On Jan. 13, Barry Shantz was shot and killed by police during an altercation at a Lytton-area home, two hours southwest of Kamloops. The following is a profile of the Barry Shantz people in Abbotsford knew, before he and his wife moved to the Fraser Canyon.
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 with an RCMP emergency response team ensued. Shantz reportedly told a 911 operator he was going to walk out of his property and toward police with a shotgun. He asked to be shot.
The standoff ended at 2 p.m. with Shantz being shot six times on his front porch.
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.
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 American 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 confinement 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 find “just to keep himself sane.”
He helped other prisoners access medication, gave legal advice and helped file lawsuits, grievances and freedom of information requests.
During his time behind bars, Shantz met his lawyer, Abbotsford’s John Conroy. His close association with Conroy eventually put him on his activist path.
Conroy had lobbied throughout his career for Canadian prisoners in the U.S. to be transferred back to their home country, where he believes rehabilitation is 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 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.”
Shantz 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 them [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 collected from 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.”
Shantz led a month-long protest over the city’s attempt to dismantle a 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. 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. In B.C. Supreme Court, they successfully challenged, on human-rights grounds, Abbotsford’s bylaws that restricted people from camping overnight in parks. 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.
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.
“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,” Conroy said.
“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.
Gross said hearing about the manner of Shantz’s death hit him like “a sucker punch,” adding 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.”