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Prince George woman reflects on city’s social crisis after courthouse bear spray incident

'What we're seeing in Prince George is the criminalization of poverty'
Prince George courthouse. (via John Deacon, Courthouse Co.)

A recent bear-spray incident has a local woman raising concerns about the city’s complex social crisis.

On Tuesday (May 11) at around 7 p.m. Amelia Merrick was enjoying the spring evening with seven friends outside of the Prince George courthouse when suddenly her chest started to hurt badly.

“I tried coughing but it felt like there was a whole bunch of dust that had settled in my lungs and I couldn't draw breath. It was really scary. My eyes started to water and my skin was burning especially around my nose and my mouth.”

She says she then noticed her friends were also gasping for breath.

“It was really quite terrifying and then all of a sudden, one of my friends shouted, ‘it's bear, spray’ and we think that's what happened.” 

Merrick says just moments before a car had driven by, and the group assumed the car was the perpetrator of the bear spray attack.

“I'm not sure if we were targeted specifically or if somebody else is being targeted and we were just bystanders,” said Merrick, adding that she has heard of a number of unreported bear spray attacks over the last few weeks.

She says she was able to call the police and was immediately connected to emergency services.

Const. Jennifer Cooper of the Prince George RCMP says she believes the incident was the result of an altercation between downtown residents that occurred down the street, and the group of friends at the courthouse caught the pepper spray on the breeze.

“It’s not uncommon as many people use bear spray as protection,” says Cooper. “Bear spray is easily accessible and can be concealed in a backpack so a lot of downtown residents will carry it on them.”

However, Merrick says she feels this incident is another symptom of the complex social crisis that we're facing in Prince George.

“I don't believe that our elected officials are doing enough to address our complex social crisis,” said Merrick.

“What we're seeing in Prince George is the criminalization of poverty and a severe lack of social services and together, with this political apathy toward the well-being of our overall community it's going to continue to perpetuate acts of violence like this.”

Merrick says she feels for people on the street who may be victims of a bear spray attacks and don’t have access to a hot shower or a place to wash their clothes and who may not feel comfortable calling the police or emergency services for assistance.

“We need to have urgent collective action to address this. We need to see leadership at the municipal and provincial levels and I would even say this is a federal issue that's happening here.”

In early 2020 the city formed a Select Committee on A Safe, Clean, and Inclusive Downtown which presented a list of 22 recommendations to council in January of this year – in an attempt to address the city’s social problems.

Merrick says she believes the city should have created a more collaborative committee including researchers from the UNBC and CNC communities, but mostly she would like to see urgent collective action.

She added that the downtown businesses have done an excellent job of creating an exceptional experience downtown but without action from elected officials their hard work will be for nothing as people may avoid the area.

“We need to recognize the complexity of this crisis,” said Merrick, adding she hopes the city can create a shared vision that includes the unhoused population.

“We need safe housing – a hotel, a church, a vacant lot – we need multiple places where people can sleep and keep their belongings and not be destabilized every 12 hours because they need to move. We have more resources than we realize but we lack the creativity and courage to act.”