Terrace: Unchecked crime, a “community in crisis”

Written By Fran Yanor

Cameron Golder was serving a customer in the clothing boutique where she works in downtown Terrace, B.C., when a man passed by the store’s front window.

Dressed in dark clothing, he had two black eyes and wore a glove with chains across the knuckles. A stick jutted out of his backpack.

“He looked rough,” Golder recalled.

She inadvertently made eye contact.

He suddenly reached into his pants and pulled out something dark and L-shaped. Golder thought it was a gun. The man lunged for the door handle.

Golder got there first and locked the door.

“It was one of those moments where it’s like, ‘Hello, adrenaline.’”

The man gestured menacingly, flipped her off, and eventually moved on.

“He left, but I was like, what if I hadn’t been by the door? What would have happened?”

Golder and her co-workers might have dismissed it as an unsettling, but isolated, event.

Except it wasn’t.

In the month of February alone, the two stores where Golder works – All Star Shoes and The Cove Boutique – in the small downtown shopping district of Terrace were broken into three times and had one window and two doors smashed, totalling about $15,000 in theft and damages. In that time, employees also dealt with shoplifting, threats, a feigned hold up, and intimidation on the walkway outside the store.

“The stress is like nothing I’ve ever experienced.”

Ginny Kenmuir

“It’s just kind of like one thing after another, after another, and you don’t actually get to calm down and come down from that so you’re constantly on edge,” said Golder’s co-worker Nina Gordon. “It sounds a little crazy when we’re such a small town with a little boutique that’s right next door to other beautiful little stores. We’re feeling shaken up all the time. Definitely, there’s no sense of safeness.”

Since then, Ginny Kenmuir, who owns both shops with her husband Shawn, installed folding gates across the windows, security cameras, and extra safety mechanisms for staff, costing over $10,000.

“Attack on people’s livelihoods”

“The stress is like nothing I’ve ever experienced,” Kenmuir wrote in a letter to Terrace council. “I’m chained to these stores at the moment, worrying about more break-ins and the increasing(ly) bold moves these people take, walking in and grabbing and dashing.”

Kenmuir’s experience comes amid a torrent of aggressive encounters and increasingly brazen criminal acts asailing retail employees and business owners in the northwestern city in what Terrace Coun. James Cordeiro called “an attack on people’s livelihoods.”

“Many people feel like it’s becoming a lawless state.”

Carol Leclerc

People’s response to being threatened is “fight or flight,” Cordeiro warned in a March 3 special council meeting. They will either walk away from their businesses or “bad things will happen.”

“Many people feel like it’s becoming a lawless state. There doesn’t seem to be any consequences for actions. And people can continue to have bad behaviour, inappropriate behaviour,” Terrace Mayor Carol Leclerc said in a recent interview.

“We’re a community in crisis.”

About 12,000 people live in Terrace, plus another 8,000 in surrounding communities. As the largest population centre in the Northwest, an additional 40,000 or so British Columbians drive to Terrace for groceries, shopping, post secondary education, air travel, and health-care services.

A hub city for the Northwest, an estimated 60,000 or more British Columbians rely on Terrace for goods and services like groceries, shopping, air travel, health-care, and post secondary education. Despite significant resource development in the region, Terrace receives limited revenue from projects, Leclerc said. Instead, the city relies heavily on residential and commercial businesses for it tax base.

Hard drugs

Triton Environmental Consultants provides professional services to the oil and gas, mining, power, and transportation sectors among others, and has offices across the province. The situation at its downtown Terrace location has become an untenable environmental and safety concern, said Paul Harrison, Triton’s director of business development.

The company’s security footage has revealed extensive drug use, fighting, vandalism, property damage, and prostitution in the Triton yard at night. People cook drugs over campfires beside the building; they go through the garbage, steal from company trucks, and break into employee vehicles.

In the morning, employees have to clean up garbage strewn across the yard, used drug needles, crack pipes, and human urine and excrement. One evening, a murder or attempted murder occurred in the yard, Harrison said. RCMP took the building over for two days, disrupting business. Staff later had to clean blood off the side of the building.

The problem, Harrison emphatically stressed, is not homeless people. “The folks that are homeless, I have nothing but sympathy for them.” It’s the effects of the hard drugs, like methamphetamines and crack cocaine, that some of them are doing, he said.

In March, Terrace had the third highest overdose rates per capita in B.C., Leclerc said.

Terrace’s 2021 point-in-time count revealed 85 people who were living with homelessness, including 29 individuals considered unsheltered, according to city data. About 80 per cent of people surveyed said they had issues with addictions. Nearly half said they had mental health challenges, and 87 per cent identified as Indigenous.

The city has 10 acute inpatient beds in the psychiatry unit of the local hospital, an intense case management team that provides short term wrap around services for people living on the street and in shelters, and an opioid agonist therapy program. Several emergency, supportive, and transitional shelters in the city provide more than 120 beds for individuals across the housing continuum. The province has helped fund many housing units, but the Northwest has no complex care for mental health and addictions.

People need to “decouple the word homeless from criminal,” said Cordeiro, who speculated the phraseology is also being used as a “straw man to get around not having to defend the actions of the people who are really committing the offences.” He added, “It’s much easier to say, ‘We need to look after homeless people,’ than it is to say, ‘We need to look after people who have broken into All Star Shoes and caused $7,000 in damages and theft, and effectively put her business at jeopardy.’”

The truth is, say councillors and business owners, there are a small number of people in Terrace struggling with housing, addictions, and mental health issues, who are also repeatedly committing criminal acts.

Lisa Lawley of Kermode Friendship Society, which provides educational, employment and social support services in the Terrace area, said she empathizes with the business community and believes the solution to these problems in the downtown needs to be collaborative, according to a transcript of an online Terrace ‘community dialogue’ last summer. Business owners and support service providers need to build connections so that businesses have help dealing with individuals who are being difficult, she said.

For Harrison, the biggest difficulty is the behaviour of people after they ingest hard drugs.

“Once they start smoking that stuff, they get very animated, very aggressive… they’re very unpredictable,” Harrison said. “We’ve had numerous instances of threats of violence, threatening actions. And especially, lots of comments towards females, stuff that we just can’t tolerate. It’s not good.”

Triton Environmental has developed rules to ensure the safety of its 75-plus employees while they’re arriving and departing the premises.

“We’ve had numerous instances of threats of violence… especially, lots of comments towards females, stuff that we just can’t tolerate.”

Paul Harrison

Besides health and safety risks, Triton has endured tens of thousands of dollars in vandalism and theft. Employees used to leave work and safety gear in the company trucks. Not anymore. Anything left in the vehicles has been stolen. Company trucks and employee vehicles were broken into almost nightly, Harrison said.

And there’s no point in calling the police.

“Even when they’ve been able to identify the people on video or something’s been stolen, nothing’s ever come of it. We don’t look to them for safety,” said Harrison, noting the local RCMP were busy in Terrace. “If we call the police at this point, it’s mainly just to go through the motions in case we ever had to make an insurance claim. I don’t really see a functional value in calling them for any of this.”

Triton will soon begin constructing a fence to encircle the parking lot and most of the building, with a price tag of about $100,000.

“Not in the public interest”

Northern Beat interviewed or read emailed accounts from more than two dozen business owners with operations in or near the Terrace downtown core. Without exception, they detailed a litany of theft, vandalism and intimidation they and their staff had each experienced at the hands of a small group of repeat offenders.

Several retailers now keep their doors locked during the day for staff safety, compelling customers to knock to gain entry. One owner of a big box store who asked that his name and company not be publicized, estimates shoplifting and vandalism costs his company upwards of $200,000 annually. “That happens every day here. Absolutely every day,” he said.

Each interviewee noted the ineffectiveness of relying on the justice system to stop the repetitive behaviour.

“A disproportionate amount of crime, particularly property crime, is committed by a minority of habitual offenders. The B.C. Prosecution Service often determines not to recommend charges be pursued for criminal offences that are referred by the RCMP, as charges are not in the public interest,” according to a March 3 Terrace city council resolution to the North Central Local Government Association and sent to all the municipalities in B.C. “Repeat offenders are free to recommit crimes without consequences as a result.”

The council resolution asked that Crown “consider public safety and fairness when dealing with prolific offenders” and develop guidelines defining what was “in the public interest” when pursuing criminal charges.

Terrace council asked that Crown “consider public safety” and define what was “in the public interest” when pursuing criminal charges against prolific offenders.

According to city councillors and local business owners, when police arrive to investigate criminal activity like shoplifting, the perpetrators have often already left the scene. If police arrive before the offenders have departed, few, if any charges were known to be laid. When police do recommend charges, Crown invariably does not proceed with those charges. Only one owner knew of a single individual, involved in repeated shoplifting incidents, who was convicted and jailed for shoplifting.

In a situation where a person is arrested for a property crime, the individual is taken to the police station and most often released without conditions on a promise to appear in court at a later date.

“It has been the practice of Crown counsel to release offenders of crimes without charges or conditions, citing charges are not in the public interest,” Terrace council wrote.

In the B.C. legislature, Attorney General and Housing Minister David Eby defended the work of Crown counsel. Over the last two years, the B.C. Prosecution Service had received 1,716 reports from police, 1,257 of which were approved to court, and 339 were no-charge decisions, Eby said in response to a question from Skeena MLA Ellis Ross on March 30. The rest of the files either resulted in alternative measures, were returned to police for more investigation, or are currently in progress, Eby said.

“There may be issues with the criminal law being applied by the court,” which Eby noted, is federal jurisdiction.

If offenders don’t show up for their court date, a failure to appear in court warrant is issued.

Of the 423 failure to appear in court warrants issued in Terrace between February 2021 and February 2022, two people were charged, according to a report to city council by Terrace RCMP Staff Sgt. Mike Robinson. These two individuals were collectively responsible for 47 of the fail to appears, and neither has been charged with a fail to appear to date.

Of the 423 failure to appear in court warrants issued in Terrace between February 2021 and February 2022, two people were charged.

On average, six failure to appear warrants were issued each week in Terrace, with that figure rising as high as 12 warrants some weeks, Robinson said.

Chasing down individuals for a court warrant is a burden on the RCMP to administer and ultimately fruitless as there are no consequences for not appearing in court, said Leclerc, adding the RCMP case load in Terrace is double the provincial average.

“If it’s a revolving door, (offenders) just keep going in and out. There’s no help there for them,” said Leclerc. “How do you get them help? When nobody seems to care?”

Earlier in March, Northern Beat asked the attorney general about the so-called “catch and release” of repeat offenders – an issue voiced by several B.C. municipalities – along with the perceived reticence of Crown to charge prolific criminals who grapple with homelessness and addictions issues.

“The court will not tolerate prison as being the solution to those… systemic issues. Crown has to balance that.”

David Eby

Federal law and the Supreme Court of Canada have “very clear messages” regarding offenders with either “mental health or addiction issues, or other systemic challenges that might lead them to come into contact with the justice system,” Eby said at the time. “The court will not tolerate prison as being the solution to those underlying issues, systemic issues. So Crown has to balance that.”

Revolving door of justice

Several Supreme Court of Canada rulings led to 2019 Bill C-75 amendments to the federal Criminal Code, which instructs special consideration be given to “vulnerable and disadvantaged accused, including racialized populations, the homeless, the poor, or those suffering from mental illness or addiction.”

Bill C-75 requires police and courts to release accused offenders at the earliest opportunity following arrest, with further detention or bail conditions focussed on addressing flight risk. Also, that “In making a bail decision, a judge ought to especially consider the situation of Indigenous individuals, with the objective of dismantling the ‘revolving door’ of systemic and racial discrimination.”

Eby acknowledged the frustration people have around the ‘rotating door’ of justice whereby offenders are detained, and a number of people are “going to be released to homelessness, and then they’re going to offend again and go back into prison.”

Terrace RCMP cited one offender who was caught reoffending minutes after release from police custody.

Eby acknowledged, “There are a large group of people in B.C. brought into contact with the criminal justice system because they have mental health and addiction issues, and we’re not providing them with a way to get out of that, other than prison.”

The most recent provincial budget aims to “engage with and hopefully interrupt this rotating door of the criminal justice system for people with serious mental health and addiction issues,” he said. “If we can reduce the cost by providing services, health care services, to these folks we’ll be a long way forward. I’m really hopeful that this will help interrupt the cycle for a number of people.”

In February, the B.C. government released its draft framework for complex care housing, which outlines how social, health and housing resources will weave together in a “a seamless system of care” for people with complex mental health and substance use challenges. [Graph Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions]

All the Terrace residents and councillors interviewed expressed the need for more support services for local people suffering with homelessness and addictions. Currently, the closest detox centre is a six-hour drive away in Prince George, and there is no live-in complex care treatment facility for people with addictions and mental health issues in the entire North.

In a March 31 meeting with Eby, Solicitor General and Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth, Municipal Affairs Minister Nathan Cullen, and representatives of the ministry of mental health and addictions, the city advocated on several fronts, including for a detox and recovery centre proposed by the Northern First Nation Alliance, as well as for the establishment of an Integrated Court, Leclerc said.

One of several types of specialized courts in B.C., Integrated Court weaves health-care and social services with the justice system to “address the underlying mental health and addiction issues that lead people to become chronic offenders,” according to a statement from Eby in May 2021. The integration concept was first introduced in the Downtown Community Court in Vancouver in 2008 with the goal of reducing street crime and increasing public safety, according to the Provincial Court of B.C.

Eligible individuals may have bail hearings or plead guilty and be sentenced in Integrated Court. The province opened another Integrated Court in Victoria in 2010, and a third in Kelowna last year.

Immediate relief needed

Even as supportive health-care and improvements to the justice system are welcomed for the long-term, both Leclerc and Bujtas said relief is also needed in the short-term.

“People will say that if all the support services were there, this problem would go away. And maybe it would, but what are you going to do until then?” said Bujtas, who attended the meeting with Leclerc, the B.C. ministers, and Terrace chief administrator Kris Boland.

For mayor and council, the place to start has to be with prolific offenders.

“It has to be fair for all parties… consequences have to come at some point.”

Sean Bujtas

“(The ministers) said they’re going to huddle with their staff and see what the opportunities are, and they’re going to get back to us in about two or three weeks,” said Leclerc, who sounded optimistic some help might be on the horizon. “We’re just hoping that they will deal with the prolific offenders.”

Ultimately, justice must be served for everyone, said Bujtas.

“It has to be fair for all parties, including the business owners. What’s not fair right now for the business owners is people that continue to just repeatedly offend, and offend, and offend, and there’s no consequence,” Bujtas said.

The refusal to rein in the criminal activity and simultaneously support people with addictions feels to some like government shirking its responsibilities and leaving citizens to pick up the tab.

“Right now, they’re basically passing the funding issue down to the people that are having to replace their broken windows, clean up all this stuff,” said Harrison. “Safety’s not something a community should have to sacrifice.”

The solution must include consequences for criminal behaviour, said Bujtas.

“Otherwise you’re just a lawless state,” he said. “That’s kind of how we feel we are right now.”