Goodacre Place in Smithers has been the site of six deaths in the past 12 months. Indigenous

Goodacre Place in Smithers has been the site of six deaths in the past 12 months. Indigenous

Top 10 news stories of 2021

As is tradition at the end of one year and the beginning of the next, we present our top stories of the year past.

In 2021, as it was it 2020, the top story of the year was the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, the story was so dominant, we treated it separately last week. (See: “Year in review: COVID-19 dominates 2021,” The Interior News, Dec. 23, 2021).

Here we present the other Top 10 news stories of the year in no particular order.

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The year began with police hunting for a second suspect related to a Dec. 18 home invasion in Smithers that sent an 88-year-old woman to hospital.

Smithers Sgt. Kevin Christensen said a first suspect was booked on Dec. 31.

Following a manhunt for the second suspect, in February two men, Clinton Brown and Eugene Tom, were charged with break and enter and weapon-related offences.

When officers arrived at the home at approximately 2:30 a.m. on Dec. 18, 2020, they found the woman in distress from being bear-sprayed in the face.

The woman was coughing and suffering from mouth irritation as a result of the spray being used and taken to hospital for medical treatment,” a Dec. 21, 2020 press release stated.

It added that nothing appeared to be missing from the home, but Christensen said the crime was more serious than initially reported as several items were taken from the home.

RCMP made extensive patrols of the area that morning seeking a suspect seen leaving the home and described as small in stature and wearing dark clothing.

Ultimately, the Crown directed a stay of proceedings for both men.

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In February 2020, the community was shaken by the stabbing death of 22-year-old Brodie Cumiskey.

A year later, police charged 25-year-old Micheal Egenolf with second-degree murder.

Egenolf was taken into custody and appeared in court in early March for a bail hearing.

On Feb. 8, 2020, police were dispatched to a rural Smithers residence following reports of a stabbing. Officers found the 22-year-old Cumiskey seriously injured and having trouble breathing.

“Immediate first aid measures were initiated by frontline members, and then paramedics who arrived on scene,” a press release at the time said. “The victim was transported to the hospital, where, despite all efforts, the 22-year-old Smithers man was pronounced deceased.”

Egenolf was taken into custody at that time, but later released pending a full investigation of the case.

The case is still before the courts.

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Laurel Menzel spent most of the year trying to get find a suitable location to rezone for a Smithers crematorium to no avail.

First, she tried to go through the Town of Smithers asking for an amendment to the M-1 light industrial, M-2 medium industrial, M-3 heavy industrial and P-2 public zones to add crematoria as an accepted use.

Ultimately she withdrew her application after many months that were fraught with procedural problems, clerical errors, and resistance on town councils’ behalf to change zoning overall rather than on a particular parcel of land.“It is an unusual situation,” Mayor Gladys Atrill said at the time.

“Normally an applicant would purchase property and then come to council looking to rezone that parcel of land, in this case, the applicant is asking the council to rezone properties and then purchase one. It is a bit uncomfortable procedurally, but we were trying to work with the applicant, as council recognizes the need for a service of this kind in our area.”

Menzel was back in early November, though, this time in front of the Regional District of Bulkley Nechako (RDBN) with a rezoning request for a proposed parcel of land at the corner of Hwy 16 and Henry Rd.

The RDBN board passed first and second reading of a bylaw amendment to allow the crematorium and proceeded to a public hearing.

More than 50 people attended the meeting citing health issues, aesthetic concerns, and property value considerations as in opposition to the application.

In general, residents agreed there is a need for crematorium services in the Smithers area, but were against the location.

Strong public opposition to the location at the public hearing, scuttled the rezoning application.

In a recommendation to the Regional District of Bulkley-Nechako’s board of directors, the district’s planning department recommended the board deny the application on third reading.

“As a result of input received at the public hearing, staff are recommending that the application be denied and that staff work with the proponent to identify an alternative location for a crematorium,” the staff report stated.

At a meeting Dec. 16, the board defeated third reading by a vote of 12-3.

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A cloud of grief and fear descended on Goodacre Place in April following the deaths of six Indigenous men within the pastover the previous 12 months. according to a joint press release from the Dze L K’ant Friendship Centre and BC Association of Aboriginal Friendship Centres (BCAAFC).

Kirsten Patrick lost two cousins – Brandon Patrick and Eric Wilson. She was trying to get a spot at Goodacre, but is having second thoughts.

“We were going to, but I don’t want to because of everything that’s been happening.”

Driving the fear was a lack of answers.

Stewart Sampson was a resident at the time who said drug and alcohol use is rampant within the facility and was planning to move out.

“I fear for my life; I don’t know whether or not I’m going to wake up there.”

In light of the report, the Dze L K’ant Friendship Centre Society and BCAAFC, demanded a provincial inquiry into the matter.

“What we want to do is ensure an investigation is done, and that an Indigenous person does this investigation,” said Annette Morgan, Dze L K’ant, executive director.

Stikine MLA Nathan Cullen said April 27 that the province had hired two investigators, one of whom was Wet’suwet’en to conduct an independent review.

“It’s incredibly tragic,” he said. “I knew a lot of these guys, beautiful each and every one in their own way. I’m feeling for their families and also the staff, everybody is just reeling.”

Cathryn Olmstead, executive director of SCSA, said in a press release April 27 that her organization and the staff at Goodacre Place have been devastated and they welcome an independent review of their programs and services “because it will bring out the truth.”

READ MORE: Community Association responds to Indigenous deaths at housing facility

“We have already taken steps to examine why these tragic circumstances are affecting Indigenous people within our facility,” she said. “We are very interested in any advice and insight the independent review could offer us with regards to ways this program might be improved to better serve our residents as we move forward.

“Our hope is that as a community we can face these challenging and complex situations in a constructive and collaborative way that pulls people together.”

The Dze L K’ant-BCAAFC press release suggested the deaths, and possibly others within the community are linked to “Smithers’ lack of culturally safe housing programs for Indigenous people.”

“We know that Indigenous-led, culturally safe supportive housing is needed to provide equitable care to Indigenous people accessing housing assistance,” said Morgan.

“Smithers has the poorest example of Indigenous housing support in the province and we need to change that.”

As yet, no report has been released on the investigation.

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It what was largely seen as a cynical bid to take advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to achieve a majority government, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called an early election for September.

When all the ballots were counted, nothing much had changed with the Liberals maintaining their minority with the Conservatives holding the balance of power.

Locally NDP incumbent Taylor Bachrach was reelected comfortably in the Skeena-Bulkley Valley riding.

“I’m humbled and honoured by tonight’s win and the opportunity to keep serving the people of this special place,” Bachrach said at the time from his home in Smithers where he celebrated privately with his family. “Canada faces big challenges right now. My hope is that we can come together and tackle them shoulder to shoulder.”

Bachrach won the riding in 2019 by more than 3,000 votes and it was predicted to be a safe hold for the NDP. While the margin of victory was not as great as last time around, Bachrach did increase his percentage of the popular vote at 42.3 per cent compared to 40.9 per cent.

This was likely at the expense of the Liberals whose candidate Lakhwinder Jhaj was a last-minute addition to the ballot and only made one appearance in the riding.

Jahj garnered only 7.8 per cent of votes, down 2.7 per cent from Dave Birdi’s 2019 result of the vote, and finished just behind third-place People’s Party of Canada candidate Jody Craven.

The result for Craven was a huge improvement over 2019 when he got only 2.3 per cent of the vote. This time 2,784 (7.9 per cent) people cast votes for Craven and the candidate said it would have been even better if he hadn’t spent nine days of the 36-day campaign in hospital.

Rounding out the field were the Green Party’s Adeana Young with 3.8 per cent of the vote and Christian Heritage Party leader Rod Taylor at 2.1 per cent.

There are 67,453 registered electors in Skeena-Bulkley Valley out of 88,920 residents. Not counting the mail-in ballots, 35,445 or 52.55 per cent of the electorate cast ballots.

Prior to 2019, the seat was held for 15 years by Bachrach’s NDP predecessor Nathan Cullen, who is now MLA for Stikine.

 

Taylor Bachrach celebrates his reelection in Skeena-Bulkley Valley at home in Smithers. (Contributed photo)

Taylor Bachrach celebrates his reelection in Skeena-Bulkley Valley at home in Smithers. (Contributed photo)