Our January 2011 feature, “Dustin’s Town,” has been seven years in the making, ever since author Erin Millar decided in 2004 to cover the tragic story of Dustin Paul, a convicted killer she once went to school with in Penticton, B.C.
Since its publication a lot of readers have written into Reader’s Digest expressing their opinion on the story. Some felt it was an unfair comparison between the City of Penticton and the Penticton Indian Band, while others lauded it as a close-up look at the damage poverty can do to a community. We’ve published some of your thoughts here, below, and we sat down with Millar to learn more about the story behind the story.
What first inspired you to cover this story, and pursue it?
I’ve wanted to write about Dustin Paul since 2004, when news of the murders of Damien Endreny, Robin Baptiste and Dustin’s cousin, Quincy Paul, came out. When I heard about the shooting, I was shocked. I couldn’t imagine how such violence could occur in my hometown, which seemed like such a safe suburban city to me. I wanted to try to understand what would lead someone to such a horrific act.
I found that the media coverage of the murders didn’t provide any of the answers I was looking for. A few short news articles were the only coverage, and they all described the situation as being the act of a deeply troubled man under the influence of alcohol and drugs. I strongly felt that there must be more to the story.
I proposed this article to many publications before Reader’s Digest agreed to give me a chance to investigate.
What were some of the challenges you faced in reporting it?
My biggest challenge was trying to describe what led Dustin to his crime, without minimizing his actions. Some people suggested that I was disrespecting the victims and their families by trying to understand why Dustin felt so hopeless. However, I strongly believe that investigating the roots of this crime has led to a better understanding of the hardship facing him and people in similar situations.
The other major challenge was gaining the trust of people who knew Dustin and the victims. Many of those who live on the Penticton Indian Reserve are, understandably, wary of a non-Aboriginal journalist writing about the reserve. So it was difficult to convince people to talk to me, and that made it challenging to represent their perspective.
You lived in Penticton in the 1990s, experiencing a lot of the differences and similarities between the communities on either side of the river. Tell us a little more about the side of the river you grew up on.
Many readers have pointed out that my portrayal of Penticton as an idyllic, lakeside city is naïve. I wish I could have had the space to present a more nuanced depiction of the city.
For me, it was very much as I described: well-tended bungalows, music lessons, beach parties. But that’s not to suggest that Penticton doesn’t struggle with its own problems. There is, of course, substance abuse in that community as well. These struggles have affected my own family.
However, acknowledging that Penticton has problems, too, doesn’t mean that they are comparable to those affecting the reserve. The rates of substance abuse, domestic violence and students dropping out of high school are significantly higher on the reserve. This is important to identify if we ever hope to address those challenges.
Aside from where you grew up, were there personal reasons why you pursued Dustin’s story?
I’ve been told by many people who disagree with my decision to pursue this story that I had no right to write this story because I didn’t know the community intimately. I spent a year researching the story. I spoke to many people who live there. I knew many people involved, both the Pauls and the victim’s families. My sister was a friend of one of the victims. I honestly tried to understand the community as best I could.
Surely someone who grew up on the reserve would have a better understanding of the issues facing people there. But I find it troubling that there are so few Aboriginal journalists reporting on these issues. The real question at the heart of this debate is: How can young Aboriginal people interested in journalism be supported so they can tell their own stories?
If there was anything about the Penticton Indian Band you’d had the time and space to include in the piece, what would it be?
Many readers have fixated on the negative aspects of the reserve that I reported. I intended my article to be a story of a community healing and growing together. So I wish I could have had more space to describe all of the positive developments I encountered there. I would also have liked to include many more members of the community who have worked so hard to address the problems.
Letters from Our Readers
I have read your article, the responses to the article and your response back. I am a member of the Okanagan Nation, a mother, grandmother, sister, auntie, cousin and friend.
The first thing that comes to my mind, is why? Why write about such a sad time? Who is going to directly benefit from this writing?
Secondly, did you talk to all the parties and families involved?
Third, all of the people involved in this sad incident have children. What impact is this writing going to have on them? My concern lies with the children, the ones who have no voice, no ability or rights to say, “Enough is enough.”
All we can do now is move forward with our heads held high and grieve and make efforts towards healing. Rubbing salt in an open wound is not helping.
Let it go. Let the healing continue. Let the families and communities continue their healing. It is our way.
–Rose Caldwell, Okanagan Nation
Your portrayal of our community as being drug-ridden, dysfunctional and militant was inaccurate in that you painted the entire community as being that, disregarding the growth of sobriety and wellness that we are very proud of. The militancy of this community is something you cannot hope to understand, as you have never been in a position to have to fight for your very existence and the theft of your lands.
Our entire community, elder and youth groups, tribal police, administration and leadership was painted as those who stood by and did nothing until Jonathan Kruger showed up.
In the image you created of our community in your article, you completely disregard the many members who have left their homes to obtain law degrees, social work degrees, accounting degrees, nursing degrees and more, who then returned to our community. We have returned to our reserve because our life, the lives of our ancestors and the lives of our children are here, not because we are too “dysfunctional” to get out.
–Laurie Wilson, Penticton Indian Band
Yes there are a few houses that are like the ones you describe, but the majority of them are quite clean kept, with well-maintained yards. If you were to venture up Westhills subdivision, you would see a different lifestyle than you describe.
As for the drugs and alcohol you speak of as being so rampant on the reserve, you need to look no further than the neighbourhood you live in. Drug and alcohol abuse is a common problem we all share, no matter what part of town you live in. I have spent many years in Penticton and on the reserve, and have had a chance to get to know the families quite well. I consider them a part of my family, as do they of me.
As for that night, it was a series of unfortunate events that lead to the incident, and it was a very sad day for everyone. I encourage anyone who reads this article to also look into the Penticton Indian Band and the major developments and projects that have been occurring there.
–Dion Rosser, Kamloops, B.C.
I am a proud member of the Penticton Indian Band and have lived here all my life. I am also a 24-year employee of the band and I have witnessed years of positive change in our community, which completely contradicts the claims made in “Dustin’s Town.”
Our governing system is based on hard work and commitment from the entire band council, not just the band chief.
Our community, and more importantly, the families, continue to struggle in dealing with this tragic event. You have portrayed the Penticton Indian Band as being in complete financial distress, a community with no housing or proper infrastructure and sanitation, and most insulting, dysfunctional.
–Greg Gabriel, Penticton, B.C.
Our community is healing and resentment has subsided between families, but articles like this bring all those past emotions and grief into our community again.
Those who live “across the river” have never experienced how we come together to have dinners and celebrations, to grieve and experience death. We may have different last names and families but, as a community, we are not poor, because we have each other.
–Lesley Gabriel, Penticton, B.C.
This is a fantastic article: a nuanced look at the damage caused by poverty in one B.C. community. And it’s also an optimistic piece about the Penticton Indian Band; I’m heartened to read about improved relations with area police and new business ventures on the reserve. I look forward to hearing more about the band in years to come.
–Nancy Macdonald, Vancouver
Although it was sad to read “Dustin’s Town,” I am glad the new chief, Jonathan Kruger, is trying to make the reserve a better and happier place. I have relatives in Penticton and have been there myself several times. It is a beautiful area, with beautiful people. Thanks for a story that needed to be told.
–Philip McLean, Halifax