Port Alberni RCMP and their community partners are finding new ways to reach out to at-risk youth in the Alberni Valley, putting a stop to a rise in youth-on-youth violence.
Constable Beth O’Connor of the Port Alberni RCMP’s Indigenous Policing section made a presentation to the Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District board of directors meeting on Aug. 24, and also met with Huu-ay-aht First Nations council earlier this year, to talk about some of the increase in youth-on-youth violence that Port Alberni has seen over the past few years. Although names like “AFN” and “NBH” have been “thrown around” over the past few years, O’Connor is hesitant to call them a gang because they seem to lack any kind of structure.
A few police files on “AFN” date back to 2020, but O’Connor said it wasn’t really until the end of the 2021-22 school year that RCMP started seeing a problem. Between Sept. 2021 and March 2022, more than 30 assaults were reported to the RCMP associated with “AFN.” This included one assault at a school, where a youth was “seriously injured” and taken to hospital by ambulance.
But in a later interview, O’Connor emphasized that there is “zero danger” to the average student in Port Alberni. The majority of the incidents are targeted, meaning the attackers and victims know each other. Often, police are finding out about the conflicts through social media, especially a growing number of videos on TikTok where assaults are posted in order to humiliate and harass the victim. Most of the time, said O’Connor, students aren’t reporting these assaults to the police.
The reason for this is simple: they don’t trust the police. Many of the youth involved have unstable home lives, with parents who are entrenched in the drug trade, or they aren’t living with parents at all. The majority of them, said O’Connor, are Indigenous.
“These are a lot of kids in care, youth who have experienced trauma in their lives,” O’Connor explained. “They’ve lost their bond with education and the structure. They’re living relatively independent lives.”
Without the structure of a stable home life or an attachment to school, the youth are bonding with each other, instead.
“Some of these relationships are not healthy,” said O’Connor. “These kids really need structure and leadership that’s consistent.”
Jaimey Richmond, a youth outreach worker for Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council’s Teechuktl Mental Health program, told the ACRD board on Aug. 24 these “at-risk youth” need a sense of safety, because they are “in survival mode” every day.
“They want to be be involved in their community,” she said. “But a lot of times they don’t feel valued. They can’t see any hope for their future because of how they have grown up.”
The isolation, combined with this terminal thought process and peer pressure, leads younger and younger teens into drug trafficking, substance use issues and even the sex trade.
But Port Alberni RCMP members are working with a number of partners to disrupt this pattern and provide some structure and safety for teens and youth in the Alberni Valley. One of the ways they have accomplished this is by building strong relationships with agencies like Teechuktl and with Eighth Avenue Learning Centre.
Because Eighth Avenue is an alternative school, teachers are able to deliver classes in a different way.
“Instead of offering traditional classes, we offer experiences,” explained vice-principal Nick Seredick. “We try to provide students with a future focus, so that education feels meaningful.”
One of these projects is “The Life Garden” located outside of the school. Students were involved in “every aspect” of creating the garden, said principal Dave Maher, from building the planter boxes to the layout of the garden to planting and harvesting. Staff also have plans to build a smokehouse on the garden site, blending construction skills with the school’s fishing program to connect students to jobs and cultural opportunities.
Eighth Avenue Learning Centre also has a “student leaders” program, where students can take the skills they have learned and work with elementary school-aged children to pass on that knowledge. It’s an opportunity for positive mentorship, says Maher.
Maher says that the school tries to teach “core competencies” in a hands-on, project-based way, promoting skills like communication, teamwork and a positive sense of self-identity.
“As we work with youth that face challenges in their lives, we also have to look at opportunities to build up the human being,” he said. “Each and every student that walks through our doors is as valued as any other student.”
Schools are a reflection of the community, added Maher, but offer a more controlled environment.
“We’re extremely aware of what’s happening in our community, and we want to create as safe an environment as possible,” he said.
School staff and advisors will work closely with the RCMP and community partners to see what happened with students over the weekend, sometimes even knocking on doors to follow up with students who haven’t been seen at school in a while.
Over the summer, said O’Connor, things were quieter than they were earlier in the year, with very few police reports related to youth violence.
“A lot of that is because of the collaborative work of people who are close to these kids,” she said.
Port Alberni is not the only community seeing these issues. Earlier this year, Victoria Police reported an uptick in violent crimes and “swarming” committed by youth in the downtown area.
O’Connor says some of this increase in violence across the province—and the country—is tied to the toxic drug supply.
“Over time, it’s affecting younger and younger people,” said O’Connor. “Port Alberni is not entirely unique. There’s a growing number of youth living on the streets with substance use issues.”
In 2019, the RCMP’s Indigenous Policing section formed a pilot project called the Four Paddles Team, which used a frontline focus made up of social partners to reduce negative police interactions with Indigenous people, and especially youth. Although this pilot project has ended, O’Connor says the Port Alberni RCMP is still using the concepts and methodology it learned from the project.
A new community agreement will also be rolling out this fall, called the Protection of Youth Under 19 Years. This agreement, which has been signed by most of the governments and agencies in the Alberni Valley, ensures that people working with youth are trained on their duty to report a young person in need of protection.
“Traditional policing doesn’t reach the mark here,” said O’Connor. “We’re stepping away from traditional community policing to address some of the issues we’re seeing. When we understand a problem, it’s easier to address it.”