Fort St. John CAO shares multi-faceted view of city’s public safety issues

Written By Tania Finch, Special from The Broken Typewriter

As a former RCMP officer who worked in both general duties and serious crimes in Fort St. John, the city’s chief administrative officer, Milo MacDonald, has a unique perspective on the social issues and crime facing city residents and businesses.

“The crime that we’re seeing today is different than the crime I was seeing when I was here before,” MacDonald told business owners at a December Chamber of Commerce event. “A lot of the pressures we’re seeing now tend to relate to addictions, mental health and homelessness, and particularly as they relate to fentanyl addictions.”

When MacDonald arrived in the city in 2005 as a police officer, the RCMP were mostly dealing with issues surrounding the crack cocaine trade, he said. MacDonald was appointed Fort St. John CAO in 2020 after four years as CAO in Williams Lake and a 20-year career with the RCMP, including as detachment commander in two small cities.

For those involved in the drug trade, Fort St. John has always been a violent and ruthless place – drive-by shootings, targeted at members of criminal organizations for example, aren’t unusual, according to MacDonald. 

“This is a lucrative area to distribute drugs.”

Milo MacDonald

“That’s because this is a lucrative area to distribute drugs. Primarily related to the fact that we have high incomes, and we have young population. Those two things tend to equate to demand for controlled substances.” 

Many in the community, business owners and residents feel that crime is far worse than in the past, but MacDonald said people are simply more aware of what’s happening.

Decriminalization has changed some things for the worse

“Certainly, there are some things that have changed, and have changed for the worse,” he said. “One of the things that has changed substantially is, decriminalization.”

One change for police is that people in possession of controlled substances aren’t held in custody and substances under the legal limit must be returned to them. As of January 31, 2023, a three-year pilot project in B.C. decriminalized personal possession of up to 2.5 grams of methamphetamines, fentanyl, cocaine and other hard drugs.

The altered legal landscape means there are fewer undercover operations than previously, MacDonald said. These operations took large numbers of drug dealers out of circulation, interrupting their relationships, which was a “fairly effective way of managing the crime picture in our community,” he said.

“We’ve experimented with a lot of harm reduction initiatives and a lot of decriminalization initiatives, which haven’t really demonstrated any level of success,” says Fort St. John chief administrative officer, Milo MacDonald in December. [Photo Tania Finch]

“I used to think we were pretty hard done by in terms of the the sentences we would get for the people we would charge and get convicted, in terms of the hoops we had to jump through. Now I think we had it pretty good by comparison to the police that are operating here today.”

Combine these changes with the lack of supports for people in active addiction, experiencing mental health crises and homelessness and you have a perfect storm, which is affecting businesses and residents, as well as those in need of support, said MacDonald.

FSJ feeling the burden of multiple public health crises

Like other urban centres across B.C., Fort St. John is feeling the burden of these crises on the city’s police and fire department budgets, with a disproportionate number of emergency calls related to people with mental health and addictions issues.

As well, first responders are suffering psychological injuries from dealing with the trauma of attending so many overdoses and overdose deaths, MacDonald said. The community has seen 25 or more overdose deaths this year, plus many more non-fatal overdoses.

“We haven’t really seen any effective public policy in terms of managing the fentanyl crisis. We’ve experimented with a lot of harm reduction initiatives, and a lot of decriminalization initiatives which haven’t really demonstrated any level of success.”

“We haven’t really seen any effective public policy in terms of managing the fentanyl crisis.”

Milo MacDonald

On top of that, shelters are underfunded, understaffed, and overcrowded. These factors make recruitment difficult – the pay isn’t great, the working conditions are dangerous and dirty, MacDonald said. 

“It attracts a person who is very motivated by improving the welfare in the world, and it’s hard to find people like that sometimes. Most shelters throughout the province have more vacancies than they know what to do with, and I think ours is no exception. We would have more capacity if we had more people.”

MacDonald said he feels bad when he sees the social media response to the Salvation Army, adding people tend to overlook what the situation might be like if the Salvation Army wasn’t here. Because the Salvation Army provides a shelter, transitional housing and various addictions services, social disorder behaviours are visibly concentrated around the facilities.

Municipal bylaws not intended for serious incidents

The municipality, has some ability to impact the situation, but bylaws were largely intended to deal with minor civic infractions like improperly parked motorhomes, unsightly lawns and loud music at night. According to MacDonald, the city is using its bylaws to compensate for the unwillingness and inability of the provincial government to take responsibility for action to respond to problems in the community.

“We’ve got a handful of residences in this community that are largely associated to the drug trade, that are places where violence happens quite regularly, including gun violence. It threatens the neighbours at those residences,” MacDonald said.  

“We’ve got a handful of residences … largely associated to the drug trade, that are places where violence happens quite regularly.”

Milo MacDonald

He says the police are doing their best to address the situation, and the city is doing what it can to help both the residents and the police.

“We’re using tools like the nuisance bylaw, and clearly if we’re talking about incidents of gun play, then a nuisance bylaw is really not quite up to the task.”

MacDonald said the city is working on a number of measures to help alleviate the crisis in the community, including urging the province to put the Community Safety Amendment Act into force, a cause many other communities in the province have also taken up.

The City of Fort St. John recently discovered the Act – which includes several useful enforcement options for municipalities to deal with public safety and disorder situations – had nearly been passed into law by the current and previous governments but was twice halted prior to enactment.

Fort St. John mayor Lilia Hansen sent a letter to Solicitor General Mike Farnworth asking for the Act to be made law.

“Our institutions are threatened by the loss of public faith in their effectiveness. It has become difficult to reassure our citizens that we have the tools to manage these situations,” Hansen wrote.

“With the community safety amendment act, that would give us something, the tools to act at a civic level,” Hansen said in a previous interview with Northern Beat.

The Act would provide municipalities with a number of options, MacDonald explained, including evictions, to encourage owners of problem properties to “act in ways that were in the best interests of the community.”

Situation tables could help some city residents

Another tool that would be helpful for the city is a situation table, MacDonald said.

“That’s where you put a person metaphorically in the middle of the table” and bring in professionals from across the sectors to discuss the best path for them, said former BC RCMP assistant commissioner Eric Stubbs in a 2022 interview with Northern Beat.

The person’s background, family history, criminal offences, mental health struggles, homelessness and addictions are all assessed by a cross-disciplinary team involving multiple ministries, the justice system, non-profit agencies, the police and three levels of governments, said Stubbs, who has since become Chief-of-Police in Ottawa.

“We participate in a lot of them. Sometimes it works very well.,” said Stubbs. But the tables can only deal with a few offenders at a time, so they’re resource-intensive for each person. 

MacDonald suggested a Housing First program could follow the establishment of a situation table. Housing first is based on the premise that providing people with low barrier housing stabilizes them so they will be better equipped to deal with other issues, such as mental health and addictions.  

“Much of what we’re doing is waiting for senior levels of government to change,” MacDonald said. “The philosophies of federal and provincial governments need to change.”

Meanwhile, the acute problems with the two residences causing problems recently may soon resolve themselves thanks to conversations with both landlords and tenants, he said.

“[But] it’s unrealistic to think that those problems will disappear from the community. Those problems, by their very nature will relocate to another part of the community and they will be problematic elsewhere.”

For more on BC North Peace, read Tania Finch‘s independent news source, The Broken Typewriter.