Every few years a story pops up about the murder and attempted murder that occurred in Altona 30 years ago. In the last decade stories have often related to the stages leading up to Earl Giesbrecht’s release from prison. The latest article marked Earl’s full release. Anyone living in Altona at the time of the event likely has a connection, a story, an opinion, and a feeling in relation to what happened. I am second cousin with the murderer Earl (though this doesn’t mean too much in my small Mennonite town). My sister was in Earl’s grade. I was in the same grade as the brother of Curtis, the boy who was killed. I played hockey with Tyler who escaped. I was a goalie and just younger than both Tyler and Curtis who were also goalies (which does give me pause some days). I knew Tyler fairly well in the years that followed these events and appreciated the direction it headed.
I don’t think there is anything I can or should say in regards to Tyler and his family, Curtis’s family or Earl and his family. I hope they had and continue to have what they need for what they experienced. What I do find myself reflecting on again and again is the role and legacy this has for the community or to put it more specifically, something about how the community has been understood or understands itself. In a 2013 article a Winnipeg columnist names Altona as the ‘third victim’. What does this mean? In a very real sense this is true. When tragedy occurs all those in relation to that tragedy are impacted. This can happen in small towns, cities and countries. Tragedies shake or fracture our sense of place, meaning, and safety. There is no doubt the community was deeply impacted by what happened.
There are, however, many ways that a community or society can collectively understand and respond to tragedy. My concern is that Altona continues to both promote and allow itself to be viewed exclusively as a victim while denying Earl as being a part of our community. Such a response makes a lot of sense in our attempts to distance or protect ourselves from such realities. But such a stance is simply and factually wrong and more importantly I am increasingly convinced it is unhealthy in the long run for a community to accept this posture.
All groups with a sense of membership, shared values and identity struggle with naming, acknowledging and addressing those elements that either do not fit or seem to contradict dominant values or identities. Probably the most pervasive example of this is valuing the ‘sanctity’ of marriage which tends to keep society from acknowledging addressing the fact that the home remains the most likely place for someone to be harmed. In the same way churches have had a hard time accepting accusations of clergy abuse because of the symbolic value they place in their leaders. It is not a matter of whether we value family or religion the question is whether we value it enough to face its complex nature and dark corners.
Earl is not an aberration, he is not a monster that was never one of us. There appears to be no resolution on his claims to have been molested as a child and my sense and memory was that he was probably both bully and bullied (not uncommon; I was both as well at times). These realities should not give Earl the ability to claim innocence through victimhood in the crimes he committed and perhaps what drove him is relatively rare among most people but I also don’t think it gives Altona, as a whole, the ability to claim being simply or only a victim. This is not how communities or societies work. After all Earl was part of the community, born and raised.
I continually hear accounts of how individuals in Altona are still scared of Earl. I don’t deny the reality of these feelings. Fears are real, we all have things (rational or otherwise) that plague our thoughts and chase away sleep. Here again I am not thinking of those directly impacted but wonder more so at the fears of a community and this might relate to the community’s own inability to face that fact that Earl was one of us, a part of us. Altona, like every other community, did and still does house the full range of humanity’s potential. Instead of acknowledging this we tend to displace and isolate the bad parts of society to certain neighbourhoods, beliefs or people groups. Earl was a part of the community in as much as all the homophobic and racist expressions, the domestic abuses and instances of incest in Altona that have scarred and driven out so many others over the years. We have made no public accounting of these forms of harm and the potential deaths (by suicide) that are related to our community.
Make no mistake I am not claiming ‘justification’ for Earl’s actions (or somehow blaming the community for it) and I am not trying to demonize Altona in its faults. Rather, I want to follow through on claiming our need to take responsibility in at least acknowledging that communities are always filled with messy, diverse and dark realities. The community is no innocent victim because the community is not an individual it is a group of people that include those with unimaginable capacity for grace, service and forgiveness as well as those who ponder murder in their hearts and walk a fine (and mysterious) line of not acting on it and of course all the rest of it in between.
I have now lived in the West of End of Winnipeg for as long as I grew up in the Altona area. I have had the unfortunate experience of knowing murders and assaults that have occurred all too near my home and my family. Now none of them have been as personal as the experience years ago in Altona but most of the time I have no fear of my neighbourhood and I certainly have no fear of Earl’s release. Saying all this I do know that bad things happen, some of which I can avoid and some I can’t. In small ways then I try to learn about and work for the way communities can build supports for safety, healing, understanding and accountability (as well as how I can do that work in my own heart and mind). When I hear accounts of Altona’s response to these events I have no sense of acknowledging that as humans we are always living around the fine and sometimes mysterious lines of what can potentially be the best or worst expressions of humanity. Earl’s actions needed to be accounted for. But Earl was a part of our community. Responsible communities don’t have the right to claim innocence they can only be called back time and again in attentiveness to those who are suffering while shedding light on and addressing its causes when we can. It is in this way that we can best hope to create collective spaces for prevention and healing as well as for joy, creativity and celebration. I hope that each individual finds the healing and forgiveness that is needed in this hard life. Communities are key in a good life but we must account for all of life and then figure out a way together.