Barry Shantz in 2015 in front of a homeless camp at Gladys Avenue and Cyril Street. Abbotsford News file photo.

Fraser Valley homeless advocate killed by RCMP leaves behind complicated legacy

Barry Shantz was shot by Lytton police officers after six-hour standoff on Jan. 13

Ask any two people in Abbotsford about Barry Shantz, and you’ll likely get vastly different answers. Even those closest to him acknowledge he was a complicated figure.

By all accounts, Shantz was a confrontational man with a temper, severe PTSD and methods for fighting for the rights of the city’s homeless that could be called into question. At the same time, no one questioned his passion for that fight.

“People who were homeless in Abbotsford felt like they had a lightning rod who was going to take the hits for them,” said Brian Gross, a friend of Shantz and the executive director of the Matsqui-Abbotsford Impact Society. “People felt safe because Barry was willing to put himself out there and say the difficult things for them and it wouldn’t fall back on them.

“And it did fall a great deal on him .. It did take a toll.”

Shantz was killed by Lytton RCMP officers after they were called to his home on Jan. 13. The call was placed by his wife, Janet, who reportedly said he might have been suicidal and had a gun.

Janet and her 19-year-old daughter were able to leave the property before a six-hour standoff ensued with an RCMP emergency response team. Shantz reportedly told a 911 operator that he was going to walk out of his property and towards police with a shotgun. He requested to be shot.

The standoff ended at 2 p.m. with Shantz being shot six times on his front porch.

RELATED: Abbotsford homeless advocate killed by RCMP in Lytton

Shantz co-founded the advocacy group Drug War Survivors. He and his group were instrumental in getting the City of Abbotsford to change its bylaws prohibiting the homeless from camping overnight in public parks. A court battle – with Shantz and the Drug War Survivors on one side and the city on the other – resulted in a 2015 B.C. Supreme Court ruling that set precedents for the rights of the homeless. Shantz’s often-angry voice also contributed to the reversal of the city’s policy to restrict harm-reduction services from being distributed in Abbotsford.

From convict to activist

Shantz’s journey as an advocate for the marginalized began shortly after his release from prison.

He had been sentenced in 1994 to 15 years in prison after being convicted of money laundering and possessing hashish with the intent to distribute.

Several others were also charged, and U.S. police at the time said it was the biggest hash bust – 60,000 kilograms were seized – in U.S. history.

People who knew Shantz said his time in prison left him traumatized. At one point, he spent six months in solitary for organizing a work strike among prisoners. At another point, he watched a fellow inmate try to hang himself in his cell.

Gross said Shantz began reading every law book he could get find “just to keep himself sane.”

He would use legal knowledge to help other inmates press what limited rights they had. And he helped other prisoners access medication, gave legal advice and helped file lawsuits, grievances and freedom of information requests.

“Having something to do that had purpose helped him survive in the conditions that he was living in,” Gross said. “He learned to bury people with paperwork and go just as far as he could to assert his rights and make things move and make people respond. He learned a great deal of skills about how to keep issues going, even when the system tried to shut them down.”

During his time inside, Shantz met his lawyer, Abbotsford’s John Conroy. His close association with Conroy eventually put him on his activist path.

“I know that he really loved and respected Mr. Conroy a great deal,” said Jesse Wegenast, a pastor at Abbotsford’s 5 and 2 Ministries. “Barry would often talk about how he really learned about the issues through Mr. Conroy. Once that spark really lit something in him, he really just took it and ran with it.”

Conroy had lobbied throughout his career for Canadian prisoners in the U.S. to be transferred back to their home country, where he believed rehabilitation would be more successful. Over a 10-year period, Shantz helped write a report on the international treaty transfer program while Conroy chaired a Canadian Bar Association committee on imprisonment and release.

Although he never obtained his sought-after transfer, Shantz was eventually deported back to Canada in November 2004. He had spent 13 years, two months and 11 days in almost a dozen different U.S. prisons.

Conroy said he promptly hired Shantz upon his release to do maintenance jobs around his law office when “he didn’t have two nickels to rub together.”

The office was located near Jubilee Park in downtown Abbotsford, an area surrounded by homelessness and drug addiction – issues that would come to define the final chapter of Shantz’s life.

“Meeting those people, talking to them, interacting with the various groups trying to help people and hearing their stories – I think that, in particular, really moved him,” Conroy said. “He was often the guy who was prepared to take the people to the hospital.”

He used empathy over confrontation when dealing with people on the streets. For public officials, it was a different story.

A confrontational man

The unyielding manner in which Shantz lobbied for policy change often alienated other people.

“He pushed himself right down their throats. He made [people] hate him so they would notice what was going on,” said Gordon Wallace Harrod, a friend and member of the Drug War Survivors’ peer network. “It spurred a lot of people into action.”

One example of Shantz’s tactics could be seen in the fight against a city bylaws restricting harm-reductions services. The bylaw prevented the Fraser Health Authority from opening safe-injection sites, needle exchanges and methadone clinics in Abbotsford.

Shantz and a group of members of the Drug War Survivors walked into city hall holding makeshift containers with thousands of used needles they had picked up off the streets. The group marched to the bylaw enforcement office – followed by police officers – and placed the collection on a clerk’s desk before rhetorically asking where they should go.

That type of confrontational action was typical for Shantz. He had a reputation for yelling at officials, sending accusatory emails en masse and disrupting public meetings.

Gross said he first met Shantz in 2009 because Shantz would attend every public meeting on social development, mental health, substance abuse and homelessness.

“He had a problem with the criminalizing of substance abuse, taking people who have already been ground down and grinding them up some more,” Gross said. “Some people would become frustrated with him because he was always talking about the root causes.”

Shantz thought political incrementalism was killing the people who could least afford to wait, according to Gross.

“He was impatient because his friends were dying … He was trying to be a witness, in most cases, for inaction or ineffective action,” Gross said. “So many of the people that were around when I first met Barry are dead now.”

Wegenast said Shantz was a man of great intensity on a mission.

“When people [at these public meetings] would push back, he would say, ‘It’s not my job. I’m not getting paid to do this. You are! And I am going to sit here and be a witness to observe to your futility,’” Wegenast said. “That was his approach – challenging people. He was a confrontational man and he was existing in a world that has a hard time with confrontation.”

Barry Shantz at a press conference in 2013 announcing a human rights complaint against the city and police. Abbotsford News file photo.

Shantz led a month-long protest over the city’s attempt to dismantle the homeless camp in Jubilee Park in 2013. Wegenast said Shantz’s tendency for confrontation could escalate already-tense situations.

“There were some pretty intense standoffs around some of the protest camps. Some people were put in really risky situations by Barry’s initiatives,” Wegenast said. “With Barry, everything was turned up to an 11. Everything.

RELATED: Drug War survivors extend stay in Jubilee Park

“That’s part of his legacy as well.”

Shantz and the Drug War Survivors eventually found themselves in an alliance with Archway Community Services, Positive Living, 5 and 2 Ministries, Welfare for Women’s Resource Society and Pivot Legal Society. They successfully challenged in B.C. Supreme Court the city’s bylaws that restricted people from camping overnight in parks on human-rights grounds. Shantz and the Drug War Survivors were the lead plaintiffs.

The case is still cited in a range of legal matters, from the rights of homeless people to the rights of the imprisoned.

RELATED: Ruling shines spotlight on homeless

Reactions to his death

Those who knew Shantz expressed heartbreak over his death, and called for a proper inquiry into the circumstances around the RCMP’s lethal use of force.

“Shocking is the wrong word. It was deeply, deeply saddening,” Wegenast said. “I can’t pretend to have insight into what happened in the moment. But the bar is pretty high for officers to use lethal force.”

Shantz was open about his struggles with mental health and PTSD, according to Conroy. He said Shantz had sought medical help, but was struggling to find a personal doctor.

“For a guy who had some bad history in the past … [who] came back and was doing good stuff – he had problems and issues but he was trying to do good work,” Conroy said. “It’s a very sad and unfortunate thing for things to end like this.

“I’m wondering what he did when he was on the porch. What caused the officers to shoot? It seems obvious that they knew he had mental-health issues.”

The Lytton RCMP’s actions in using deadly force are being investigated by the province’s police watchdog, the Independent Investigations Office.

Shantz had moved from Abbotsford to Lytton shortly after the victory in B.C. Supreme Court.

“Life was kind of pulling him up there… He needed, I think, some tranquility,” Wegenast said. “He had a girlfriend up there, a little triangle lot. And he loved it up there.”

Gross said hearing about the manner of Shantz’s death hit him like “a sucker punch,” but he could see how something like that could happen.

“If I were to think of everyone that I know that would most likely die from being shot by the RCMP, he would be higher on that list than most people,” Gross said. “But I also don’t want him to be remembered for that.

“Barry was really pushing for the people that he knew, cared about, loved, and that gave him a purpose in life… I don’t know many people who hadn’t walked out of a meeting on him. I walked out on one, but now I’m not sure I should have.”


@portmoodypigeon
patrick.penner@abbynews.com

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