Knife threat at Yellowknife bookstore part of a 'bigger issue' in the city

·4 min read
Robert Warburton, the president of the Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce. He says safety issues are a daily occurrence for many downtown Yellowknife businesses.  (Emma Grunwald/CBC - image credit)
Robert Warburton, the president of the Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce. He says safety issues are a daily occurrence for many downtown Yellowknife businesses. (Emma Grunwald/CBC - image credit)

A recent knife incident at the Yellowknife Book Cellar speaks to a wide issue for businesses operating downtown, according to the president of Yellowknife's Chamber of Commerce.

"Something needs to shift," said Robert Warburton, in a recent interview. "Just doing what we're doing is obviously not working."

According to him, Yellowknife businesses face daily security concerns.

"One of the things you hear about as a business often is, 'I don't want to go downtown because I don't feel safe.'"

Warburton's comments come nearly a week after an intoxicated man walked into the Book Cellar as Jessie Dunbar and her co-worker were getting ready to close for the evening.

He was mumbling, wavering back and forth, and asking for money, said Dunbar, a clerk at the store.

He was also holding a pocket knife.

Emma Grunwald/CBC
Emma Grunwald/CBC

"He seemed under the influence, like he wasn't all there," Dunbar said.

"That's what really made me concerned because, you know, he's not in the right train of thought. You don't know what he's going to do."

Dunbar said it was the first time that someone had come into the store with a knife, but that events of this nature have become fairly common.

"In the past two months, I've had to call [security] quite a few times," she said. "It has been getting difficult working downtown."

She said that her friends working at nearby businesses have shared similar stories.

"It's not just something with the Book Cellar. It's happening all downtown."

The 'final straw'

Jennifer Baerg Steyn, the owner of the Book Cellar, said that the incident "was the final straw" in her decision to start locking the door an hour before their 7 pm closing time.

She said that similar situations happen about once a week. They range "from the benign — just drunk and loud in the store — to the more aggressive, including sexual harassment of the staff."

"My suspicion would be that [the individuals causing issues] are homeless or don't have permanent safe housing," she said.

Emma Grunwald/CBC
Emma Grunwald/CBC

Due to apparent mental health and addiction issues, both Dunbar and Baerg Steyn have been hesitant to call RCMP.

"I would like to try options other than pressing charges. I feel like that's a simplistic approach to this," said Baerg Steyn.

In an email response, the RCMP wrote that they were investigating the incident. "Evidence to identify potential suspects and to support criminal charges is still being gathered."

More than just a policing issue

Warburton said these types of incidents are more than just a policing issue.

"The police response is like a hammer," he said. "It's not designed to deal with the nuance of issues we have here."

He said that the Chamber of Commerce was trying to find other ways to address the problem, including having discussions with the city and territorial government about offering financial support to non-profits and hiring more community safety officers.

"We don't really have any kind of community safety officers, which have proven effective in other jurisdictions," he said.

Warburton praised Baerg Steyn's Facebook post about the incident, saying that framed the problem in the context of larger issues within the city.

"[The post] talked about, you know, this was an isolated incident, but it's a bigger issue," he said. "We have a social problem. We have housing issues. We have mental health issues."

Other businesses reluctant to comment

CBC contacted other downtown business owners to hear about their experiences, but they declined to comment.

Warburton was not surprised.

"I know a lot of businesses are nervous to speak about it individually, one on one, because their concern is getting that negative feedback that they're not supportive or understanding of these issues," he said.

Richard Gleeson/CBC
Richard Gleeson/CBC

He referenced last year's debate about the location of the permanent day shelter, when some downtown business owners received criticism after speaking out against the decision to construct a permanent day shelter downtown.

"A lot of businesses that had valid concerns got dismissed or shamed, frankly, for not 100 per cent supporting that shelter location."

Rising security costs

Warburton said that businesses frequently contact the Chamber of Commerce about high security costs and losses from theft.

"We're talking millions and millions of dollars a year in the city due to shoplifting and theft," he said.

"There's three major retailers in Yellowknife. And between the three of them, their security costs in the past couple of years have gone up to $500,000 bucks."

"Continuing to just pay for security doesn't help the problem. It just kind of pushes it away."

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