A few facts are indisputable: Peter DeGroot disappeared into the woods surrounding Slocan on October 9 after an altercation was called in to the RCMP. This occurred between the hours of 12:00 p.m. and 1:00 p.m. After the police responded, at least one shot was fired and the window of the police car was damaged. A manhunt ensued. The village was locked down with police presence; inhabitants were warned to stay indoors and all traffic coming in or going out was stopped and inspected before being allowed to proceed. By Saturday, things were getting back to normal in Slocan and the RCMP changed their position to appeal to DeGroot. By Sunday, DeGroot was dead. I think everyone can agree on this much.
By initial mainstream media accounts, Peter DeGroot was an anti-authoritarian with a military background who abused his farm animals, engaged in a “shoot-out with police,” and then fled into the woods, creating a standoff with authority. He was to be considered armed and dangerous. The only photo published of him was unflattering, starkly-lit and reminiscent of a mugshot. This created an overall negative image of the reclusive man. Schools and businesses were closed, residents were told to stay inside, plenty of extra police presence was ordered and the media vehicles began to show up. A helicopter began patrolling overhead and the sleepy village of Slocan became a war zone, looking more like a Hollywood set than a quiet valley town on the river.
And then Andrea Bell spoke up. A Nelson resident, she had been reading the news reports about this event in Slocan but when his name was revealed, she was horrified to learn it was someone she and her partner knew quite well. Andrea took to social media and created a Facebook post describing him in a different manner than what the conventional media had been. She admitted he wasn’t “soft and fluffy either.” Many people seconded her opinion. Those who knew DeGroot personally used words like, “very soft spoken, kind person,” “nothing if not intelligent,” “Peter is an amazing man, and obviously misunderstood by the ‘majority’” and “I know this man and he has always acted fairly towards me and my kin.” These unsolicited opinions certainly give one food for thought, if only to lend some dimension to the demonization of a character who became notorious overnight in the media, not having been able to speak for himself.
Why wasn’t the mainstream media speaking to this man’s family? Comments on the CBC webpage from a person claiming to be a cousin suggest DeGroot was the oldest of seven children and got top marks all through school, and that he had suffered from a brain aneurism. He had a story.
I contacted a few of the folks who wrote comments hoping to get an interview. I got an invitation to call Tracy Cameron, someone who knew him when he lived in Nelson. They met many years ago when she saw him knitting outside a coffee shop. Upon learning that the previously-unnamed subject of the manhunt was DeGroot, she immediately went to her local RCMP and gave a statement about his character. When speaking with me, she agreed he was a little different, but was not dangerous. She also stated that he had never been in the military, and she gave me some insight into DeGroot’s background; he was educated, came from a big loving family and had suffered a brain aneurism. His mother had nursed him back to health with a raw diet, which he still followed afterwards.
Words are powerful weapons, and it’s the media’s responsibility to not only tell the story but to also make it compelling. Embellishing and using dramatic angles gives television and radio media great sound bites, creates a buzz and attracts viewers or listeners. After all, without an audience there is no advertising and without ads, there is no money. Money is required to staff news coverage. I think we all get that.
As a new member of the media, I find it a very thin line to walk. On one hand, I want to create interesting stories and use vibrant language to attract and engage my readers. On the other hand, I have a very innate sense of fairness and equality. Things need to be true in order to print them, don’t they? At least I thought so. It bothers me greatly that mainstream, big media hasn’t bothered to research the other side of Peter De0Groot; no one is reporting that this man was reclusive, quiet, intelligent and a pacifist. Nowhere do reporters mention possible mental health issues or exactly what set this off. Was it an an argument, an eviction, something to do with the way he kept his animals, or lack of a federally regulated butcher?
Investigative journalism, at least in my opinion, should involve investigation: facts from both sides of the story, not just the RCMP as in this case.