FOCUS: How Julie Paskall’s death ‘galvanized’ an embattled Surrey community

NEWTON — It was 17 months after hockey mom Julie Paskall lost her life that her killer was sentenced to prison for more than a decade.

Now 28, Yosef Jomo Gopaul was 26 when he threw a rock at her head, knocking her face first into the pavement. He had been wandering around Newton area for a few hours looking for someone to rob. He stumbled upon Paskall as she stepped out of her minivan at the Newton Arena.

She was to pick up her son from hockey that night, but she wouldn’t make it to the door. He didn’t intend to kill her, Gopaul told police, just to knock her out to steal her purse. But her heart stopped. And although she was resuscitated at the hospital, she was taken off life support two days later – Dec. 31, 2013 – after being declared brain dead.

All he got away with was a few dollars and some lottery tickets.

The crime rocked the whole city, sparking public outcry, rallies, an increase in police and an undercover investigation that ultimately led to Gopaul’s arrest and conviction.

Doug Elford with the Newton Community Association said he was angry when he heard Gopaul received a 12-year sentence for killing Paskall and robbing another woman two weeks earlier.

"I felt the punishment didn’t fit the crime," he said, adding the sentence stirred up emotions for many in the community.

"It opened some wounds we thought were healing. The community was a little bit shaken… Hopefully it puts closure to all this."

Elford said the tragedy "ignited" the community.

"It kind of fostered a level of community activism that I haven’t seen in a long time," he continued. "It galvanized the community. We’re stronger now, we’re demanding more for our community and we’re not going to let up. That was kind of like the last straw that broke the camel’s back."

He said it’s awful that is took the death of a mother to do so, but said the community is now "stronger" and "on the map."

Today, Elford said there is still a level of fear and anxiety in the community.

"At the end of the day, we want a livable safe community and we’re just not there yet. We just keep seeing setbacks. Why Newton?" he asked, referring to the community being Ground Zero for the 28 shootings in a span of 11 weeks.

The latest shooting happened Sunday night, right across the street from Elford’s home.

But where there’s darkness, there’s also light, he said.

"There’s some really good things happening," Elford noted. "We’ve seen the city make improvements. They’re listening to us now. We’re speaking to staff trying to get the town centre plan expedited. The BIA is up and running now… so the community is talking, communicating and organizing.

"But it’s not enough. When we say we want our community safe and livable, that’s all we ask for. It’s not there yet."

While Paskall’s death made politicians react, it also spurred grassroots community activism.

In April, 2014 – about four months after Paskall’s death – a handful of locals began to take ownership of the forested "grove" located just steps away from the attack that took her life.

Calling themselves "Friends of the Grove," they took back the space. From eyeballs on trees and a chessboard carved in a tree stump, to poetry readings and concerts, quirky activity has dominated the forest.

David Dalley sits in the "grove." (Photo: KEVIN HILL)

"It’s about taking a space that may be neglected or may be undervalued for its physical beauty or maybe it’s just avoided because it’s a place where dangerous things happen, and sort of reclaiming that as public space in a creative and positive way," explained community advocate David Dalley.

"With the people that are involved in it, it’s really changed lives," he said. "And that’s great. If that’s what we’ve accomplished then we’ve succeeded in a number of ways.

"I think it’s part of human nature, that it’s easier to talk about removing or taking things we don’t want, but it’s a much harder

conversation to talk about what we do what. We can all agree we need to reduce crime and poverty and homelessness, but what do we build up? What is it we’re actually aiming for?

"Those are the conversations that are happening in that space."

Dalley invites the community to come out to the grove on June 27, during the Surrey Doors Open Event.

"If you think Newton needs more compassion, then what can you bring to the grove that somehow manifests that or brings that? Maybe it’s a little paper heart you tape onto a tree. And if you envision something bigger, then great."

While spreading positivity and making change is the impetus of the initiative, Dalley says those involved understand the realities the community still faces.

"We’re not naïve. We absolutely know what’s going on and the severity of what we’re up against," he told the Now. "The degree of socialization and marginalization in our community… Those are big. But we’re hopeful."

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