More than 100 concerned residents gathered in front of the Provincial Courthouse of Quesnel to rally for more attention towards the area’s high crime rates on Monday night (Sept. 23).
The Quesnel in Action movement is led by downtown business owners Debra McKelvie and Evelyn Towgood. They previously organized a similar event in front of City Hall on Aug. 27, where a stream of people voiced their displeasure at feeling scared and frustrated with the crime taking place in their community.
“We’re going to make a statement by coming out today, as the community who cares and demands change,” McKelvie said in her opening remarks during Monday’s rally.
She admitted when she was originally asked to facilitate the first rally, she had no idea just how complex and devastating the issues are.
“I’ve had to embrace new concepts that are foreign to me, and I’ve had to acknowledge my ignorance because I really did not understand,” she said. “My awareness kicked in, and each day, I’m learning, and hopefully today as we share our story and feelings and listen to others, we can continue to open our minds and hearts and learn something new and profound.
“We are all facing a multitude of serious social ramifications resulting from addictions, homelessness, poverty and mental illness that are not being addressed. The desperately-needed resources promised by our various governments have not materialized. We need to work together, Quesnel. And we need our elected officials to hear us.”
Political leaders on hand included Cariboo North MLA Coralee Oakes and Todd Doherty, who is running for re-election as Cariboo-Prince George MP in this fall’s federal election.
Both addressed the crowd, attempting to assure them in their own way that they are on their side.
“We need to be demanding that resources come back to our rural communities,” Oakes said before calling on those gathered to continue vocalizing their displeasure. “The only way that people will listen- the only way that people will understand the need of our communities- is if we continue to rally because I know this community and within the hearts and minds, we can solve this very complex and difficult problem.
“We care about people in our community, and, together, we have the answers to fix it.”
Doherty expressed his frustration at the provincial courts, such as the one the crowd was gathered in front of.
“We need to make sure we are always putting the rights of victims and their families ahead of those of criminals,” he said before bringing up examples of criminals who have received better treatment than he thinks they deserve.
He echoed Oakes’s sentiment for continued action by the movement.
“Your voice is so important,’ he said. “I understand we had 150 at the last event, and I’d like to see more because we need you speaking loudly. Write us, write your premier, write your prime minister. Make sure you’re standing up for your community. Rural communities have been forgotten, and we need to stand tall.”
Also present was Brenda Gardiner, who is the program co-ordinator for Better at Home, a not-for-profit elder care society.
She said some of the seniors in her care are afraid to go downtown.
“They feel that they’re at risk because they’re now in a walker, and they can’t carry cash because they’re afraid that they’re going to be robbed,” she said. “This is not just the odd person; this is becoming more and more prevalent.”
Gardiner gave some examples of some seniors who were targeted by criminals, drawing nods from the crowd.
One of them involved a terminally ill man, whose car and big screen TV were stolen when criminals saw an ambulance take him away.
Co-organizer Towgood walked up to the mic with a large binder of all the letters she has collected from frustrated residents looking for change and sent along to all level of government with a plea to fulfill and increase the area’s RCMP complement.
She then pulled out an equally beefy second volume of letters and explained what she plans to do with them.
“It’s to continue to urge the provincial government to continue to increase the rural complement of RCMP in the area and also to point out the lack of prosecution stability in our area,” she said. “I believe it is important that the second volume of letters continue on a thread of increased policing and the ineffectiveness the justice system has on our current situation because that’s what I ask you all to support.
“I don’t think the 23 RCMP officers in our city and the nine officers in our rural areas are enough. Based on the statistics, we need a fulfilled complement of 33 officers in Quesnel just to get to the B.C. average caseload per officer.”
To add some balance to the evening, a young First Nations lady with addiction problems who has experienced homelessness offered to say a few words.
Michelle Irwin took to the stage nervously but was encouraged to share by a smattering of applause.
“I had a feeling today that there was not going to be anybody to step up that lives on the street or is a drug addict,” she said before sharing her side of the story. “There are some bad people in town. Some of us are drug addicts and alcoholics, but not all of us are junkies, and not all of us are breaking into people’s houses.”
Irwin talked about people she has lost to violence and overdoses before sharing a particularly moving poem from a notebook she carried with her.
It took her a while to get a rhythm going, but by the time she did, the audience was attentive and her voice was all that could be heard on the corner of McLean and Barlow.
It gave the crowd a taste of the other side of the coin. The frustration, paranoia, shame and lows of living with an addiction, the loss of family and friends, the survival through the grief.
“I realize I’ve got to help myself before somebody puts my ashes upon the shelf,” Irwin rhymed.