McDonald’s has pulled out of downtown Kamloops following a series of violent incidents, sparking a conversation about public safety in the interior city of British Columbia.
On Sunday, March 27, a video was posted on YouTube in which a man could be seen shouting obscenities and knocking over shop windows.
The video quickly circulated in the social media community, along with news that owner Brandy Gozda-Sekhon was permanently closing the restaurant, long a flagship tenant in the city’s downtown core.
Gozda-Sekhon did not respond to CBC interview requests, but told the Kamloops This Week newspaper that incidents of violence and drug use had become “too much” for her to handle, citing two incidents of employees being attacked by members of the public as well as other issues.
When CBC contacted McDonald’s Canada for a response, it received a written statement attributed to Gozda-Sekhon stating that the closure was a “business decision based on the viability of this specific site”.
“You can’t arrest people because they are poor”
The incident also prompted a statement from Mayor Ken Christian who said there was also an overdose in the public restrooms of a popular department store on the same weekend, which he attributed to the supply of provincial toxic drugs.
“Unfortunately, drug addicts are dying at an alarming rate, and last month Kamloops had the third highest number in the province,” he wroteadding: “Drug addiction, poverty and mental illness are health issues, not criminal issues.”
In an interview with CBC, Christian said it was not possible for the city to “take the police out” of the social issues facing not just Kamloops, but British Columbia as a whole.
“You can’t arrest people because they’re poor,” he said. “There are some people on the street who really can’t navigate their own journey and they’re really struggling.”
To that end, he said, the city is focused on opening up supports for people struggling with mental health and addiction issues in the city.
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Howie Reimer, executive director of the Downtown Kamloops Business Improvement Association, called the incident at McDonald’s “very disturbing,” in part because of its similarity to other events in the city.
“It shouldn’t be up to McDonald’s employees, 16-year-olds [to deal with safety issues],” he said.
But, he said, he believes there are other reasons for the closure that go beyond safety – such as the inability to open a drive-thru or a children’s play area. at that particular location, due to its size and local zoning rules.
He also highlighted the opening of new businesses downtown, saying he was still confident in the future of the neighborhood.
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While Christian has focused on the social aspects of the issues facing downtown, the city is also increasing its police force.
Earlier this month, city council approved an RCMP budget request to hire at least five more frontline RCMP officers over the next year.
RCMP Superintendent Syd Lecky said his officers had to constantly assess how best to respond to incidents as they unfolded.
“You always have to sort it out,” he said, responding to complaints from some community members that the police don’t come soon enough when an incident like the McDonald’s is reported.
“If your loved one is missing or your loved one has been murdered or your loved one has been sexually assaulted, you all want me to dedicate resources to these efforts. So how do I prioritize?”
In this case, he said, the person causing the disturbance had already left the restaurant by the time the police were called, meaning “the threat is gone” and a quick response is “no longer a priority”.
“We attended. We investigated. We got the statements and we identified the suspect,” he said.
According to Christian, while concerns about security downtown are valid, he is also confident in the city’s ability to move forward.
“I have no doubts and I’m sorry for those employees and those customers who depended on it. But we’re growing and we’re changing, and that’s part of a growing city,” he said.