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.
Ponoka News’ article about Staff Sgt. Smiley’s comments was viewed over 24,000 times in the first 24-hours after it was posted online, sparking local and national dialogue.
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.
Smiley 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.
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.”
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 up to the courts.
“Provincial remand and correctional facilities do not determine who enters or exits their facilities, when or under what conditions. The final decisions regarding who receives bail or who is remanded, or sentencing decisions, are made solely by the courts. The courts make these decisions independently of corrections, the Crown, and government.
“Provincial correctional facility inmates are not and will not be released early due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Only, those who have completed their court-mandated sentences or have been granted a temporary absence are being released.
“During the pandemic, offenders with intermittent sentences – who are typically in the community during the week and in a correctional facility on the weekend – are instead under 24-hour house arrest to serve out the remainder of their intermittent sentenced custody. These measures help to mitigate the amount of individuals entering and exiting provincial correctional and remand centres, as part of helping to avoid the spread of the virus.”
JSG says several vacant court positions were filled across the province and staff worked overtime to ensure matters continued to proceed and to shorten wait times.
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.
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.
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.”
These measures were in place until at least Feb. 26, 2021.
Caitlin Kraft of Ponoka is seeking justice for her brother Jeff, who was killed in Lacombe on Dec. 15, 2019.
Kraft claims the accused in Jeff’s case, who has pleaded guilty to manslaughter with a firearm, was also out on bail for previous offences at the time.
“We agree with Staff Sgt. Smiley’s outlook of the justice system,” said Kraft.
“The criminals are given a revolving door. Serious crimes go with little to no punishment. The criminals get granted bail and then re-offend within weeks knowing their punishment will be nothing more then a slap on the wrist,” she said.
“We as victims want to see this changed.”
A rally “Justice for Jeff - Justice for All” is taking place at 8:30 a.m. on March 4 in front of the Red Deer Provincial Courthouse.
Although the main focus of the rally is for Jeff, it’s also for any victims whose offenders were out on bail at the time of the crime, such as Firingstoney.
Correction: The article “Ponoka RCMP give run down on challenges of 2020 to town council” which ran in the Feb. 17, 2021 print edition of Ponoka News stated Firingstoney was killed on Nov. 7, 2020. She died on Nov. 5, 2020. She also had four children, not five, according to the obituary on womboldfuneralhomes.com.