The Yukon Territorial Court heard guilty pleas from the man who set a fire at a Whitehorse apartment complex in early 2021, injuring three people and driving others from their homes.
Twenty-two-year-old Zander Sydney-Firth from Inuvik entered guilty pleas to four of the twelve charges he faced on Nov. 2 in court presided over by Judge David Walker. The charges he was convicted of are arson causing bodily harm, assault, breaking and entering with intent to commit an indictable offence and failure to comply with a release order. The charges date back to December 2020 and January 2021 and Sydney-Firth has been in custody since his arrest shortly after the January offences.
An agreed statement of facts presented to the court details the offences Sydney-Firth plead guilty to. The court heard that in the weeks leading up to the arson he attacked his girlfriend, forcing her to flee to a neighbour’s house. She told medical staff that the injuries were sustained in an accident and she reported the assault to police in February 2021 after Sydney-Firth was in custody for the arson.
The court also heard how on Jan. 8, 2021, Sydney-Firth left a downtown Whitehorse apartment unit following an argument with his girlfriend. He was heavily intoxicated by alcohol as he stole a full jerry can from a neighbouring balcony and used it to set fire to the outside of the apartment unit he had left. Four people were inside, only one of which escaped uninjured. Two of the apartment’s occupants had to be rescued by firefighters and suffered serious injuries.
The unit next to the one where the people were injured was also completely destroyed and the residents of the other 23 units of the building were forced from their homes for days.
Detailed for the court along with the effects of the arson was the evidence against Sydney-Firth which included surveillance footage, the testimony of a cab driver who picked him up near the scene, accounts of his brief visit to the hospital where he left without treatment for a large cut on his foot and the testimony of a man who found Sydney-Firth in his apartment, having entered through a smashed glass door.
Sydney-Firth was arrested at a hotel shortly after the fire.
The court also heard three victim impact statements from people who were injured or permanently displaced by the fire. These were read by either a victim services worker or by Sarah Bailey who appeared as Crown counsel for this case.
The victims suffered serious burns, long hospital stays and lingering health effects due to the smoke inhalation.
“In the extreme cold, I feel my lungs are burning,” one of the victims wrote.
The court also heard about the psychological impacts of the arson. Victims described requiring counselling, being on edge and short-tempered with loved ones and fearing the smell and sight of fire. One of the victims, a First Nations man, described how the arson transformed fire from an important tool that he had a deep spiritual connection with into a source of anxiety.
The elderly resident of the neighbouring apartment unit that was destroyed in the fire described being shuttled around through temporary accommodations and the death of her elderly dog in the days after the arson. She added that her new apartment has leaks in the roof and she fears for her security due to drug use among her neighbours.
The court heard that there had been a joint position on sentencing agreed to by the Crown and defence lawyers but that Sydney-Firth had changed his instructions to counsel late in the process, asking his lawyer to propose a different resolution to the court.
Bailey told the judge that the Crown is seeking a sentence that will keep Sydney-Firth behind bars after sentencing, but still keep the jail term under two-years post sentence so he can stay at Whitehorse Correctional Centre (WCC) rather than at a penitentiary outside the North. The Crown counsel said Bailey’s young age, First Nations heritage and guilty plea to the offences could be considered mitigating factors.
Aggravating factors presented to the judge included the fact that Sydney-Firth had just been sentenced for another arson, this one involving the burning of a car, when he torched the apartment unit. The clear potential for his actions to have caused loss of life and the fact that one of the victims was his intimate partner at the time of the arson were also considered aggravating.
The Crown was also seeking a term of probation upon his release that would restrict Sydney-Firth’s access to weapons and incendiary devices and also bar him from contacting the victims of his crimes.
Kevin Drolet, Sydney-Firth’s lawyer, spoke about the strides his client had made to address his issues and improve his conduct while incarcerated at WCC. He told the court that Sydney-Firth had taken all the rehabilitative programming available to him while behind bars in Whitehorse.
Rather than agreeing to the sentence that would keep Sydney-Firth locked up at WCC, Drolet said the court should either impose a conditional sentence that would include a term of house arrest at his grandmother’s home in Inuvik or sentence him to more than two years so he can be sent to Mission Correctional Centre in British Columbia where more programs are available. Drolet said his client wants to immediately enrol in a treatment program for his drug and alcohol issues and there is nothing to be gained from keeping him at WCC and further time behind bars would be purely punitive.
Drolet said that both he and his client recognize that the sentence proposed by the Crown is fair and reasonable but that it doesn’t take into account Sydney-Firth’s commitment to solving his problems.
Sydney-Firth addressed the court, stating that he is sorry that his actions hurt people and wants to take steps to make sure his drinking and drug use don’t hurt anyone ever again. He added that he wanted the work he has already done to change taken into account by the sentencing judge.
Walker delivered his verdict on Nov. 3, sentencing Sydney-Firth to a total of three-and-a-half years in jail or a further nine months left for him to serve. The sentence also includes two years of probation with conditions including abstention from drugs and alcohol, reporting to a parole officer and an order that he not possess any incendiary devices unless for a traditional activity approved by his parole officer. Due to the violence against an intimate partner Sydney-Firth committed, he is also barred from possessing firearms for 10 years.
Shorter concurrent sentences were approved for the other offences Sydney-Firth plead guilty to and the Crown stayed proceedings on the other eight charges he faced.
Contact Jim Elliot at firstname.lastname@example.org