This is part one of a two-part series on VisionQuest in the Chilliwack River Valley: the role the treatment centre plays in the big picture of reducing criminal recidivism in B.C. but also the public safety concerns around housing prolific offenders with no security.
As the high summer sun begins to dip lower in the sky and the crisp evenings of fall set in, Jodie Crawford and her husband Roy Wilson like to go camping and hunting in the Chilliwack River Valley.
It was on one of those trips in October 2014 when a visitor stopped at their camp near the Riverside Recreation site at about the 30-kilometre mark—not far from the couple’s home just south of Tamihi Rapids in the valley.
The man got out of his GMC SUV to have a chat about a nearby drug and alcohol facility, a place they didn’t even know existed.
“He said we ‘need to turn our music down because there are pedophiles and sexual offenders there and they have a tendency of wandering away,’” Crawford said.
“Who the hell is up there?”
The “there” in question is VisionQuest at The Creek, a treatment facility for prolific offenders, located on a 32.5-acre site way up Chilliwack Lake Road.
Crawford and valley residents aren’t the only ones asking just what type of offenders are housed at The Creek, and what is being done about assuring the community they will be protected from the “clients” who so frequently make a run for it.
Elected officials and senior staff at the City of Chilliwack and the Fraser Valley Regional District (FVRD) are extremely concerned about public
safety and the uncertainty of who is at The Creek.
Even Superintendent Deanne Burleigh, officer in charge of the Upper Fraser Valley Regional RCMP detachment, can’t say.
“Do I know who is at VisionQuest?” Burleigh said in a recent interview. “Only after someone walks away and I have arrested them. . . . No, I don’t know who is at VisionQuest.”
RCMP called every other day
Who is up there now, and who has been up there in the past, at this remote location 36 kilometres up the Valley living in cabins on a picturesque site along the Chilliwack River is, quite simply, a stream of criminal offenders with no fewer than 30 convictions on their records.
Delta-based non-profit VisionQuest Recovery Society opened VisionQuest at The Creek at 60550 Chilliwack Lake Rd., in 2013.
Before it was The Creek, the location was the site of the Stehiyaq Healing and Wellness Village for aboriginal youth, which was provincially funded to the tune of $1.5 million, and which closed down in September 2011.
Long a site known by the local Sto:lo people for healing, the question could be asked, who cares if there are prolific offenders at The Creek? After all, Ford Mountain Correctional Centre is just seven kilometres down the road.
The difference, and the source of much consternation at city hall, is that at The Creek there is no security. Clients are “sentenced” to attend the rehab programs at The Creek in lieu of jail time, which means to walk away may be a criminal breach.
But it happens all the time. In February of this year, 29-year-old Robert Ross Winston took off from The Creek and police asked the public for help to apprehend him. Then on June 9, Christopher Chubb went with VisionQuest staff to attend court in Chilliwack. In a brief chat with the Times a month later, the 33-year-old said he thought he was late for his court appearance and a warrant had been issued. So he bolted.
About once a week, on average, a prolific offender like Winston or like Chubb walks away from The Creek, and that number pales in comparison to the number of RCMP calls for service to the facility.
In its first nine months in existence, April to December 2013, the RCMP had 111 files connected to The Creek. In 2014, there were 221 calls for service and by June of this year, Burleigh said there were already 100 calls.
That’s 432 RCMP files over 27 months, or 16 per month.
Every other day a Mountie, and sometimes more than one, is called off the streets of Chilliwack into FVRD Area E to deal with a problem at The Creek.
Sexual offenders are permitted
Chilliwack city councillor Jason Lum has had The Creek on his radar from back when he was chair of the city’s Public Safety Advisory Committee. Lum is no longer chair, but he is unrelenting in his conviction that the public safety danger of the facility is too much, and changes need to be made.
“There are literally hundreds of calls that are generated from this one facility,” Lum told the Times. “Everybody has been very patient but it’s running low.”
If prolific offenders are walking away from The Creek, Lum wants to know if those offenders are in for petty crimes or do they have convictions for violent and/or sexual incidents. He says the city has always been told VisionQuest does not take sexual offenders but even the facility’s managers don’t have access to criminal records. It is provincial court judges that send offenders to VisionQuest, and the clients have to agree to go.
(Part of that means clients sign over their social assistance cheques, which is the main source of their funding. The VisionQuest Society brags that it costs about $207 a day to keep a prisoner in a provincial jail and they do it for $30.90 a day.)
But it is only a client’s latest conviction that is made available to VisionQuest. If a prolific offender has 30 convictions, there are 29 the folks who run The Creek don’t know about.
So do they accept sexual offenders?
“There have been several cases of clients at VisionQuest with very concerning histories of sexual offences,” Burleigh told Mayor Sharon Gaetz in a May 21, 2015 letter to the city in response to questions about The Creek.
In February of this year, for example, a client “with a long criminal history including sexual offences was reported AWOL from VisionQuest.” It took a Lower Mainland-wide effort to re-arrest him. Then in March and again in May, another client with violent and sexual offence history took off from The Creek.
Burleigh recounted a third incident when a client jumped from a VisionQuest transport vehicle and was at large. He ended up in a bad spot: At the military range in the Chilliwack River Valley while an RCMP carbine course was underway.
“He has a history of sexual offences.”
Drugs don’t just drive the system
Chilliwack-Hope MLA Laurie Throness is a big supporter of VisionQuest at The Creek, both as a much-needed recovery facility in the big picture, but also as a constituent in his riding.
“I’ve toured VisionQuest a couple of times,” he said. “They do good work. Everyone I’ve talked to reports they do good work and they achieve really good lasting results.”
Throness is also Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Justice and recently he penned a report entitled Standing Against Violence: A Safety Review of BC Corrections.
The mission statement that drives the work of recovery facilities like VisionQuest is essential to getting to the root cause of crime in British Columbia, according to Throness. Statistics Canada reported in 2012 that 92 per cent of those in
correctional facilities in five provinces needed assistance with substance abuse.
“As one [corrections official] put it,” Throness wrote in his report. “Drugs don’t drive the system. They ARE the system.’”
And while Throness is keenly aware of concerns from the city and the FVRD, he said the concern over walkaways might be misplaced.
“Sometimes with criminal justice there’s more of a perception than a reality, and I think there is a perception of danger to the public from VisionQuest that may not be warranted,” Throness said.
He added that those who walk away don’t linger in the valley, they are often picked up by friends and are gone to other communities and a warrant is issued for their arrest.
“If they leave and they don’t come back, they go to jail.”
But sometimes they get a second chance.
Remember Christopher Chubb? He breached his conditions by taking off from VisionQuest staff on June 9. He was re-arrested in July and then later he walked away again.
The Creek’s executive director Jim O’Rourke told the Times that as for Chubb, “we are kind of done with him.”
After Chubb walked away for the second time, he went back to the coast. He is currently in custody facing a new charge from an incident on July 28 in Vancouver: Sexual assault.
It’s cases like this that only heighten concern for people such as Crawford and her family.
“We have small children and we like to go camping and they are wandering through the forest,” Crawford said. “Seriously, this isn’t fair for our neighbourhood. We are pretty rural out here but at lease we know with Ford Mountain they are contained. Who knows what kind of criminals are up at this VisionQuest.”
• See Part Two of The Long Road to Recovery in next’s week’s edition. The Times takes a tour of the facility, talks in detail about the program with executive director Jim O’Rourke and the facility’s spiritual advisors, and we look at Throness and his passion to solve the criminal justice system’s biggest problem: The revolving door, known as the rate of recidivism.