New thievery tests an old trust

Michael Johansen
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A police car sat on top of the hill as if its occupants were staking out North West River’s main street. However, nobody was inside the cruiser. Instead, two uniformed officers were by the corner of a large bungalow. One spoke with a witness, while the other examined a doorway to the basement.

North West River, it turned out, had suffered another break-and-enter. At least one more was soon to occur. Those two, which took place around the beginning of May, were of particular concern to the police because the thief or thieves had made off with at least three firearms: one rifle and two 12-gauge shotguns. Both houses, RCMP report, had already been burglarized a year earlier. Guns had also gone missing back then.

Two or three B&Es a year don’t a crime spree make, but in North West River such things were once so rare they were almost inconceivable. At least, many considered their homes and belongings so safe from marauders they hardly ever thought to lock their doors.

Such confidence was justified, as I discovered. Leaving doors unlocked was not a habit I ever learned in any of the other places I’ve ever lived, so I always keep a key handy. However, I once drove away for a month-long trip, absent-mindedly leaving my door not only unlocked, but wide open. A neighbour shut it for me, but couldn’t lock it, so I spent four weeks overseas wondering if my house was being invaded by squatters who were selling whatever I had of value and smashing the rest.

Nobody was surprised

I needn’t have worried. My house was in North West River, not in some southern Canadian city where homes are regularly targeted by thieves and vandals. When I got back everything was exactly as I’d left it. I saw no sign that anyone had gone near the house. When I told other residents about it nobody was surprised. People left other peoples’ houses alone. Why lock up if there’s nobody to lock out?

That changed gradually over about a decade once the thefts began. More and more never-locked doors are now shut tight, night and day, which might make belongings a little safer, but it represents a greater loss. An old community trust is in danger.

North West River is a small town, but it’s an old one by Canadian standards, having been founded more than 250 years ago by a trader from Quebec. Back before any roads went anywhere in Labrador, North West River was an important place for many families who journeyed there regularly over Lake Melville, or out of the country down rivers and woodland trails. For all those decades North West River was the sole centre of commerce, church and government (such as there was) for the far-flung population of a remote territory. The harsh land taught them to care for each other because nobody survived alone. When all came together they kept that trust. You don’t lock your doors against someone who’s welcome to all you have, if he needs it.

Dwarfed every settlement in the region

The Second World War changed everything. The community, military and civilians, that sprang up around the airbase at Goose Bay quickly dwarfed every settlement in the region, including North West River. Labrador’s centre of gravity suddenly shifted. North West River was once the sun, but in the 1940s it became merely a planet in orbit around Goose Bay, although not yet a minor one. That demotion happened later, when the road was built and the river eventually bridged, and when a new town sprang up next door, one that quickly outstripped the older settlement.

However, North West River is holding its own. The population is something over 500 and so the tax base is slim, but the town is nevertheless kept in good running order and is periodically improved. That means that while the town is changing in many ways, not all of them are for the worse.

Trust lost can be regained. Maybe doors will never again remain unlocked, but the community spirit that kept them open for so long need not be lost. As long as the historic trust is honoured it continues to make North West River a rich and unique community.   

Michael Johansen is a writer living in North West River, Labrador

Organizations: RCMP

Geographic location: North West River, Labrador, Goose Bay Quebec Lake Melville

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