News

Smithers gathering place approved without a place to gather

Former paratrooper Ashley VanLeeuwen at Smithers council speaking against the idea of a gathering place generally, and putting it in Veterans Peace Park specifically. - Chris Gareau
Former paratrooper Ashley VanLeeuwen at Smithers council speaking against the idea of a gathering place generally, and putting it in Veterans Peace Park specifically.
— image credit: Chris Gareau

Read the more on the council discussion and decisions on the gathering place in the April 19 edition of The Interior News.

It is a gathering place without a place to gather.

Smithers council last Tuesday approved a gazebo-type structure at a budgeted cost of $20,000, with councillors Frank Wray and Phil Brienesse voting against the motion. Coun. Greg Brown was not present.

Motions that included an actual location were either amended to remove any specific or general location, or voted down. The two locations recommended in a staff report were on a piece of property by Town hall at Queen Street and Railway Avenue, or in Veterans Peace Park.

A crowd gathered in Smithers council chambers to speak against either the location in Veterans Park or the whole idea of a gathering place meant to lure away people seen as having disruptive behaviour from Bovill Square.

Among them was Ashley VanLeeuwen, who came in his military uniform. He is a 17-year veteran and was a paratrooper who served and was wounded in Afghanistan.

"The cenotaph already smells like urine, and has a sprinkling of cigarette butts and empty liquor bottle lids," he told council.

"Since just adding a table chained to a tree, the damage has increased with damage to the cenotaph with graffitti, the 74 Crew logo – which I'm sure we all know who the 74 Crew are – has been tagged on trees next to the cenotaph; a 420 logo for asking to smoke marijuana in the area is also in that location as well.

"The picnic table has been scrolled with obscenities, and God forsake (sic) don't step on used condoms. All that from adding a picnic table."

VanLeeuwen also spoke on what he saw as safety issues.

"Out of sight and out of mind is also dangerous. The area known as jungle two (area of bush behind Muheim Memorial Elementary School) as not been given consideration because of remoteness. Should a medical emergency occur or a serious crime take place, the victim would be unseen by the public. It would be hard to have EHS (emergency health services) attend as well," he said.

"Similar, Veterans Park does not have a lot of foot traffic. It's obscured by trees. It also has poorly lit areas at night. This would not bode well for liquor induced situations."

Then the veteran spoke of how the park was different.

"Veterans Park is not like Ranger Park or other parks in the community. A local man petitioned to have the park created. He was different from most people in the community because he fought in Korea. A veteran, he knew the importance of setting aside sacred ground.

"I've read in the paper that we only use the park ... on Nov. 11. It's not a Christmas tree. We don't put it up for the season. It's a daily reminder that uniformed Canadians endured great hardship, pain, hunger, exposure to elements on foreign soil, and death. The park was created for those who keep the home fires burning, for those who survived, and for those who are to come," he said.

"So they'd be able to carve out whatever life they wanted, good or bad."

 

"I personally would rather have somebody grumble at me than have to learn that someone died because they were not wanted to be viewed by the public."

- Ashley VanLeeuwen


VanLeeuwen then stopped by The Interior News to clarify that he did not like the idea of building a separate gathering place anywhere.

"The concern is actually trying to be pro-active and help dilute the situation that's occurring [around] Bovill Square. We've just spent $20,000 on a structure where I think that money could be better off actually trying to help those people, be it with their current living situation, be it their implied drug and alcohol addiction," he said.

"$20,000 isn't going to incur much, but if we want to actually see progression and succession of these individuals, why not try helping them instead of shunning them to a location?"

He pointed to the fact that the Queen and Railway property was bought by the Town to be the home of affordable or subsidized housing. That plan fell through when the group planning to run it disbanded.

Then he mentioned the threat of overdoses, especially with fentanyl, and the people who may use the gathering place and be vulnerable to physical and sexual assault. He suggested the them of tolerance briefly mentioned at council by Mayor Taylor Bachrach and some councillors was something everyone should consider.

"I personally would rather have somebody grumble at me than have to learn that someone died because they were not wanted to be viewed by the public, or someone was assaulted or sexually assaulted ... just because their manners may be lacking on a social level," said VanLeeuwen.

He added that the people seen as disruptive at Bovill Square just want to be part of the community like everyone else.

"I challenge anybody to go by the stage on a sunny Saturday afternoon and see how many of our local Bovill residents hang out there compared to a Sunday. They want to be where the people are," he said.

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