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Theresa Wells Headshot

Freedom From Fear In Fort McMurray

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There are topics I wish I didn't have to write about, because I wish they didn't touch our community. I don't feel it is right to ignore them when they are happening, though, because it is only through frank and open dialogue that we can resolve some issues, and educate on others. It can be troubling to write about them, but it is also honest, and I think the most important thing we can do in this community is to be honest, and not only about what is great about us. We also need to be honest about the problems we encounter, too.

This past week I have been working on a story for Connect Weekly, the local weekly newspaper for which I am so very proud to freelance. The story is about a pair of robberies here, but not about the standard (although equally troubling) storefront stick-ups. No, this story is much more personal in nature, and involves a robber, and women in their cars.

You see there has been two incidents in the last couple of weeks where women have gotten into their cars and an unknown man has gotten into the passenger side door and demanded they drive him to an ATM to withdraw cash. In one instance the victim did, while in the other instance the victim did not, and the assailant stole her car instead. To say this is troubling is to demean it, because this is way past troubling. It's terrifying.

I put the word out on Twitter to ask local women how they felt about these incidents, and the emails poured in. I'll be sharing some of their comments in that article I am writing, but the undercurrent in every single email was fear. It was a sense of betrayal that this is happening in our city, in a place where such crime seems so very unusual. It is a sense of fear I know well, because I've felt it before. I felt it a long time ago when I was a young woman living in Toronto, and when young women were being sexually assaulted - and killed - at an alarming rate. It was a time when young women went missing never to be seen alive again. It was a dark time to live in that part of Ontario, when fear was a constant companion, and when you suddenly became aware of how vulnerable you truly were.

Back in those days I used to ride my bike to work along the Toronto Harbourfront, a beautiful stretch in downtown Toronto full of parks and bike paths. It was about a 45 minute ride, and I enjoyed the glorious freedom. I biked early in the morning, often finding myself alone on the trails, and while I realized my vulnerability I was also a bit reckless about it. It was during that time that I met two Toronto police officers who were on regular patrol in that part of the city. Many mornings we would meet in one of the local parks for a chat and a coffee, and now I realize that they must have seen how vulnerable I was, a young woman out alone on a bicycle during a time when young women like me were disappearing. I realize now they were quite likely keeping track of me, making sure I was okay and where I was supposed to be, as after those days when I decided to take a streetcar instead of my bike they would express concern that I had been absent the day before. One of the things I discussed with those officers was the crime spree involving young women, of course. It was the topic on everyone's lips back then, and I am sure a topic that dominated much of the thoughts of these officers, too.

I recall in particular one day when we were discussing the usual ways to avoid being victimized - being aware of your surroundings, and taking all precautions. Then I asked them what to do if that failed, if you found yourself in a situation where those precautions had failed and it appeared you would be the next victim. I will never forget the veteran officer, with many years on the force, and his reply. He fixed his steely blue eyes on me and said "Theresa, two things. One, these individuals do not want to draw attention - so do exactly that. Yell, scream, ring your bike bell, whatever it takes to draw the attention of others. And two never allow yourself to be moved to a second location. If you allow them to move you then you have effectively ceded all semblance of control in the situation, and you will not regain it. If they suggest or demand that you take them somewhere or that they take you somewhere that is the time to fight like hell. Run, fight, and do whatever it takes".

I will never forget those words because this officer had seen things I could only imagine (and some I would rather not picture). He had years of knowledge behind his words, and that day I formulated a plan should I ever be the victim of any sort of assault. Let me please be clear here, people: I am not advising that this is what you do, as only you can determine what you would do in such a situation. I am only telling you what I would do, and asking you to do this: Have a plan in mind. Think about how you would respond ahead of time, because you have a much better chance of responding in the manner you wish you would if you think about it ahead of time. I know no one likes to consider this possibility, but in this case you must.

So, my plan is this. I will follow all the precautions, including being aware of my surroundings. I will stop treating my car as a mobile office which I am prone to doing, getting in and then making phone calls or scribbling notes or even conducting interviews by phone. I will get into my car, and drive away. I will keep my car doors locked so no one can enter it when I am not there and surprise me (I am shocked by the number of cars I see in parking lots with unlocked doors - this is not some small town of 2500 people where you know all your neighbours any more, folks, and we need to acknowledge this reality). And if by some circumstance, by some twist of fate, a man enters my car, produces a knife, and demands I drive him to an ATM? Well, people, I am outta there.

Is there some risk in doing this? Sure, he could attack me with the knife, but is unlikely to fatally wound me. I would rather give him my car and my purse than freely give him my person. If I can I will hit the panic button on my keys, and let the horn wail (and I would suggest that in the future should you hear a car alarm in a local parking lot please don't assume it's nothing - go and check it out, as it could well be someone in distress). And then I am getting out of that car, and running like hell, screaming as I go. I will not go quietly to an ATM or anywhere else. I will freely give up my car and purse as they are worth far less than my life. I will not let someone quietly take control of the situation - and my life. I will never quietly cede control to anyone.

Again I admonish you that this is not official advice, and nor is it necessarily the right plan for you. Perhaps you would prefer to react in another way, and that is your choice. All I ask is that you think about it in advance, and have a plan at the ready. Practice all the standard precautions, but be aware that even if you follow every single one to the letter you could still fall prey to an assault. In this case it appears the assailant only wants money, but there are others who want something else, and others who can, and will, harm you. Do not go quietly into their clutches without having a plan, and without having thought about how you will react. You see there are times when fear is not as helpful as having plan. There is a time when you only you can save yourself, and this is a clarion call to consider exactly how you would go about doing it. There is a time for fear, and that time seems to be upon us in Fort McMurray. There is also a time for action, and that time has definitely arrived in our community. Be aware, be safe, be thoughtful, and be wise. Watch out for each other, and watch out for yourselves. And don't let fear control you - but perhaps let it guide you into formulating a course of action. You never know. Some day it just might save your life.