What started as a report to Ponoka town council about year end policing stats has turned into a larger discussion about the justice system, court procedures during COVID-19 and the families of victims who are still seeking justice.
Ponoka RCMP detachment commander Staff. Sgt. Chris Smiley spoke to town council Feb. 9, not mincing words when it came to the prevalence of repeat offenders and the murder of a young Ponoka mother in November.
Chantelle Firingstoney, 26, a mother of four, was killed on Nov. 5, 2020.
Ryan Jake Applegarth of Ponoka has been charged with second degree murder in the case as well as failure to comply with a release order.
He had been released on bail after a bail hearing at the Court of Queen’s Bench in Wetaskiwin on Sept. 3, 2020. Presiding at that hearing was QB Justice Kevin Feth. The Crown Prosecutor was Katrina Stewart-Lund and the defence was Kenneth Sockett.
Applegarth had already been charged with the first degree murder of Jamison Samuel Louis, 34, who was killed in Wetaskiwin on Jan. 3, 2020.
Indigenous women and girls are five times more likely to experience violence than any other population in Canada, and the violence tends to cause more serious harm, according to the Assembly of First Nations (AFN).
Indigenous women make up 16 per cent of all female homicide victims and 11 per cent of missing women, despite Indigenous people being only 4.3 per cent of the population of Canada (afn.ca).
Katherine Swampy, a Samson Cree Nation councillor and member of the Pamihowin restorative justice committee, has been a voice for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW).
Swampy says she’s not just an “advocate,” but a survivor of the ongoing grief and loss as MMIW is personal to her, as she has family members “on the list.”
After fighting for change and justice for several years, she says she is feeling mentally and emotionally exhausted. She added that after speaking publicly about her losses, she hasn’t felt supported because “nothing gets resolved.”
Although Swampy says she didn’t know Firingstoney personally, a vigil may not have been held due to the ongoing pandemic, and Ponoka “has never been very welcoming.”
Smiley had told council that “nobody carried a sign for her” when Firingstoney was killed.
“I was referring to local protesters around central Alberta who, after watching American news, got support from some mainstream media and a few politicians to perpetuate what I know is a false narrative about policing in this country,” said Smiley in a follow-up interview.
“My comments were not directed at anyone for not holding vigils or anything like that,” he said.
“Everyone grieves differently and during COVID-19 precautions having an event like that presents numerous challenges.”
A central Alberta-based group, the Black and Indigenous Alliance (BIA) had been protesting weekly in Ponoka throughout the summer and the fall in 2020.
Calls to Kisha Daniels, co-founder of BIA, were not returned.
The Town of Ponoka confirmed that the town responded to a letter Daniels sent to council Sept. 17, 2020, requesting space for a rally for October, and to have a delegation come before council.
“The town responded to Ms. Daniels’ letter on Sept. 28, 2020 and again on Oct. 6, 2020. The town’s response included an invitation to appear before council, but we have not received a response back from her,” said Sandra Smith, town communications manager.
In his presentation to council, Smiley also took aim at the justice system, claiming that during the pandemic, some prisoners were automatically released throughout the year in Canada, and that proceedings were stayed or charges were withdrawn to deal with backlogs.
A statement provided by the Justice and Solicitor General (JSG) communications and public engagement department acknowledged that while there were court backlogs, prosecution standards were upheld.
“The Alberta Crown Prosecution Service (ACPS) worked closely with the courts and other stakeholders to support the operation of the justice system while prioritizing serious and violent matters to help ensure the safety of Albertans,” the statement reads.
“The ACPS continues to employ its prosecution standard (is there a reasonable likelihood of conviction and is the matter in the public interest) during its ongoing assessment of matters for prosecution.”
As for releasing prisoners, JSG says that is solely up to the courts.
“Provincial correctional facility inmates are not and will not be released early due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The statement went on to say only those who have completed their sentences or have been granted a temporary absence are being released. Those with intermittent sentences (i.e., served on the weekends, i.e.) are instead on 24-hour house arrest for the remainder of their sentenced custody.
According to the Provincial Court of Alberta’s website, albertacourts.ca, precautions designed to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19 included “adjourning low-complexity out-of-custody criminal trials other than domestic violence cases, the closure of in-person traffic services, and an increased reliance on remote appearances.”
Applegarth was scheduled to enter an election and plea for the second degree murder charge of Firingstoney at Ponoka Provincial Court on Dec. 11, however his case was adjourned until March 12, 2021 at Ponoka Provincial Court.
He was to have a preliminary hearing on the Wetaskiwin file on Jan. 15, 2021 at the Wetaskiwin Provincial Court, however, that was also adjourned until March 31, 2021.