deadmonton - why edmonton? - citizens' rights group forms

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edmonton, alberta – the murder capital of canada

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In 2005 Edmonton set a record of dubious distinction – 39 murders in a single year – prompting Statistics Canada to pronounce the city "the murder capital of Canada."

In 2006 there were 36 homicides, Edmonton's second-worst year.

This page is part of a series of articles trying to explain the question: Why Edmonton?

They started with a prayer circle. They hoped to end with change so that others don't have to share in their loss.

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Relatives and friends of Nina Courtepatte, Shane Rolston, Joshua Hunt, Dylan McGillis and Sara Easton, all teenagers killed in the Edmonton area over the past two years, gathered in the basement of Sacred Heart Church, 10821 96 Street.

Together they held the inaugural meeting of the Citizens' Rights Group, an organisation whose mandate is to lobby government for improvements to the criminal justice system. Nominations for board members were presented and fundraising options were discussed.

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Each of the victim families had individually gathered petitions to raise awareness in the past and had previously met informally. Now they hoped to present a united front.

The group said it was already working with the Alberta Crime Reduction and Safe Communities Task Force which was holding public consultation meetings across the province.

Heading the group is Gary Hunt, who said the group wants to raise funds to hire a human rights lawyer and government lobbyist.

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"We'd like change yesterday," Hunt said. "It's urgent. We'll keep at this as long as it takes."

"If we have a very large number of people all coming together under the same umbrella, then the government is going to see that point that it's a huge number of people – coast to coast in Canada – that are all saying the same thing: that we need these changes."

"We're bringing human rights groups and families together under the same umbrella, to combat what we feel are flaws in the Youth Criminal Justice Act in regard to how youths are sentenced, and to find out why youth are getting involved in violence and crime at all," Hunt said.

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Echoing Hunt was Kelly Rolston with Shane's stepmother Shelley Reason.

"This is not an Alberta problem, this is a Canada-wide problem."

"It goes from coast to coast and we need to stand together. We need to get everybody together and talking about the issue, coming up with some good solid solutions."

"If changes were made twenty years ago, we wouldn't be standing here now. So it's time – so that others don't have to go through it was well," Rolston said.

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Also in attendance was Nina Courtepatte's mother Peacha Atkinson.

"This is club we didn't want to belong to – we don't want to belong to this club."

"And heaven forbid I don't nobody else to come into this so-called club," Atkinson said.

"Our son was killed on Whyte Avenue where there are many people on the streets at night, and yet nobody has come forward to identify his killer," said Grant McGillis.

"In the old days, the village raised the child. Too many people now turn their heads and don't want to get involved. We've got to raise our children in a community and look out for one another, and this is what we're trying to do here."

"A lot of people are apathetic," McGillis continued. "I used to be like that. Read the paper, thinking, that's something tragic, that poor person, poor family. And your life goes on."

"For the love of our children and the safety of our country and communities, we need to stand together," said Debbie Powers, Josh Hunt's aunt.

"We can't continue like this. There's no way."

"All these kids ... had so much life in them and they were taken too early," she said. "They were stolen from us."

"I'm here for support," said Sara Easton's grandmother Barbara after the meeting.

"I've already had two weepy times since I got here but, I don't know, maybe we can all do something."

The meeting also attracted those not directly affected by a violent crime.

Ollie Schulz attended because she was concerned about violence in the city and cited the case of Nina Courtepatte.

"This girl was 13 years old and pleaded for her life," Schulz said. "I was so angry, so hurt."

Hunt said the group hopes to hold their first fundraiser, a music festival, in an Edmonton-area campground later this summer.

In the shadow of the alleged peer-aged murder of Eric Olsen, swarmed at a Stony Plain house party on May 27th, 2007, the Edmonton Journal ran a follow-up story profiling key members of the Citizens' Rights Group.

Written by Ryan Cormier, the article interviewed Gary Hunt, Peacha Atkinson, Heidi Illingworth, executive director of the Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime, and University of Alberta law professor Sanjeev Anand.

The article, published June 4th, 2007, has been excerpted here.

The Edmonton Journal

Teen slayings call parents to action
Grieving family members become vocal advocates for changing a system that failed them

by Ryan Cormier, The Edmonton Journal

After his 16-year-old son Josh was killed at a house party in October 2006, Gary Hunt had a lot of sleepless nights.

It wasn't just grief that kept him awake. It was also research.

Alongside family and friends, Hunt stayed up until 5 a.m. many nights researching the justice system. Since then, Hunt has been a vocal advocate for changes to how young people are treated in court. It hasn't been easy.

"To be honest, it was difficult to even get out of bed and do it some days. It's very difficult. But do you just lie there defeated? Or do you argue for what's right?"

Hunt is among a growing number of grieving relatives who have decided to work for change. Edmonton now has an organisation of such advocates -- the Citizens' Rights Group. A number of people are working in other organisations.

Most believe they have no choice. Their motivations are similar. They soldier on in memory of a loved one, or out of a sense of responsibility or outrage. And they have one thing in common: They don't want it to happen to anybody else.

In order to change the system, one must learn it. While Hunt relied on research, others are educated first-hand.

"I know the system a lot better than I want to," Peacha Atkinson says.

For weeks, she sat in courtrooms as the people accused of killing her 13-year-old daughter, Nina Courtepatte, were tried. Amongst the grisly details, she also learned the patterns of a trial, the rights of people involved and how Canada's appeal system works.

The education changed her concept of the law. "I expected proper justice, that the accused would get what they deserved. It didn't turn out that way."

Atkinson first started thinking along political lines only days after Nina was killed. It angered her that Nina's name appeared in the media while the identities of the teenagers charged were protected. "They had more rights than the victim. It didn't make sense. I thought they were pampered."

Hunt estimates he spends 25 hours a week on his advocacy efforts. Some days his efforts help him cope more than others.

"In some aspects, it truly does. In others, it's tough to do it," he says. "There are times I feel like throwing my hands in the air and saying I can't do this."

The increase in advocacy isn't solely tied to the city's rising homicide rate.

"It's not just a phenomenon in Edmonton," said Heidi Illingworth, executive director of the Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime. "We work with a lot of people who are publicly speaking out. People who have lost someone are the best ones to speak out about this. Only they know the true impact of it."

A first-hand story of loss can also help get a foot in the door with policy-makers and politicians, she said.

In April 2007, when Stephanie Rae Butler was killed in her Mill Woods home, her husband Michael questioned whether police already in the neighbourhood for a related assault couldn't have helped her. Within days, Michael Butler got one-on-one time with Police Chief Mike Boyd, Mayor Stephen Mandel and Solicitor General Fred Lindsay.

"They're more willing to listen when people tell a personal story about what they've suffered," Illingworth said.

Yet the effectiveness of such advocacy is questionable.

Petitions and protests have limited results with specific cases at the courtroom level, said University of Alberta law professor Sanjeev Anand. "By and large, across this country, Crown prosecutors' offices resist those pressures."

However, Atkinson has no doubt their efforts will help in the long run. "We're going to make a big difference. We're going to change the law."


On May 16th, 2007 Edmonton-Mill Woods-Beaumont MP Mike Lake presented in the House of Commons five petitions organised by families of Edmonton crime victims Josh Hunt, Shane Rolston, Dylan McGillis and Nina Courtepatte.

- A petition with 3,900 signatures asked Ottawa to ban case law from court proceedings and instead look at legal matters individually.

- A petition with 4,300 signatures asked for an independent, elected body to govern the code of conduct for judges in Canada.

- A petition with 3,800 signatures asked that judges be elected rather than appointed.

- A petition with 5,000 signatures asked that offenders 12 years or older who commit a violent crime be publicly identified.

- A petition with 8,300 signatures asked Ottawa to either remove the Youth Criminal Justice Act or try violent offenders as adults regardless of age.

© The Edmonton Journal 2007
Copyright © 2007 CanWest Interactive, a division of CanWest MediaWorks Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.

A listing of the Hunt, Rolston, McGillis and Courtepatte petition web sites can be found here.