A steady stream of people walked up to the microphone to explain why they are frustrated and scared with the crime taking place in our communities during Tuesday afternoon’s Quesnel in Action rally in front of City Hall.
They told of being badly beaten by three people during a home invasion. Of finding needles behind the studio where children show up for dance lessons. Of caring for a son who had only lived here for a few months when he had his skull crushed by a baseball bat.
The rally, which brought together about 150 people Aug. 27, was organized by Debra McKelvie, a downtown business owner, as part of a new movement called Quesnel in Action.
“We the people, all of us, are Quesnel in Action, a group of individuals who are concerned about the increasing crime we are experiencing in our community,” she said. “We’re a newly-formed movement which is dedicated to get much-needed funding and resources that are needed in Quesnel. Evelyn Towgood was instrumental in getting the movement started, and she’s been gathering letters from the public to send to the appropriate agencies.”
At the beginning of the rally, which lasted almost an hour and a half, McKelvie told the crowd Quesnel needs more RCMP members, stiffer sentences for organized crime and new strategies for dealing with vulnerable members of the community.
“We want to feel safe in our community again,” she said. “We are all frustrated, and we want to see our city restored to what it was just a few short years ago. I’m tired of living in fear, and I know from all the stories I’ve heard this week that there are a lot of other people tired of living in fear too.”
Quesnel Mayor Bob Simpson spoke at the rally as well, sharing what work city council has been doing to address crime in the community.
“We’ve taken every measure available to us,” he said. “The City of Quesnel is using best practices when it comes to bylaws, we’ve increased our bylaw officer complement — I hope most of you have seen a change in the nature of the panhandling that’s occurring downtown as a result of that. We’ve added RCMP officers, but as I’ve said to your organizers, the RCMP is a federal agency, and while we as taxpayers pay for 75 per cent of our detachment, we don’t control how those positions get filled, and we don’t control how those positions get deployed, except on the margins. We are working hard to make sure we get a full complement of RCMP officers and that they’re deployed appropriately.”
Simpson thanked everyone for coming to the rally, for writing letters and for being engaged, as it gives council the ammunition it needs when sending messages to the provincial government about needing more resources.
“I hope this is the beginning of a movement, as Deb has indicated,” he said. “We need pressure on the prosecution services to actually prosecute. We need pressure on the provincial government to make sure that whatever they’re doing on the one end of harm reduction, they equip local governments to do on the community harm reduction side so we can prevent the crime that’s happening in our community and make our community safe again. I look forward to working with you on this, I look forward to hearing your stories today.”
North Cariboo MLA Coralee Oakes also thanked everyone who showed up at the rally.
“We’re here to make sure we’re taking steps and we’re getting some action,” she said. “When you are faced week after week and trying to take steps to keep your business or residence safe and you still do not feel that sense of safety, we’ve got to take some action. There are a lot of things we need to do, but the first step is we need to stand together, and I appreciate the fact that moving forward as of today, we heard from the mayor and city council that we’re in this together.”
Oakes emphasized the need to communicate and work together.
“We’ve got to make sure we’re sending a message to the Province and the federal government that we are a community to be reckoned with,” she said. “We’re not going to stand for the continued action we’ve been seeing in our community.
“We’re also sending a very strong message to the B.C. government that through BC Housing or whatever steps they are taking, we’ve got individuals who are coming into our community, and we need resources to support them. Do not send people into our community without the wraparound supports that are needed in our community to take care of them,” she added, to cheers from the crowd.
Evelyn Towgood, general manager of Regency Chrysler, has been working on the issue of increasing policing in Quesnel for the last month and has been compiling letters to send to governments. She brought a large binder full of letters to the council meeting that followed the rally at 6 p.m.
Towgood says she knows more police won’t solve all the problems, but she feels it’s a start.
“I’ve heard this is everyone from the emergency shelter’s fault, the prosecution’s fault, the Province, society’s fault and everywhere in between, and I want to be very clear — I don’t blame anyone,” she said. “I don’t care whose fault it is — I want better, you want better, and we deserve it.
“I want a police department fully staffed and fully engaged. Let’s lobby the hell out of our governments for fulfillment of our [RCMP] complement, and let’s rally for some more rural officers too. Let’s send binders of letters and our stories to the City, the Province and the federal government until they actually see us.”
Jessie Herman, who lives in West Quesnel and owns Gold Pan City Dance Studio with her mother, spoke about how everything was great when they first moved the dance studio to the west side eight years ago, but things have changed a lot. In the last year, the studio has been broken into six times, and thieves even came in during the day and cut their safe out of cement.
“I am invested in Quesnel, and I have noticed the change, and it is drastic,” she said. “It is not a little bit anymore — it is a drastic change, and holy moly, we’ve got to do something. The part that makes me the most frustrated is this is a place where kids are coming, and I’m finding needles more and more often. When I first bought that building, I would walk down the back alley with my dog all the time, and there would be 10-year-olds biking down it, and now I open my back door to take out my garbage, and there are needles so often.”
Fritz Wyssen told the crowd he started an online Facebook Block Watch two and half years ago, and many of his friends have started them too.
“We realized we needed to watch out for each other,” he said. “A lot of people are saying ‘Quesnel has changed,’ but I’m looking at all these faces out there — you have not changed. We don’t hesitate to be good neighbours, and we support each other. We will talk with each other, but we have got to get past just talking with each other and talking online.”
Wyssen encouraged everyone to write their stories down and send letters to politicians.
“It’s so easy to ignore us when we just talk amongst ourselves or neighbours, but we need action,” he said.
Lawrence Chouinard, who was very badly beaten during a home invasion last March, said it’s time to stand up and protect each other.
“I am sick and tired of not being able to walk in my own yard,” he said. “We have got to take our streets back one way or another. It pisses me off we can’t enjoy what we worked all our lives to have. It might not be lots, but it’s ours, and there’s no right of anybody coming in and taking it from us.”
Like several speakers, Chouinard expressed frustration with a justice system that puts criminals back on the streets after just “a little slap on the wrist.”
“We’ve got to stop coddling these people,” he said. “The RCMP, they’re actually doing their job; it’s when it gets into the court system.”
Standing at the microphone with his three children, Will Sutton said known drug houses have been situated on either side of their property.
“It’s these guys who suffer because they can’t go outside,” he said, gesturing to his children.
He says they’ve been lucky because the tenants of those drug houses have eventually disappeared, but in one of the houses, police found a huge stash of ammunition.
“What might have happened?” he asked. “I don’t know what you do.”
One of McKelvie’s suggestions is to bring back Citizens on Patrol, and she had papers that people at the rally could sign if they were interested in taking that step. Anyone who did not get a chance to sign but is interested in Citizens on Patrol can email McKelvie at firstname.lastname@example.org.
McKelvie was very happy with the turnout and wants to thank everybody who came out to the rally.
“I think it was absolutely amazing that these people came out in the rain, and I think we had a really good turnout,” she said. “The people who are going to be proactive showed up. I think what it did was it allowed people an opportunity to tell their stories and to be heard without being censored, without having to be worried about being politically correct. It wasn’t a political thing; it was just an opportunity to tell their stories freely, and I think people really appreciated the opportunity to tell their stories because our stories are important. When you hear these stories, it just makes you sick to your stomach, some of them.”
From here, McKelvie encourages people to keep writing letters to give to Towgood, and she says she’ll be organizing other rallies in neighbourhoods. McKelvie says the next big rally is going to be at the courthouse.
“The other thing I think I heard a lot of too is that our justice system is broken and that the punishments for the crimes that are being committed, it’s unbelievable,” she said.