Meet the Yellowknife mall cop with the heart of a social worker

Heather Dale spends her days patrolling Centre Square Mall in downtown Yellowknife, which doubles as a refuge for many homeless and marginalized people looking for warmth and safety.

'She knows that we have to stay warm, and lets us hang around here, and I appreciate that'

Shirley Modeste, right, says Heather Dale, a security guard at Yellowknife's Centre Square Mall, left, occasionally asks her to leave the mall for being drunk, but says she understands. 'She's my mall cop, she's a good woman, and she's doing a good job.' (Rachel Zelniker/CBC)

Heather Dale's work day is "never easy."

She spends her days patrolling Yellowknife's Centre Square Mall, a downtown shopping plaza that doubles as a refuge for many homeless and marginalized people looking for warmth and safety.

"I actually got offered the job because I have some experience working with the RCMP and I'm also one away from black belt," says Dale with a laugh.

But those are not the skills Dale relies on when she's walking the halls.

"I mostly visit with people, and develop relationships with them, as in finding out their names, and finding out the conditions of their lives."

Much of her day she plays the role of an outreach worker — something more and more people are calling for in gathering places exactly like her workplace.

"Every day I wipe the slate clean. You know people may have been intoxicated or high, but the next day is a clean slate."

Dale has some martial arts training, but says those are not the skills she relies on when she's walking the halls of the mall. (Rachel Zelniker/CBC)

'She's always nice to us'

Dale is well known in the mall for her compassionate nature, getting waves and smiles nearly everywhere she goes.

"She's always nice to people. I"m a homeless person myself, and she's always nice to us and always helps people," says Robert Desjarlais.

"She knows that we have to stay warm, and lets us hang around here, and I appreciate that," he added

Dale says she's not doing anything out of the ordinary.

"I just feel like there's goodness in everybody... and you just need to have somebody say 'it's OK, you can do it.'

"That's something people in general do not get very often."

'I don't put up with swearing'

While Dale says treating people with kindness is a priority, she acknowledges that there are times when she needs to be firm.

"They do have protocols here... if you're drunk, you do need to leave the floor, but then come back tomorrow — no problem.

"Same thing with anger management. I don't put up with swearing. This is not a wrestling ring. No domestic disputes."

Lydia Bardak says Dale's kindness is an 'anomaly' in security guards. She wants to see the city provide qualified social and mental health workers. (CBC)

But Dale never lets aggression seep into the way she deals with people who are agitated or disruptive.

"Sometimes I'll put my hand on their shoulder, and I'll get them to look at me, and I'll say 'look, it's Heather,' and then they'll come down… and I'll walk them out.

"The next day they'll come back, and they'll either have heard what they did, or recall what they did, and they're very humble, and they'll say 'I'm sorry.'"

Dale says those are apologies she always accepts.

"I will say 'it's the drink,' or 'it's the drugs.'

"'It's what was in you, it's not you, and I understand.'"

Shirley Modeste has found herself in that situation, but says Dale never loses her cool and is always respectful.

"If we're rowdy, she kicks us out, but she has a reason, and I back her up.

"She's my mall cop, she's a good woman, and she's doing a good job."

Dale an 'anomaly,' says justice worker 

Lydia Bardak, the director of the John Howard Society, walks through the mall several times a day and says security guards like Dale are "an anomaly."

"I've seen some who are very abrupt, even very quick to use physical force to move somebody along," she says. 

Bardak says she's incredibly grateful for people like Dale, but adds that the demand on many security guards in Yellowknife is too high.

She wants to see the mall owners and the City of Yellowknife spend less on security and municipal enforcement, and invest more money in qualified outreach workers.

"They could hire a social worker or a mental health worker, who could then work with Aurora College students. We could come up with a much more creative solution that would put better skills where needed.

"Security is kind of good when you want someone patrolling at night to make sure there hasn't been a broken window or door forced open, but to have that day to day interaction with people who are multiply challenged, that is asking a lot of them and it's probably not the right solution."