A Neighbourhood Watch sign in Hay River's Old Town. Photo: Veronique Dziewa
One year after Hay River mourned six drug-related deaths, residents are formalizing a Neighbourhood Watch initiative.
The group says it hopes to protect people, strengthen relationships and prevent crime linked to the illicit drug trade.
Residents say crimes such as breaking and entering, theft, shoplifting and vandalism are at an all-time high, leaving some feeling powerless and scared in their own homes.
“We never used to lock doors on anything. Now, everything has to be locked,” said Michele Stephens, a Hay River resident involved in the Neighbourhood Watch.
“Everybody’s getting security systems. That’s really ridiculous for a town of 3,600 people, that people feel they need to do that to feel safe.”
In early 2022, what is now the Neighbourhood Watch began as a Facebook page where residents could post suspicious activity and tips to protect themselves. This became a core group of neighbours who said they looked out for one another, with activity among them ebbing and flowing over the next 18 months.
One resident recalled having hundreds of dollars of recyclables stolen from her property during the pandemic.
Veronique Dziewa said she took pride in her cleaning out the recyclables, folding them and storing them in bags. She intended to use the money for her granddaughter’s graduation gift. Instead, Dziewa suspects the money wound up changing hands in the drug trade.
When she reported the incident to RCMP, Dziewa said she was told “they couldn’t do anything about it.” Dziewa said the experience left her feeling unprotected and asking herself, “When are they going to come again?”
“I felt very violated,” Dziewa continued. “Not just my privacy, but my trust.”
Distinguishing addiction from trafficking
Residents who support a Neighbourhood Watch say harm reduction is a key principle. They say that approach helps to distinguish residents who experience addiction from those selling illicit drugs.
“To expect it to be eliminated by one small group, that’s not realistic,” said Stephens of the crime the town is experiencing.
“Let’s look at harm reduction and education and people out there offering support.”
The Neighbourhood Watch works by asking residents to help one another, exchange information, share security camera footage and, most importantly, report unusual or suspicious activity.
“For us to stay silent, as an Indigenous person, we’ve been reinforced to stay silent, to be seen and not heard,” said Hans Wiedemann, a resident who has worked to develop the Neighbourhood Watch. (Wiedemann is also a candidate in this month’s territorial election, where he’s running against incumbent RJ Simpson, Michael Wallington and Greg McMeekin.)
“Everybody has the same concern. Everybody wants to raise their child in safety,” Wiedemann said.
Residents interested in getting involved can start by putting up a Neighbourhood Watch sign, Wiedemann said.
He also suggests that residents learn more about the security systems in their neighbourhood and connect with those who have security cameras nearby, as well as those who live at key intersections in the neighbourhood.
“Don’t make it easy. Lock your vehicle, put up security lights, put up security cameras,” he said.
“The greatest power you’re going to have is your neighbour in any community.
“By promoting community, it’s not meant to ostracize anybody or cast out anybody. It’s meant to give somebody a hand up. If they want to make the effort, I’m behind them 100 percent.”
Earlier this week, Hay River’s town council passed a controversial public behaviour bylaw aimed at addressing some concerns residents have raised by fining behaviours like loitering, fighting and obstructing a peace officer.
Some residents feel the bylaw further marginalizes people affected by intergenerational trauma from colonization, or criminalizes homelessness.
Others take a different view, and say they want an increased police presence – but feel bureaucracy is to blame for what they characterize as a limited RCMP response when crimes do occur.
“The main thing is that the community has to work together with the RCMP … and then our local agencies also,” said Pennie Pokiak, a resident who supports the Neighbourhood Watch.
“If everybody’s fighting for the same root cause, it’s power in numbers. It definitely unifies people.”
At its peak, Pokiak says, the Neighbourhood Watch Facebook page was identifying suspicious behaviour in real time, sharing locations where suspected illegal activity was taking place.
“When this picked up before, I feel like definitely people knew that they were being watched,” she said.
“It was something that you could see. You knew, and people band together to try and keep that going and just help each other out.”
“It starts with neighbours talking to neighbours. There’s a powerful unity behind it, and that’s all people need to know, is they don’t stand alone,” said Wiedemann. “Unity in community.”