Nearly 50 people came out to a community meeting to discuss loitering and public drinking in the downtown.
After a lot of discussion and debate, it was decided a committee will now be formed to attempt to move forward to find solutions, headed by Jackie Marshall.
Business owners and employees, public health nurses, concerned citizens and RCMP were all at the meeting in the high school library to bring forward their concerns regarding the downtown.
Detachment Commander, Staff Sergeant Paul Thalhofer started the meeting off trying to clarify how the RCMP has to interpret the law and take multiple factors into consideration.
While he said years ago, police used to arrest a person on the street if they smelled of alcohol, now there are case laws and precedents have been set, along with other things like the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms which must be taken into account as well.
“The laws are not black and white in that regard,” he said. “I can’t just go arbitrarily arrest them and throw them in jail.”
However, he still wants the public to call the RCMP if they see people committing an offence such as drinking in public.
“If you call, we will get there,” he said.
Thalhofer also raised the issue of manpower, which is currently well below full force, with effectively only five constables for core policing to respond to calls to service. From the beginning of July until the end of August, the local RCMP had over a thousand calls to respond to.
Some at the meeting raised their concerns, and others tried to bring forward ideas to begin to bring people together to solve the complex problem.
Councillor Russ Gingrich was adamant the problem rests on the shoulders of the RCMP, and he believes they should be out enforcing the law.
“I do not have a solution … my interpretation is the only ones who can handle this kind of situation is the RCMP,” said Gingrich.
Thalhofer, however, made it clear while RCMP can and will deal with those who blatantly are breaking the law, he does not see this as a long-term solution.
“This is a social issue, it is not a policing issue,” he said. “This is not the first community I’ve worked in where this has become a problem.”
There were a number of attendees, however, who spoke about approaching the problem from other angles as well.
“Some of our questions should be directed in that area, to town council,” said Suzanne Lorimer, a downtown resident. “I’d really like to see a public washroom.”
“I think this is about all of us, all of our community and about respect,” said Monica Grill, of Nahounli Kennels. She suggested people try and take a moment to acknowledge the people doing the public drinking and loitering and ask them to be respectful.
“When you talk to someone, you break down that barrier,” she said.
Lisa Sam, a nurse who works in the Nak’azdli Health Centre spoke about some of the initiatives public health nurses and Nak’azdli have been working on, including the Men’s House and the Homeless and Hungry initiative which attempt to address some of the core issues.
She pointed out how previously people in the community had come together to create a treatment centre at Dem Lake, but the funding was cut before it was completed.
She also recalled how when searching for the missing youth on the lake (Kora Lee Prince and Matthew Karey in 2005) the street people of Fort St. James came out every day to help, how giving the people who were living on the street a purpose should be a goal for the community.
“It’s a long-term thing that we have to get together to do,” she said. “When they had something to do, they did wonderful.”
Joanne Alexander, a public health nurse, said many people have been trying to approach the problem from a public health perspective for a long time.
“There is a lot happening in our community from a positive perspective,” she said, suggesting the group look at other communities who have had some success dealing with the same type of issues, such as Portland, Oregon.
“It was because businesses took responsibility as a community.”
Kevin Gedling, who works at the historic site, but was not speaking for them, said moving the problem back to the lakeshore where it is not seen from downtown is not a solution either, given the thousands of both regional and foreign tourists who come to the historic site each year, and then take the impression of this problem back with them as part of their experience.
He suggested with the community’s history of coming together to solve other problems such as the transportation issues, the capacity is there to deal with this as well.
“A comprehensive, creative solution is really the way to go,” he said.
Mayor Rob MacDougall stood up and spoke briefly before he left, saying mayor and council have talked about washrooms, and suggesting if a committee is formed, he and council would work with them.