Last month, Hay River RCMP tackled 190 violations ranging from minor infractions to violent crimes, averaging six calls a day. RCMP say they’re incorporating “multi-pronged” harm reduction measures to address the town’s problems.
At a community meeting a year ago, one resident said: “I feel like we are losing our town.”
Meanwhile, the Northwest Territories town of around 3,500 people has been evacuated three times in two years by floods and fires, leaving behind physical, mental and economic scars.
“We are seeing an increase in the number of calls related to domestic violence, to public inebriation,” said Monica Piros, wellness director for the town’s health authority. “We have very, very obvious signs that this is a community in crisis.”
In response to those circumstances, police told Cabin Radio they’re trying to distinguish their approach to crimes rooted in social issues – like addiction or financial hardship – from cases of “hard criminality” such as violent offences or drug trafficking.
N.W.T. RCMP spokesperson Cpl Matt Halstead said officers are increasing checks on enforceable court conditions, but RCMP are not “charging them just for the sake of charging them.”
He said police are instead are focusing on cases where someone considered at a high risk of reoffending commits a serious crime while violating court conditions.
RCMP are also members of two Hay River committees: one focused on social issues and the other on restorative justice, which is defined by one non-profit as “a response to crime that focuses on restoring the losses suffered by victims, holding offenders accountable for the harm they have caused, and building peace within communities.”
In Hay River, the restorative justice committee is a community-led court diversion program. People accused of lower-end crimes are given the opportunity to avoid court and instead take personal responsibility.
That provides “an alternative to a criminal record and court-imposed sentence,” wrote Jacob Feeney, an RCMP officer and committee member.
The committee is made up of residents alongside an RCMP member who connects the committee with law enforcement and the wider community.
“There’s more than just jail to hold people accountable,” said Halstead. “In fact, jail is probably the worst in terms of rehabilitation or support.”
People appearing in front of the committee have the opportunity to acknowledge their mistakes and their responsibilities, and take steps to make amends.
Those who cooperate become “the main actor in their own rehabilitation,” said Michael Hansen, a defence lawyer in Hay River who sits on the committee.
Hansen said making amends could involve “an apology letter, attending counselling, having a meeting that’s supervised by the committee with the victim, doing community service work, attending different kinds of programming” or other options.
Community involvement is key, he said. The program introduces people to “positive contacts in the community” who can guide them to make better choices. Those contacts could be potential employers, counsellors or community networks.
“The easy thing is send them to jail. The tough thing is to actually help them and be a positive influence in their life, a meaningful influence, even if it’s only for a while,” said Hansen.
“The community is only improved by the effort that members of the community put into it … it takes a community effort.”
Success requires active participation and cooperation from the person accused, according to Bobbi Hamilton, a committee member and coordinator for the past 15 years.
Hamilton describes the process as an agreement rather than a top-down set of instructions.
“If they don’t agree, then the process isn’t working,” Hamilton said.
“It is mostly having the client become aware of what they’ve done and how to make amends to the victim and to the community.”
Residents who are victims of a crime are encouraged to participate in the process but don’t have to.
Feeney said the response from those who do take part “has been very positive.” Hansen says the committee is helping people to make better decisions and restore “a better balance to the community.”
‘Everybody at the table’
RCMP in Hay River say they have felt increasingly relied upon to tackle issues outside the scope of law enforcement “because there’s no one else to call.”
“These issues are not police issues,” said Halstead. “The root causes of them are other issues like addiction, housing and food insecurity, and all of those issues that the police cannot alone address.”
There are efforts under way to take a broader approach.
Hay River Mayor Kandis Jameson says a second committee that focuses on social issues has harm reduction at its core.
Harm reduction is defined as a process whereby agencies try to find ways to reduce the negative consequences associated with drug use.
More than a year ago, Hay River’s council brought together a committee designed to find solutions not just regarding trafficking and crime, but also complicated issues like housing and healthcare.
The social issues committee is made up of representatives from town council, protective services, housing, education, health and social services, RCMP, and community organizations like the friendship centre.
“We’ve got everybody at the table,” said Jameson. “When you’ve got a lot of people from different aspects of our community coming together to find common ground, I think that’s how we find solutions and that’s how we move forward.”
Piros, the health authority’s wellness director, said everyone in the town has a vested interest in finding solutions.
“This isn’t a health authority problem, it’s not a municipality problem. This is a problem that needs to be addressed by the entire community as a whole,” she said.
The social issues committee has approved town-wide distribution of Naloxone, an overdose-reversing medication, according to Jameson.
She said the committee is also working to advance education, early intervention and aftercare to address addiction, adding that complex issues build on each other, meaning lasting solutions must account for multiple factors.
“We know the intersect between poverty, mental health issues, family violence, and limited or no job opportunities in any geographical area,” said Piros.
“Addiction is sort-of a symptom of a lot of larger issues that culminate in that one behaviour.”
Through harm reduction and education, Hay River’s health authority says it has made progress destigmatizing services for people experiencing addiction and overlapping issues.
“The work that our teams do is educating the public around addiction and the factors that could intersect in a person’s life to lead them down that pathway,” said Piros.
Along with Naloxone distribution, the health authority began supplying safer inhalation kits this summer to help mitigate risks when taking inhalation-based substances. Those risks could include burns or the transfer of illnesses through contact with bodily fluids.
Supply issues, however, have prevented the health authority from restocking those kits lately.
“We were going through them so quickly. It speaks to the severity or the level of addiction that is clearly present in our community,” Piros said.
On the other hand, Piros has noticed a rise in the number of residents consulting nurses and wellness workers with what she termed greater openness.
“I think it’s a step in the right direction,” she said.
“Everybody is working together to try and find solutions to try and support each other, no matter where you’re at,” said Jameson.
“There’s always help out there.”
By Simona Rosenfield, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Original Published on Nov 22, 2023 at 06:05