Happy Valley residents plan protest for minister’s visit

As the province continues to tout measures undertaken since a cabinet-led acute response team was formed in June 2022, residents of Happy Valley-Goose Bay are planning a public protest on the day Justice Minister John Hogan is expected to be in town with a top RCMP official to assess the situation.

And a new public safety concern has been brought to the attention of officials just this week: smoking around gas stations.

The central Labrador town has grappled with a transient problem for years, but several residents told The Telegram last month the lawlessness is worse than they’ve ever seen.

As many as 80 transients, most with addictions and mental-health problems, have been camping out on the trails around town, causing trouble and accosting residents and store employees.

The Telegram has heard of break-ins, assaults and thefts, as well as people urinating, defecating and performing sex acts in public.

On Tuesday, an email was sent by a service station manager to the town's fire chief and several government leaders warning of people smoking around vent stacks and gas pumps — including while fuel tanks are being filled.

“Often the individuals who are doing this are intoxicated and maybe not in the right state of mind to make rational decisions, making the risk even larger,” the sender wrote.

The Telegram has also seen a smartphone video clip of a fight that erupted outside a local bar on the weekend. The person who sent it said there weren’t enough police to contain the parties involved.

In the House of Assembly on Tuesday, Nov. 1, Justice Minister John Hogan touted measures taken by the province since June, including increased funding to provide extra patrols by the RCMP.

Hogan is expected to visit the town on Friday.

“I've said it before and I'll say it again: I am not going to be part of a government to police our way out of this issue and to round people up and throw them in jail,” he said in response to questions from Opposition justice critic Helen Conway Ottenheimer, “especially when the people that we are talking about are Indigenous people. That's a very colonial and old way of thinking. This is a modern government and we're not going to do that.”

On Wednesday, Conway Ottenheimer said the minister missed the point.

“I think that his response really ignored my question, because what we’re asking for is an increased police presence. He immediately jumped to arrests, and that’s not what I was asking for,” she told The Telegram.

“To think that police, their role is simply to arrest people, is very narrow and, I feel, limited,” she said.

“Police, as we know, play far more important roles than that.”

The MHA for the area, Perry Trimper, said Wednesday he understands the frustration of residents first-hand.

“I’m encountering people in my own back yard, and it’s very, very sad,” he said.

In the House, Hogan said the town had hired new municipal enforcement officers, but Trimper admits that’s not the case.

“The police are maxed out,” he said. “Government made available funding for municipal officers during the summer; we couldn’t find any. We couldn’t find any others to come up.”

The one municipal officer on duty is no longer handling transient complaints while the town clarifies jurisdictional and liability concerns.

Trimper said a security firm has been hired, but its powers are limited.

He said the nature and circumstances of crimes committed also pose a challenge when it comes to getting troublemakers off the streets.

“After 24 hours on their recognizance — and you’re struggling with addictions and you don’t have a home — you’re just putting them back out to potentially reoffend,” he said.

“We can’t arrest someone and send them off somewhere. Canada doesn’t work that way and this province doesn’t work that way.”

Residents The Telegram has spoken to say they understand the complexity of the issue, given the vulnerability of transients to addictions and intergenerational trauma.

But they say the current level of lawlessness has created a public safety crisis.

Trimper said he is optimistic about the future, even though a planned mental-health and addictions facility is still only at the design stage.

“I feel like we have the attention now that we can get out of this in the long run, but it’s the immediate issue … the concern for the safety of those that are living very rough, but also those who are living in homes and trying to raise a family,” he said.

Peter Jackson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Telegram