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Riding out the storm
of changing times

(March 9, 2000, Gazette)

By Kelley Power

As I write this, a 16-year-old boy is waiting in the remand centre in St. John’s for a hearing in April which will determine whether or not he will be tried as an adult for the murder of Samantha Walsh. This, I’m sure, you all know.

For the past month, most of us have followed the story of the disappearance of the 13-year-old Fleur de Lys girl, waiting for any news of her possible fate. When it finally came, I’m positive that I heard a resounding gasp of shock and disbelief echo around the island.

Undoubtably, it wasn’t the discovery of the crime itself that surprised us; after three weeks of fruitless searching turned up no trace of the girl, most of us who huddled around our television sets every evening expected the worst.

Neither were the details of the crime particularly appalling – we are, after all, a society that has become desensitized to even the most violent of crimes thanks to the vivid detail we have available to us through the media.

Rather, what makes this act particularly disturbing to the people of Newfoundland is the implication it has for our continued confidence in this island as a refuge from the nefarious attitudes that exist in the rest of the world.

We like to think that we don’t have to look upon every stranger with suspicion, that we can walk down a street without clutching our wallets tightly to our chests. We want to believe that we really know our friends and neighbours.

Newfoundlanders are re-nowned for their hospitality and friendliness toward each other and to those who visit the island. The basis of this pleasant disposition is the natural tendency we have to give people the benefit of the doubt, trusting rather than distrusting on sight.

Since we have always held up rural Newfoundland as the area that best demonstrates this characteristic of our culture, it comes as an even greater shock for us to discover that an outport community could be the backdrop of such a heinous crime as occurred in Fleur de Lys.
The outrage over the death of Samantha Walsh puts me in mind of the reaction to the brutal murder of a young girl by the name of Dana Bradley. Her body was found in a wooded area off Maddox Cove Road in 1981.

There was a similar backlash of fear and suspicion in the time following that crime. And to make matters worse, the public – not to mention the girl’s parents – couldn’t even be comforted by the fact that the killer(s) were apprehended. That murder remains unsolved.

But the lesson taught to us by these events seems so quickly forgotten. After the initial shock wears off, we resume our usual routines – leaving back doors unlocked, hitchhiking on quiet roads – deeming the crime that spawned our fears an aberration of the norm, rather than a sign of changing times.

Support for this attitude can be easily found. Information from Statistics Canada for 1998 credits Newfoundland with one of the lowest rates of violent crime in the country. For that year we also had the third lowest rate of homicide in Canada – 1.29 per 100,000 people.

Not bad, but it doesn’t alter the fact that there has been a steady climb in that rate since 1994.

But is all this signalling a change in the traditional Newfoundland way of life? Maybe, to some extent.

Let’s be realistic: things simply aren’t the same as they used to be. You can’t walk home alone at night and be 100 per cent sure of your safety. You can’t leave your car running while you dart into the bank. It’s not even safe to shake a fist at the kids that throw snowballs at your car; the little punks might turn and beat the crap out of you.

It might, however, be extreme to say that our society is plunging into a deep, downward spiral. The shift is not so severe that we need to become a fearmongering, gun-toting, barred-windowed population.
We are, after all, a people with an inherently good nature – that has to buffer at least some of the degenerative behaviour that finds its way here. Couple this characteristic with the exercising of an extra bit of caution in our lives and we might see less evidence of negative changes.

For students, developing a cautious nature would, I believe, be especially important because, as is the tendency of the young, we too often overlook our own mortality.

How often, for example, do those of you with a penchant for pugilism stop to consider the fact that one of these days your opponent might pull a knife instead of just sticking you with a mouth-full of fist?
And the next time you accept a drink from a stranger in a bar, remember that rohypnol (the “date rape drug”) is virtually undetectable and there are indications that it has been used here on the island.
Staying on that note, it’s important to realize that alcohol is much more commonly found to be associated with sexual assault than rohypnol. Make sure that if you drink, someone trustworthy – and relatively sober – is there to watch out for you.

These aren’t complicated concepts. They’re small, simple things to be aware of in order to prevent more serious situations from developing.
We can’t prevent miscreant ideas from creeping into the fabric of our society; a total severing of ties between the island and the mainland would be necessary. For many reasons, most obviously economic, such an act would be undesirable.

Our only option, really, is to pursue a policy of effective damage control. Awareness of the changes that are occurring around us, and a desire not to let them ruin the culture we have come to know and love, are at least a beginning.