Musings from the ever-changing, ever-amazing and occasionally ever-baffling Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

In Our Midst

On occasion when I consider writing about a less savoury topic I consider pulling back, and not doing it at all. I worry that it will give the wrong impression of us, when we work so very hard to change the perception of who we are and what we do here. I am also one of those who thinks, however, that we do ourselves no favour with whitewashing the truth, with varnishing the reality. And so I often decide to write about the more troublesome aspects of life here, just as I do today.

Decades ago I was a young woman in Toronto. I lived there, in fact, during the late 80's and early 90's, a troubling time to be a woman in that part of the country. During those years some horrific things happened in Ontario, things I will never forget. There was the Scarborough Rapist, later identified as Paul Bernardo, a name our country will likely always hear with a shudder. There was a man named Jonathan Yeo, who murdered two women, and was considered a suspect in many more assaults. A young woman named Elizabeth Bain, a U of T student, went missing, leaving behind only a blood stained car (her boyfriend at the time was charged in her murder but subsequently found to have been wrongfully convicted, leaving her case unsolved). All of these assaults, disappearances, and murders occurred in a very short period of time, a few turbulent years to be a woman in that part of Toronto. And just this month, right here in Fort McMurray, I was reminded of those years, and all the names of the victims and the victimizers came flooding back to me. It all felt a little bit like I was back there again, reading the news of another disappearance or assault or murder. Why? Because Toronto City Police, with the assistance of the local RCMP, solved some cold case sexual assault cases with an arrest right here in our community.

Details are still a bit sketchy, but what there is can be read here. The sexual assaults occurred in 1993 and 1994, very close to the years when all those other events I list above occurred. Hearing about the arrest was a relief, of course, because it is always a relief to know that such individuals have been apprehended and taken off our streets. What I always find too, though, is how I feel a bit frightened, because they have been in our midst all along. They have been out there. They have been in our community.

I don't know if this individual lived in camp, or here in the community. It doesn't really matter, as at some point his life undoubtedly touched the lives of others who live and work here. At some point he likely visited local restaurants or shops, bars or grocery stores. He might have been the person behind you when you bought coffee at Tim Horton's. He might have been sitting in the same waiting room at the dentist. He might have been anywhere, and that it always what makes my throat tighten up just a little bit - because as hard as it can be to accept we have predators in our midst.

I do not believe this individual has been charged with any crimes in this region, but I think we should remember that most people when involved in crime do not simply stop. An officer told me once that the most difficult thing about those who commit sexual assault is their tendency to be transient, to pick up and move when the heat is on in one community, and simply move across the country to another. And we have a large country indeed, one where it is quite easy for someone to simply disappear into another region or city. Eventually their crimes usually catch up with them, as they did in this case, but often not before there are new victims. And that is why the RCMP and Toronto Police are asking anyone who has been assaulted to step forward and make a report, because I imagine they suspect there may be more victims, too.

So, what does this all mean to Fort McMurray? Well, for starters it doesn't mean we are worse than anywhere else, as there have been sexual assaults in every community I have lived in, including the very small ones. It doesn't mean our problem is unique in any regard, because this is a human problem that stretches in every direction. And it doesn't mean that we are some hotbed of criminal activity, as I don't believe we are. It does mean this: we are not insulated from the problems that trouble communities everywhere. It means we need to be cognizant that there are individuals like this among us, predators, and we must do everything we can to reduce the chances of being victimized. We cannot be complacent. And I admit it - I am prone to complacency.

I recall those dark years in Ontario, but even more I recall how they affected me. When I first moved to Toronto I was 21, and I thought I owned the world. I walked everywhere by myself, at night, including in the rather sketchy neighbourhoods where I worked and lived (Parkdale and Cabbagetown, long before they became "gentrified"). I was not oblivious to the dangers, but I was reckless. I did not believe I could ever be touched, or that I would ever be a victim. And I recall beginning to read about the disappearances in St. Catharine's and Hamilton, the assaults in Scarborough, and the U of T student who was never found. It was an experience that sobered me. It made me grow up because I became aware that anyone could be a victim, and I became much more cautious. It hurt a little bit, because I was deeply independent and it stung to give up what I felt were my rightful freedoms - the right to walk alone late at night in a public park, for instance. But it forced me to recognize that my rightful freedoms, as much as I believed them to belong to me, were affected by the actions of others, and those actions could, in the end, hurt me deeply. They could, in the worst case scenario, even end my life. And so I changed my reckless ways, and I lived with more caution, which I have always continued to do.

The arrest in our region of an individual implicated in sexual assault cases over two decades ago in a province across the country simply reminded me why I developed such caution. It reminded me of why I gave up some of my reckless ways, and it reminded me of my responsibility to my young Intrepid Junior Blogger, who is just beginning to navigate that world of freedom and recklessness. It reminded me that predators are in our midst, even right here in Fort McMurray. It shook up my complacency a bit, and frankly I am grateful. Sometimes the most valuable reminders are the most troubling ones, like reading an arrest report that takes you back over twenty years to another point in your life when you realized that you too could be a victim - because those who would harm us are right here, in our midst.

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