It was a beautiful evening Tuesday.
The sun was setting and for a group of eight female dancers, it was a perfect time to enjoy the beauty of it all in front of the Prince George Courthouse. However, at about 7:45 p.m. things changed.
“The sun was setting, it was dusky light, there was a feeling of hope … we’re getting vaccinated, summer’s coming, it was awesome,” said Amelia Merrick. “Then all of a sudden my chest started to hurt. I tried coughing. It felt like a bunch of dust settled in my lungs. I couldn’t cough, I couldn’t draw a breath. My eyes started to water, my skin was burning. It was so scary.”
She looked around at her friends and realized they too were gasping for breath. It took a couple of moments before they realized they had been bear sprayed.
A car had driven by them just before the symptoms hit them like a ton of bricks. They aren’t completely sure if someone in the car sprayed them, but that’s a likely scenario.
“I’m not sure if we were targeted or they were targeting someone else on the street and we were the bystanders,” she said. “Was this a random act of violence, was it some teenager thinking this would be fun to do this. I don’t know. I know it was really painful.”
Const. Jennifer Cooper of the Prince George RCMP said the bear spray came from an altercation between two other people nearby. One of them used bear spray, which is often used for protection by those downtown, and the group of women caught it in the wind.
Merrick says that what happened to the group of women is another example of the social problems in Prince George.
“I believe this is another sign that we need our leadership to take action and to help bring all of us together to deal with this complex social crisis which will continue to cause havoc for more and more of us unless we address it.”
Eighteen months ago the city struck the Select Committee on A Safe, Clean, and Inclusive Downtown which presented a list of 22 recommendations to council in January of this year.
Merrick says the city could have struck a more “collaborative” committee.
“I was really itchy and went and had a hot shower in the middle of the night,” she said. “If I was a woman living on the street (and got bear sprayed), I can’t have a hot shower in the middle of the night. If you’re living on the street you don’t have a change of clothes, you don’t have a washing machine to wash your clothes.”
She says the community needs to recognize the complexity of the social issues in the city.
“We need to stop criminalizing poverty,” she said. “As long as we continue to have a lack of social services, we will see more acts of violence and it’s not going to just affect the street community.”
She said downtown businesses have done a tremendous job of transforming downtown.
“Prince George has such so much potential to be an amazing city in the North. We are such a cool city but if leadership does not take action urgently, people are not going to come downtown.”