People in Burwash Landing want to see more RCMP officers in their town.
With the territorial government touting a $72.2 million budget surplus and paying to upgrade policing infrastructure in other Yukon communities, people in Burwash Landing are asking, “what about us?”
Tosh Southwick grew up in the Kluane First Nation community of about 100 people. She blames the lack of a permanent police presence in the area for much of the crime and violence that happens in the community, and she wants to see the territorial government commit to sending more Mounties to her town.
“We need some support, even just the basics that every Yukoner has. Nobody in Haines Junction is worried about whether the cops are there or not,” she said.
Southwick, who now lives in Whitehorse, said she is acting as a spokesperson for other residents in Burwash, many of whom are fearful of speaking to media or the police.
The detachment in Haines Junction is responsible for responding to calls from Burwash and Destruction Bay, but it can take hours or even days for them to arrive, depending on how busy they are and how urgent the situation.
“When (Haines Junction) has a big thing like the Kluane-Chilkat bike relay, in Burwash we know there’s no hope. Nobody will come because they are busy in Haines Junction,” she said.
“Even if my son goes missing, or there’s a violent offender, we’re screwed. There’s nobody who will come out and help us. It’s extremely scary.”
Southwick remembers one case where she called the cops about a violent domestic dispute she witnessed, and it took two weeks before anyone came to investigate.
In other cases, when the police do head out from Haines Junction on patrol, Burwash residents in that town often call ahead to warn the community that the cops are on their way, she said.
Burwash does have an officer stationed in the community during the summer. Southwick said that helps, but she wants to see the presence made permanent. Even having one officer working out of the First Nation’s offices would be an improvement, she says.
Last summer things got particularly bad.
In early August, Gloria Johnson said she had to flee the community when her nephew Derek was hospitalized after being beaten with a baseball bat. Two men were accused of breaking into Derek’s house and attacked him in what a Yukon court judge later called act of vigilante justice. It took police more than an hour to respond.
Two days earlier, Derek and former Kluane First Nation chief Wilfred Sheldon had allegedly attacked Collin Johnson, choked him, and fired a bullet into the ground next to his head, according to the RCMP. Both men were charged with a string of violence and weapons charges. Collin Johnson has since taken his own life.
Both attacks happened within days of the RCMP leaving town for the summer.
Weldon Danroth was sentenced to 18 months in jail for Derek’s beating. At Danroth’s trial in March, the court heard that the revenge beating happened after Collin Johnson refused to call the police.
Judge Karen Rudy noted Burwash’s lack of a police detachment in her judgement.
“It appeared to Mr. Danroth and others, perhaps, that certain individuals had taken advantage of the situation to engage in a campaign of intimidation or victimization of other residents,” Ruddy said.
Southwick said that while these two incidents are the exception for her community, many emergency situations go unreported because no one believes the police will show up in time, or even at all.
In the wake of the two attacks, Kluane First Nation chief Math’ieya Alatini said that getting people to come forward, call the police and make official statements is a big challenge in her community.
“We’ve been trying to encourage people who are experiencing violent situations to call the police,” Alatini said.
Police investigations are often hampered because it’s so difficult to get a statement from victims or witnesses, especially after the fact, Alatini said.
“Having a permanent police presence in Burwash would be a big improvement,” she said.
Southwick said she’s taken her concerns to the territorial justice minister, the RCMP and Yukon MP Ryan Leef, but her complaints fall on deaf ears.
“What you always hear from the Department of Justice is that there aren’t enough reported incidents to justify a detachment. Our response is that you don’t get the phone calls because there is no one to call,” Southwith said.
The Yukon government is responsible for deciding what level of police service the territory’s communities get. The Faro detachment is being replaced in the coming years, with a price tag of roughly $5.56 million.
Territoral justice minister Mike Nixon said that even with the current budget, the government is not considering expanding policing in Burwash.
“Budget surpluses are time-limited. Any increase in policing operations and maintenance is permanent, so we need to weigh that very carefully,” Nixon said.
Nixon said that by comparison, Burwash has it better than many other remote fly-in communities in Canada.
“For a community of its size, it seems to be well served from Haines Junction. The reports that I hear … the policing presence has been well received by the community,” Nixon said.
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