'Shocked, confused, hurt': B.C. village seeks answers as political star charged with sexual assault of minors

The small village of Burns Lake in northwest B.C. is grappling with news their former mayor has been charged with 24 counts of sex-related crimes, including offences related to people under the age of sixteen.

Once the youngest mayor in B.C. history, Luke Strimbold faces 24 charges stemming back to his time in office

Luke Strimbold, former mayor of Burns Lake, B.C., stands with former B.C. premier Christy Clark in this photo taken in February 2013 at a ceremony honouring Queen's Diamond Jubilee Medal winners. (Province of B.C./Flickr)

The small village of Burns Lake in northwest B.C. is grappling with news their former mayor has been charged with 24 counts of sex-related crimes, including offences related to people under the age of 16.

The charges date back to 2015 and 2016, the year Luke Strimbold suddenly resigned after being re-elected for a second mandate.

"I think the best word that I can use to describe it is shocked, confused, hurt," said Joni Conlon, a mother and social worker with Carrier Sekani Family Services in Burns Lake.

"It's really shaken the whole community."

'As parents, we want to be able to send our kids out into the community and know they're safe,' said Joni Conlon, a social worker in Burns Lake. (Glen Kugelstadt/CBC)

A rising star

Born and raised in the village of fewer than 2,000 people, Strimbold was a rising star in B.C. politics.

In 2011, at the age of 21, he was elected mayor. He was the youngest person in B.C. history to achieve the office, and second-youngest in the country.

His profile was raised higher months later when, in January 2012, the Lake Babine sawmill in the community exploded, killing two and injuring 19 others.

Luke Strimbold was mayor of Burns Lake from 2011 until he resigned in 2016. He was the youngest mayor in B.C. history and second-youngest in Canadian history. (Village of Burns Lake)

In 2013 he was awarded the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Medal for his service to the community. And when BC Business magazine put together its inaugural "Top 30 Under 30" list in 2014, Strimbold came in 20th position.

That same year he was re-elected, but resigned in September 2016, citing a desire to focus on education and business opportunities, as well as family.

He became chair of the local chamber of commerce, and was sitting as a member of the B.C. Liberal Party's executive board until news of his arrest was revealed Friday. A spokesperson said the party had no prior knowledge of Strimbold's arrest.

'Why did it take a month for this to come out?'

Nor did Chief Wilf Adam of the Lake Babine First Nation, who worked closely with Strimbold after the mill explosion.

Speaking Sunday, Adam said he was "still angry" that Strimbold had been arrested and released on Feb. 3, but it wasn't until March 2 news became public through reports from CBC.

Chief Wilf Adam of the Lake Babine First Nation said he's angry about the allegations against a man he trusted, and the length of time it took for the charges to be made public. (Glen Kugelstadt/CBC)

"There was rumours about it, people were asking me a couple weeks prior [to Friday]," he said, adding that he made inquires to local officials but, "there was nothing … until Friday when it blew up."

"Why did it take a month for this to come out?" he asked. "Why did it take so long?"

RCMP have not provided a response to an inquiry from CBC asking about the delay.

Charges not proven

The current mayor of Burns Lake declined to comment until after meeting with the rest of council.

Members of the B.C. Liberals also remained quiet, save for a brief email stating Strimbold had resigned from the party on Friday.

One person close to Strimbold who did speak out was Karen Ogen-Toews, who worked closely with him when she was chief of the Wet'suwet''n First Nation.

According to Statistics Canada, Burns Lake and the surrounding area is home to 1,932 people, 900 of whom identify as Indigenous. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

She said her heart was with any potential victims, while remembering the charges have not been proven in court.

"Healing must take place. It must be promoted through all levels of government," Ogen-Toews said.

Counsellors coming to community

Adam also said he is focused on helping anyone who may have been victimized.

Meetings were held over the weekend to bring in counsellors and support workers for youth and community members.

Adam said the news is especially traumatic given the community's history with the nearby Lejac Residential School, which remained open until 1996.

Children line up outside Lejac Residential School circa 1907-1951. (National Centre for Truth and Reconcilation)

Stories of the school come up often, including during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report of 2015 and the current National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

Based on those stories, Adam said he knows how important it is to provide support to anyone who needs it.

"I've been in this business 40 years, and a lot of people keep things inside," Adam said.

"Hopefully they find a way to understand that we are here to help them."


With files from Angela Sterritt

About the Author

Andrew Kurjata

@akurjata

Andrew Kurjata is a radio producer and digital journalist in northern British Columbia, situated in the traditional territory of the Lheidli T'enneh in Prince George.