People Are Dying in Public

Discussions around the complex “issue” of public safety in Happy Valley-Goose Bay avoid the real problem and its solution, transforming what should be fear for people into fear of people.
A large wooden sign in the shape of a house stands in several feet of snow in front of a wooded area. The sign reads "Welcome to Happy Valley Goose Bay The Heart of Labrador"
Source: Flickr

Not long ago on a visit to Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Minister of Justice and Public Safety John Hogan called our “transient and homeless situation” a “complex issue with no simple solution.”  He may be right, and yet I can’t help but recall the moment in the 2004 film Hank Williams First Nation when a young, white social worker says, “These are complicated issues, Mr. Fox.” She has just been challenged on systemic racism while seeking to place an Indigenous child in need of care. Mr. Fox, played by the late, great Cree actor Gordon Tootoosis replies, “No, they’re not, really.”

This is the trouble with political language.  “Situations,” as Hogan calls them, may be complex.  Certainly his task of balancing many considerations as a government minister must be complicated.  On the other hand, the issue itself is actually simple, if we can identify and agree on which issue we’re talking about—or, less euphemistically, which problem.  We discuss issues; hopefully we endeavour to solve problems.

The problem in Happy Valley-Goose Bay right now is that many people are suffering in our outdoor public spaces, and some of them are dying. Since 2015, at least six people have died on the system of multi-use dirt trails criss-crossing the town, mainly from cold and exposure.

Who is the “public” in “public safety”?

Photo by eberhard 🖐 grossgasteiger on Unsplash.

Happy Valley-Goose Bay has recently developed a habit of holding rallies for “public safety” (a term lifted directly from the minister’s job description, one supposes), largely without any clearly articulated ideas or demands.  The most recent of these rallies was held in front of the Town Hall on November 10, on the occasion of Hogan’s visit.  One of the leaders was Jackie Compton-Hobbs, chair of the town’s Housing and Homelessness Coalition, a member of the last town council, and formerly the contact person for the Transient and Homeless Population Working Group first formed in 2017 to address apparent increases in the numbers of at-risk people living in the town’s trail system.

“It’s public safety for everyone as a whole, the vulnerable population, the community,” says Compton-Hobbs, as reported by CBC.  “We understand that people are struggling with mental health and addictions. We need programs and services. We need something to address the issue. But right now, public safety is out of control.”  The telltale word here is but.

After the same rally, current Mayor George Andrews and Deputy Mayor Ella Wallace crossed the street to acknowledge a small vigil being held to commemorate some of those who have actually died on the trail system.  They thanked the organizer of the vigil for representing a too-often-forgotten point of view and sagely noted that the real task is to secure public safety for everyone.  No one should be left behind, least of all our most vulnerable.

I was present for this remarkable exercise in public relations.  “Public safety for everyone,” I thought, sounds an awful lot like “all lives matter.”

Fear thy neighbour

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash.

Of course everyone deserves to be safe.  The extreme frustration of all this is that most of the prominent figures are not being untruthful, nor even transparently unjust.  But they aren’t saying what needs to be said, either.  They are attempting to misdirect our emotions, transforming what should be fear for people into fear of people.

Apparently recognizing a need for circumspection when gathering fearful and angry citizens, the announcers of these “public safety” rallies have consistently emphasized the importance of peacefulness and respect.  The rallies have been quite tame, particularly as rallies go, but that does not mean that they are not dangerous.  For one thing, they are only sanitized distillations of a larger, community-wide discussion that is primarily held in private conversations or openly on Facebook.  The rallies are brief, everybody-behave-yourselves moments of the kind necessary to invite the attention of public officials, not to mention the resolutely noncommittal CBC reporters doing their best to put a human face on things.  Much of the rest of the discussion is marbled with invective and hate.

The members of our current Town Council have learned from the mistakes of their predecessors on the previous council, whose involvement in countless shameful online episodes—many of them transpiring on the “Concerning Happy Valley/Goose Bay” Facebook group—prompted an assertion in a municipal statement this summer that while “Dialogue and advocacy are critical tools, [the Town Council] will not be addressing this very important matter via social media.”  After all, the statement continues, “Social Media cannot and will not find the necessary solutions.”

But Facebook is not the only home of detestable prose.  Last year, our former council released a masterpiece of cringe in the form of a statement that reads: “Residents and Businesses are living and operating in fear.  Daily, our seniors, our children witness illegal activities such as public drunkenness, lewd and deplorable acts, sexual assaults, rape.  They see people passed out or convulsing.”

One might venture to be more concerned about the victims of rape than its witnesses.  And one hopes that people do indeed see those who are passed out or convulsing, so they might call emergency services.  

“Our community trails are littered with campsites where these individuals congregate,” the statement continues.  “As a result, residents no longer feel safe utilizing our community trail system. Residents are afraid inside their own homes.”

Wading past the equation of human occupancy with litter—not to mention the off-handed inhumanity of the phrase “these individuals”—one arrives at a kernel of truth in the words of former mayor Wally Andersen.  If town residents feel safe neither using the trails nor in their homes, how must they feel when sleeping in the trails instead of homes?

Whose safety matters, who deserves help? 

Photo by Chandler Cruttenden on Unsplash.

This October, Saltwire’s Peter Jackson wrote a two-part feature with titles such as  “Somebody’s going to be hurt” and “Helpless Happy Valley-Goose Bay residents.”  The “somebodies” and “residents” he has in mind are not those who are already being hurt, killed even, or who are most likely to experience helplessness on the trails. 

This coverage implies an assumption that some people’s safety matters more than others, and that some people deserve more help than others. As a transgender woman, I had to roll my eyes when Jackson managed to dredge up a quote about a dangerous “man in a dress” in an effort to demonstrate the extent of “transient lawlessness.”  Why not keep adding to the list of bogeymen?  One prejudice tends to bleed into another.

The public or the media are not totally unconcerned with the human beings primarily at risk in our town.  CBC’s Heidi Atter reported on the vigil held across the road from the November 10 rally. She has also spoken with Michelle Kinney, a deputy minister with the Nunatsiavut Government, about the Housing Hub her department oversees.  In her interview, Kinney emphasizes the diversity of people’s experiences and her efforts to “speak to individuals.”  Hopefully everyone takes her message to heart.  Imagine, seeing people as people and addressing them as such.

Yes, there are incidents of vandalism and harassment.  I’ve experienced them myself first hand. I’ve been exhorted to “be a good girl” by an intoxicated stranger twice my size, while he stroked my arm and followed me to my car, with two of his friends looking on.  I’ve had at least one person sleep overnight in my car and another come uninvited into my house at night, while my daughter was asleep in her room.

But I have also been asked for water, and on another occasion, for a ride to the hospital.  What kind of a person would I be, if I refused such requests?  Or if I turned away too quickly for the requests even to be made?  It was people asking me these things, people whom I’ve since seen many times around town, not faceless embodiments of my own fear.

“It’s complicated” is an Observation, not a solution

A silhouette of man in profile exhaling steam on a cold night.
Photo by Pavel Lozovikov on Unsplash.

The 12th Council’s accusations of government inaction are entirely justified.  The open letter sent by the Labrador North Chamber of Commerce to the premier last summer was also on point in saying that, “We can appreciate the sensitivities and complexities of this issue – words we continue to hear from our government leaders – but this justification is no longer sufficient or appropriate.”

“For six months people have been pleading for help,” Helen Conway Ottenheimer, MHA of Harbour Main told the House of the Assembly on November 1.  Six months?  Try five years since the formation of the Transient and Homeless Population Working Group.  Try ever since the relationship between Labrador and the provincial government began. This is not a new problem and solving it must begin with admitting its deeper roots.

One also has to sympathize with the government, or at least to try to understand them.  They are being asked by many different people to intervene in many different ways, for many different ends.  They have voter support to secure, and it’s not easy to see Happy Valley-Goose Bay clearly from St. John’s, or from Harbour Main, or on a short-term visit to the town.

Can we therefore please agree on what the problem really is, so that we can communicate it clearly?  Our problem is not a rash of unconnected summary or super summary offences against people and property.  Our problem is not the safety of the public as a whole. Our problem is not simply that many people are uncomfortable inside their own homes, and some of them don’t want to go outside.  Our problem is that many people are suffering in our outdoor public spaces, and some of them are dying. 

This is the problem that demands a solution. The rest is a distraction.

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