BANFF – Tragedy and crime strike all too often in the busy Bow Valley.
Several years ago, a father of two teenage boys suddenly died by his wife’s side in a Bow Valley hotel room, leaving them shocked and all alone to deal with their devastating grief on their once-in-a-lifetime vacation.
Enter Bow Valley Victim Services Association (BVVSA).
Based out of the Banff RCMP detachment, volunteers were on scene almost immediately to support the grieving woman, who let her sons sleep through the long night before telling them in the morning of their dad’s unexpected death from a heart attack.
“She’s visiting the community, her worst nightmare has happened and she doesn’t know what to do,” said Peter Quinn, executive director of Bow Valley Victim Services Association during a Nov. 14 presentation to Banff town council.
“Our volunteers stayed with the lady all night, and later one of our staff came and stayed with her until her sons woke up, and they were with her when she had to tell her sons that their dad had died.”
This woman is just one of approximately 16,062 victims of crime and trauma helped by BVVSA, which formed as a not-for-profit, volunteer-based, registered society in April 1994, working in conjunction with Banff, Canmore and Lake Louise RCMP, and other community agencies.
The trusted organization has helped people in cases of murder, attempted murder, sudden death, suicide, serious and fatal motor vehicle crashes, mountain accidents, sexual assaults, domestic assaults, harassment, threats, kidnapping, missing persons and child abuse.
However, BVVSA is one of 62 victim service units across Alberta to be dissolved by April 2024 to make way for four new regional boards representing the east, west, south and central areas of the province to align with RCMP districts under sweeping changes announced by the Alberta government in July.
In addition, there is angst in the Bow Valley given that victims of traumatic events will fall outside the mandate of victim service units under the new regional model, providing services to only those who are victims of crime.
Quinn said these two changes will significantly alter what help people get in Banff and the larger Bow Valley.
“We will cease to exist in a year-and-a-half’s time and there will be services provided by another model,” he said.
“I honestly don’t think a new model is going to meet the needs of the community and the needs of the people that we help.”
One possible solution to address the imminent loss in trauma support is to have the RCMP refer these victims of trauma to a list of provincial support services, most of which are accessed through 1-800 numbers.
Quinn said this is not an appropriate way to help people who are in dire need of support and who often require in-person assistance.
“So that lady whose husband had died next to her in bed, and was waiting for someone to help tell her two sons that their father had just died, that person would now get a 1-800 number from the RCMP and say ‘good luck with this’ and leave,” he said. “I don’t believe that’s a suitable alternative.”
Provincial officials say the new model will be rolled out in stages over the next year, noting the changes aim to address gaps in the current system and ensure victims throughout Alberta have immediate access to the help they need.
They say current victim services staff will have the opportunity to apply to be victim case workers within their communities, and current volunteer advocates will be able to continue their involvement under the new model.
As well, they say, a new layer of centralized professional staff support will be created within each zone to provide strategic, logistical and administrative support to front-line case workers, meaning those front-line workers can spend more time with victims.
Alex Thompson, the executive director of Community Justice and Integrated Services, said the key reason behind the change is to improve the reliability, continuity and consistency of services regardless of where a victim is in the province.
“Although we’re moving to a four-zone model, really what’s changing is the governance structure,” said Thompson.
“All the victim services, the front-line workers will continue to work from their own communities, work and reside in their own communities, and continue to be co-located with the local RCMP.”
From April 1994 to April 2022, BVVSA assisted 16,062 individuals victimized by crime and trauma, helped with 7,888 separate occurrences, and assisted 2,443 individuals in court.
Over the past operational year, the organization assisted 439 individuals in 342 occurrences. Of these, 184 occurrences originated in Banff, 131 in Canmore and 27 in Lake Louise. The organization offers 24/7 support to victims.
“We provide support, assistance and information, and sometimes it’s a lot more than that,” said Quinn. “It’s being with people when they’re having the worst day of their life and when they need somebody there with them.”
Banff Mayor Corrie DiManno fought back tears following Quinn’s presentation to council, deeply concerned about what the sweeping changes may mean for the Bow Valley.
“Mr. Quinn, you are just the best of humanity on someone’s worst day,” she said. “You are such a gift to our community, so thank you for everything you do.”
At the request of Canmore, Alberta Municipalities is lobbying the province to halt the roll-out of the new victim services model and initiate a new engagement process that fully involves municipalities of all sizes. They want to ensure provincial downloading to municipalities does not occur, explore how the current model could be maintained and adapted, and include support for victims of tragedy.
More recently, the Town of Banff, along with the Town of Canmore, Municipal District of Bighorn and Improvement District No. 9, fired off a joint letter to the province, voicing concern about a lack of consultation to this point and requesting a joint meeting with Mike Ellis, the minister of public security and emergency services under whose portfolio these changes now fall.
“To my knowledge, unfortunately, we have not received such an invitation,” said DiManno.
BVVSA has provided support to more than 2,400 victims of trauma and non-violent crimes over the five-year period between 2015 and 2020, following tragedies such as suicide, sudden death or serious motor vehicle collisions.
DiManno said it is vitally important that services for trauma victims, not just victims of crime, remain part of the mandate.
“Our area is visited by millions of people from Canada and internationally, and to hand someone a 1-800 number is just preposterous to me,” she said.
Given the size of the proposed zones and the regional nature of the proposed boards, Banff, Canmore, ID9 and MD of Bighorn have told Minister Ellis the new model will not serve the unique needs of the Bow Valley, which sees millions of visitors a year.
“Because of our location in the mountains, we see all kinds of accidents or sudden deaths here that other regions wouldn’t be accustomed to," said DiManno.
After BVVSA briefed Canmore town council on Nov. 15, Mayor Seam Krausert called it a “very distressing update.”
“To put it bluntly, to not address victims of trauma or tragedy is absolutely absurd,” he said.
“Not only does it propagate suffering within our communities, it also, based on the recommendation that the police not call victim services, puts a further strain on our policing resources,” he added. “It’s not like the problem goes way; it means it has to get dealt with another way that is less satisfactory."
Krausert said a meeting with the minsters involved in needed sooner rather than later.
"It’s probably a good time to do so given that there’s a lot of attention to MLAs coming up pretty quick with something called an election,” he said.
Thompson said the province understands the shift to a new model will impact communities differently for varying reasons.
Even though the province said the switch to the new model is a done deal, Thompson said the plan is to meet with stakeholders, including those in the Bow Valley, to directly answer questions and listen to concerns.
“Although there likely won’t be a pause on things moving forward, we do know that this impacts a lot of areas and a lot of folks in a lot of different ways and so we are intentionally taking our time,” he said.
“We want to meet with all of these impacted areas because we need to understand the context there so we can then build that into the implementation plan.”
Quinn, meanwhile, said he could understand the dramatic changes if he thought it would truly lead to better care for victims of crime and trauma.
“If you look at it through the lens of a victim and these services are going to be better for people, I’ll shut up and I won’t say anything else,” he said. “They haven’t proven that.”