said. They also need to hear more information about exactly how damaging drugs can be.
“If I heard something would permanently damage my brain, that didn’t sound like fun to me,” she said, but some of her friends didn’t get that information.
And she urged all those at the meeting to start changing their community with one small step.
“If you see somebody walking by themselves, say hi,” Ms Samuels said. “It makes a world of difference.”
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