It never occurred to Francine Girouard that the two men wearing balaclavas who walked into her video store were trouble.
It was January.
It was Whitehorse.
It was 4 o’clock in the afternoon.
But the two men were trouble, and she knew it as soon as they walked past the last row of videos and headed straight for the counter she was standing behind.
And as she saw the knives and found herself being pushed to the ground, she knew she was in a whole lot of trouble.
“Then he put the knife to my throat,” Girouard said in an interview Tuesday with reporters in her store. “Then he said, ‘Don’t you dare move. The other guy at the cash has a gun at your head and if you move, he is going to blow your brains out,’ ” remembers the owner of Centennial Video in Porter Creek who was alone at the time of the robbery.
After months of court dates, therapy and statements, Girouard was forced to relive the Jan. 13th robbery last week when one her attackers won the right to have his sentence handed down by a traditional circle court.
Eighteen-year-old Jason Paquette, who admitted in court statements that he robbed the store to get a rush, was sentenced to a six-month conditional sentence last Friday during his circle at the Kwanlin Dun First Nation’s Nakwade Ku Potlatch House.
“I was scared for my life, that’s for sure. But it was like, ‘Don’t move, don’t fight, don’t do anything, this will save your life,’ ” she said.
“I felt strongly enough that I was going to get hurt that I thought, ‘Now should I fight or just let him do it to me? Or should I just get up and do something and at least go fighting?’ That was the feeling I had at the time.”
Now, Girouard says she is ready to fight. Not just the demons that have haunted her since the robbery, but a system she says has left her feeling like a victim all over again.
Angry at the judge running the circle who, she says, didn’t give her time to address Paquette during the sentencing phase last Friday, she wants the public to know that she wasn’t in favor of the circle like it has been reported.
“I had no choice. I had to go where I had to go. If it had been in court, I would have been to every court appearance.”
She says she was used to promote the circle and her real needs were ignored.
“My attitude has changed toward the whole thing and it is not towards the circle. Judge (Barry) Stuart let me down. It is not the circle that let me down ....
The victim came – the victim must be OK with this.”
She charges that with the circle running late last Friday evening, Stuart rushed to end it – even though he knew she had a 14-page letter she wanted to read.
“I have nothing against the circle whatsoever. The people at Kwanlin Dun justice, all the supporters, anyone involved in the circle are very dedicated, sincere people. They have a good plan, they want to do good work. But it all comes down to the accused.”
And Girouard doubts Paquette’s sincerity.
Although she hasn’t read the letter of apology the 18-year-old wrote soon after his arrest, she has been told it says he robbed her on impulse.
“Well, excuse me. They walk into the store. They lock both doors so no one can come in. They have balaclavas on. They both have knives. They have a getaway car in the alley. I don’t think there is anything impulsive about a robbery like that.”
And there is nothing impulsive about a con man, and Girouard is worried she was robbed by one.
“Once a con, always a con,” she says. “I think he used the circle ... to not to have to go back to jail.”
Paquette has spent the last six months in remand custody – a more difficult way of life then if he were to live in the regular jail population. It is normal for judges to consider one day of remand as two in the regular population, thus Stuart ruled Paquette had spent enough time in jail and should serve the rest of his time in his community.
Paquette spent the week prior to his sentence at a traditional healing camp called Don’t Fence Me In. It was there he designed his own punishment and spent hours talking with family and supporters.
On top of his six-month sentence, Paquette will be on probation for two years, pay back Girouard and regularly attend counselling sessions.
Stuart’s assurance that Paquette will have to answer to more than himself doesn’t hold up, says the victim.
“If he is not sincere, it is not going to make any difference if he decided to use the system.
“I really hope that I’m wrong. But if I’m not wrong and this man doesn’t get professional help, real, real quick, I don’t care what kind of conditions they put on his sentence, he is going to hurt someone.”
It is that worry, plus the post-traumatic stress disorder her therapist says she is suffering from, that is now running her life.
“I’m angry. I am really pissed off. I have always been independent and in control of my life. I’ve had a lot of bad things happen to me in my 47 years and I’ve always been able to control all of it – deal with it when I was ready.
“This is what is making me so angry. Something like this you have no control over.”
Girouard says she also has no control over being suspicious of every man who walks into her store, especially if he is wearing a motorcycle helmet or
concealing his identity.
“I would never, never have thought sunglasses would have bothered me. But especially the real dark ones where you can’t see their eyes.
“It is very unfair to the young men who come in here because I suspect every one of them. And there are a lot of very nice young men who come into the store.”
She is angry her independent and strong personality has been eroded.
Now, she keeps a baseball bat and bear spray behind the counter, has installed surveillance cameras in the store and, with night returning to the territory, she’ll once again be carrying a hammer with her to the car.
“I’m always scared. I don’t trust anyone. I don’t trust myself,” she says.
After the robbery, her face broke out in a rash and she started having nightmares. She still dreams someone is attacking her while friends and family stand around and do nothing.
For months after the attack, even her mother dreamt Girouard was being killed.
Simply, says the victim, “I want my life back.”
Getting back the money Paquette and his two accomplices stole is not the most important issue, insists Girouard, who had owned the business only a month before the robbery.
“What about my fears? Everything I’ve had to go through. My emotions. Everything I put my husband through. My family, my friends, my customers.
“I have had customers, three or four weeks after the robbery, who said, ‘We stayed away from the store because we didn’t know how to approach you.’
“What about that? That’s all money. And money is not the issue here ... there is a lot more to this than money.
“How long is this going to affect me? How long am I going to doubt these young men who come into my store?
“It’s been seven months of hell trying to go through this. Trying to cope with that. All my emotions. My fears. And also trying to run a brand new business. It hasn’t been easy.”
Girouard says she would have been happier if the sentencing portion of the circle had been conducted on her turf.
“I would have been more than willing to have the circle held in my store where the crime happened ... then it would have been on my grounds. See how comfortable he would have been being in my store ... instead of being where he was where he had total support.”
This suggestion and others are what Girouard plans on taking to the Kwanlin Dun justice committee. They have asked for her opinion, and on Thursday, she will sit down and give it to them.
“I know I can’t change what the judge said what these guys are going to get for sentences. I just want my life back and I’m not going to quit.
“I’m involved right until the end. I don’t care how many people want to talk to me.
“I’ll be damned if these punks are going to take this away from me. They are not going to take my life away.”
By Kathleen Goldhar, Star Reporter