I’m from Williams Lake.
For those who don’t know, Williams Lake is a veritable hot bed of aboriginal gang activity, with locally-developed gangs involved in all manner of criminal activity.
There is so much property crime in Williams Lake – much of it resulting from youth involved in gangs – downtown businesses have trouble getting glass insurance, vehicle insurance is some of the highest in the province and cleaning off graffiti is a regular chore for downtown businesses.
I have had graffiti on my own property in Williams Lake, on the detached garage behind my house. Multiple garages in the area were broken into in a rash of thefts this past summer, targeting properties with valuable tools and recreational vehicles.
In Williams Lake, it is not necessarily safe to walk alone in town at night, one young man I know was mugged and assaulted on the road running up behind my house, and it is not a quiet street.
I did not feel safe as a teenager walking alone at night in town, and I didn’t really think about the reasons.
Now, when I think about how the undercurrent of intolerance and racism and the structure of the education and reserve system influenced things, I think about the youth and those gangs and how that may have influenced the level of violence and other things in my high school.
Youth from outlying areas around Williams Lake must relocate to the town from their rural areas or reserves to go to high school. The majority of those young students entering high school are from outlying First Nations reserves.
These youth are vulnerable, and far away from the support of their families, and this makes them very susceptible to influence by things like gang culture.
Racism within the non-native community can make them feel singled out or unwelcome (being followed around a store is standard practice in some places if you are a native youth, if someone did that to you, would you want to give them your money?).
Add to this the glorification of urban hip-hop culture which already adds to the appeal of the clothing and the lifestyle, and you’ve got an easy sell to young First Nations youth with few opportunities or options.
The leadership in Williams Lake is finally beginning to take a proactive approach in some ways, by creating opportunities for youth and programs to help, and they did finally build a skateboard park, after years of lobbying by an organized group of skateboarders. More recently they have built a dirt jump bike park, giving youth with fewer resources some options for spending their free time.
But it is woefully little and it is incredibly late.
There are some great things happening, and some people have stepped forward, but for too long, I feel the community may have felt like it was not their problem, it was a law enforcement or First Nations problem.
This kind of attitude has drastically detracted from a great community, with the area becoming the car theft capital of B.C. a number of times, and increases in many types of violence and criminal activity. This means other youth in the schools are being influenced by these gangs as well, with more drug trafficking and criminal behaviour.
While I think Fort St. James is an amazing community, I also think it needs to be aware of the potential influence of economic growth on the youth, and how important it is for all members of the community to take an active interest in making sure the youth’s needs are being met.
Once a community becomes large enough people are not necessarily easily recognized or identified, there is no longer the security of knowing someone will be watching out for everyone else’s children and property.
It is exciting to see Fireweed Collective Society taking a proactive approach to addressing the lack of options for youth in the community, shown by their recent grant application to fund a youth program, but it is equally disappointing to hear there is no involvement from the mayor and council as yet.
I truly hope their lack of support was a simple oversight and lack of information and not a lack of interest. As wonderful as this community is, it is not immune to the problems Williams Lake has experienced, and once your insurance goes up or your child is offered drugs, it is your problem and it may be too late.