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2 a.m. is most likely time to be killed in Winnipeg, but police will likely find the culprit, data shows

cbc.ca logo cbc.ca 2019-12-30 Jacques Marcoux, Caroline Barghout

It can be difficult to talk about Winnipeg's identity without also addressing its history of crime.

Over the years, statistics have repeatedly ranked the city among the most violent, especially when it comes to homicides. And over those same years, law enforcement and community groups have approached the problems in different ways, all with varying degrees of success … or failure.

In order to understand how the circumstances and the debate surrounding homicides in Winnipeg have evolved over the years, CBC News created a database containing details on every homicide since 2003.

Supported by additional records from Statistics Canada, we paint a picture going back to the early 1980s. While the 

Experts, advocates and retired police chiefs were invited to weigh in on the key drivers behind the violence that has cost the lives of nearly 900 Winnipeggers.

Winnipeg police investigate the scene of a homicide in 1987. © CBC News Winnipeg police investigate the scene of a homicide in 1987.

1980s: Knives and alcohol

Throughout the 1980s, a time when Winnipeg's population was still well shy of 600,000, there were just under 20 homicides a year on average.

However, in 1987, there was a sudden spike when 30 people were killed in an especially bloody year characterized by several knife attacks.

A headline in the Winnipeg Free Press at the time read "Winnipeg is city of long knives" — a reference to the violent purge of opponents of Adolph Hitler in 1934 Nazi Germany.

a pencil and paper

Then police Chief Herb Stephen had been very vocal about his desire for the provincial government to enact strict knife laws. He also insisted the province amend the Liquor Control Act (now called the the Liquor, Gaming and Cannabis Control Act) to prohibit knives of any kind in drinking establishments.

"Sure they'll get into fights. The anger will still be there. But if they can't reach for a knife, they'll do a lot less harm with their fists," Chief Stephen told the Winnipeg Free Press at the time.

In the end, a knife ban was never approved. Over the years, stabbings have continued to be the most common way people are killed in the city. In fact, over the past two decades, 36 per cent of homicides in Winnipeg were due to fatal knife attacks. 

At the time, police said alcohol played a role in many of the killings. Chief Stephen's intuition regarding the links between drinking establishments and violence was likely quite accurate.

Exact details on homicides from that era aren't readily available, but a review of the last 485 homicides shows that 2 a.m. is by far the most common hour of the day for homicides to occur; it's also when bars close and patrons spill onto the streets.

1990s: Tumbling crime rates, street gangs

Decades of rising crime rates in Canada peaked in the early 1990s. That was followed by a sharp and sustained drop in crime across the country.

However, at the same time, Winnipeg police began encountering an alarming trend in organized street gangs.

"When I became the chief, you know, the street gang issues started to emerge. It had been emerging for some time," said Jack Ewatski, who was Winnipeg's chief of police from 1998 to 2007.

"We certainly saw a growth of street gangs in the city as well as the growth of outlaw motorcycle gangs and the activities associated with them."

a man wearing glasses and smiling at the camera: In a 1987 interview with CBC News, then Winnipeg police chief Herb Stephen called for legislation to restrict knife access. © CBC News In a 1987 interview with CBC News, then Winnipeg police chief Herb Stephen called for legislation to restrict knife access.

Ewatski said along with gangs came an increase in firearm use, which escalated the severity of violence. However, he cautions people from using the most extreme events — homicides — as a benchmark for safety in the city.

"[Homicides] are often the symptom of another problem, another issue," said Ewatski.

Frank Cormier, a criminology professor at the University of Manitoba, agrees with the former chief.

"So with the spike in methamphetamine use we're currently seeing in Winnipeg, we would certainly expect to see more break and enters, more property crimes and also possibly more in-person robbery with homicides," he said.

"I have yet in my lifetime, my career as a criminologist, to see a true pattern in the fluctuation of homicides anywhere in Canada and certainly in Winnipeg, because there's a very complex chain of events that needs to occur for a homicide to be the end result."

When one looks at the trends for common crime indicators, it is clear that homicides don't appear to follow any specific pattern.

2000s: New high death toll, guns

About halfway through Ewatski's mandate as police chief, in 2004, homicide levels hit another all-time high: 34 deaths.

It was also a time when the city was faced with an unprecedented number of auto thefts, with about 17,000 stolen vehicles, before a provincewide immobilizer program was instituted

Members of the legislative assembly debated the issue on Broadway as well, including Progressive Conservative justice critic Gerald Hawranik.

"Crime has blossomed under this [NDP] government. There have been unprecedented levels of crime and that requires unprecedented levels of policing," he said during question period in December 2004 following the 33rd homicide of the year.

In response to mounting pressure for more police resources, then Justice Minister Gord Mackintosh announced funding for 40 additional police officers across the province.

a close up of a map

Strangely, this record year began after the longest homicide-free period over the past two decades. On average, since 2003, there has been a homicide incident every 14 days in Winnipeg. However, when the first murder occurred in 2004, police investigators had benefited from a 122-day reprieve.

Winnipeg police have historically solved homicides at an exceptionally high rate when compared to other major forces countrywide.

During the 2004 record year, Winnipeg homicide detectives solved every single case.

Since 2003 (and excluding 2019 homicides, which are mostly still active files), Winnipeg police have laid charges in 92 per cent of homicides.

In other major cities, clearance rates for homicides routinely hover below 70 per cent. For example, in 2018, Montreal police solved only 45 per cent of cases, while Calgary's solve rate was 65 per cent.

a man wearing a suit and tie: In response to 2004's record-breaking year for homicides, then Justice Minister Gord McIntosh funded 40 new police positions. In response to 2004's record-breaking year for homicides, then Justice Minister Gord McIntosh funded 40 new police positions.

Part of this high clearance rate can likely be explained by the fact that clearance rates are significantly higher for cases involving Indigenous victims, according to Statistics Canada.

In Winnipeg, where one of the largest urban Indigenous populations reside, homicide victims are disproportionately First Nations or Métis: seven out of every 10 homicide victims, despite representing only 12 per cent of the city's population, according to the latest census.

Ewatski believes the success of Winnipeg's homicide investigators is not only due to external factors, but also a historical commitment by the department to invest resources into this unit.

"I think it does speak to the ability of the officers and the support system they have in place to be able to have such a high clearance rate," he said.

2010s: biker gangs, colonialism

The early 2010s were marked by violent turf wars in the streets of Winnipeg between rival outlaw motorcycle gangs: the newly resurrected Rock Machine and the Hells Angels.

Businesses were firebombed and gun-related calls were on the rise, but these issues had been on the law enforcement radar for some time already.

This period also coincided with a significant rise in the militarization of the Winnipeg Police Service.

In 2008, a full-time dedicated SWAT team was established. Three years later, Air1, the first police helicopter, took to the skies. In 2015, the department purchased an armoured vehicle, and in 2016 it was announced that a number of general patrols would be equipped with semi-automatic carbine rifles.

A new level of violence was set in 2011, when 41 people were killed in the city, including a single incident in which a woman set a rooming house on fire, killing five people.

At the time, Devon Clunis was one year into his new job at the helm of the Winnipeg police. He said the prevalence of gun crimes would have been unheard of back when he was a constable.

"We would go months on end.… It would be an anomaly when a crime was committed in the city where a firearm was involved," Clunis said.

a truck is parked on the side of a road: A member of the tactical unit aims his gun at a home police surrounded. © Jeff Stapleton/CBC A member of the tactical unit aims his gun at a home police surrounded.

"I can honestly tell you the one time in my career where I had an individual with a loaded gun, he dropped it and he ran. That would not be the case today."

A review of the homicide locations dating back to 2003 shows that investigators spend most of their time concentrated in a few select areas. The downtown district, which represents only three per cent of Winnipeg's policing territory, is where 40 per cent of homicides have occurred.

The concentration of violence in the inner city isn't surprising, as this coincides with where the majority of the city's most marginalized and victimized residents live.

a man wearing a suit and tie: Devon Clunis, Winnipeg police chief from 2012 to 2016, says blaming specific issues for the rash of violence can have the unintended consequence of removing the community's power to act. © Tyson Koschik/CBC News Devon Clunis, Winnipeg police chief from 2012 to 2016, says blaming specific issues for the rash of violence can have the unintended consequence of removing the community's power to act.

The year 2014 was a watershed moment, as much of the focus on violence and systemic issues plaguing Indigenous communities came to the fore with the discovery of Tina Fontaine's body in the Red River.

This shocking event helped elevate missing and murdered Indigenous women as a federal election issue in 2015.

"I think the greater public finally started to feel the same feelings that many Indigenous women and girls affected by MMIW felt all those years," said Sheila North, former Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak grand chief and Indigenous advocate.

"It raised a level of consciousness that this actually happened. It was good for the community and the city to see it and feel it, because they needed to," she said.

Youth and trauma

In terms of sheer numbers, by far the most common victim demographic in the city is young Indigenous men, who make up more than 50 per cent of all homicide victims since 2014, the earliest year for which racial breakdowns are available in official crime figures.

Overall, those who commit homicides are overwhelmingly men under 30.

North said a legacy of residential schools and an over-representation of Indigenous children in Child and Family Services have caused many young men to grow up in trauma-based households gripped by poverty and addiction.

"You are raised like that and then you go into survival mode. You start taking things that you need because you don't have any other way to take it and then it escalates. We have a mass amount of people in that situation," she said.

Pressure from advocates eventually led to efforts such as a WPS-RCMP joint task force called Project Devote launched in 2011, and an unprecedented week-long search for Tanya Nepinak's remains in the Brady landfill in 2012.

The search for Tina's killer was among the Winnipeg police's most expansive investigations ever, leading to a second-degree murder charge against Raymond Cormier. He was ultimately found not guilty by a jury in 2018. Police have closed the case.

Setting a new record

With the city currently in the throes of a meth (and previously fentanyl) epidemic fuelled by the drug trade, the homicide numbers reached yet another all-time high with 44 killings this year.

Clunis, who was a strong proponent of community policing strategies, said he is reluctant to blame the violence on any one issue.

"To some extent, I think we take the power out of our own hands when we say it's something else that's driving it," he said.

"We're not just here to police the community, but we're here to be part of the community. So for me, it's about us spending more meaningful time engaging with the citizens at all levels," said Clunis.

a close up of a map

In the wake of all this, a North End patrol group known as the Bear Clan was resurrected by community members after having gone dormant in the 1990s.

With more than 1,500 volunteers, the Bear Clan has become a positive force in the city with its presence in marginalized communities, providing safety and support in areas often most hit by violence.

Erin Mondor is a security guard for the Bear Clan office and participates in patrols. He has had close calls.

a person sitting on a table: Erin Mondor, Bear Clan security guard and volunteer patrol member, says he narrowly avoided serious injury a few months ago when a man with an axe rushed up to him. © Jaison Empson/CBC Erin Mondor, Bear Clan security guard and volunteer patrol member, says he narrowly avoided serious injury a few months ago when a man with an axe rushed up to him.

"I was just buying a canned drink … and I guess the guy came in behind me and had an axe and the vendor guy pulled me in — I didn't see that. He called 911 and the SWAT team came," he said.

Mondor said the patrols now routinely come across illicit items, such as used syringes and makeshift weapons, as they try to clean up the streets.

As 2019 comes to a close with a record number of fatal shootings, officials hope that recent funding injections into what are called "guns and gangs" initiatives and tighter controls at the U.S. border will help curb the flow of illegal guns.

There is also recognition by all parties going into 2020, including law enforcement, that ultimately more policing alone won't get at the root cause of the problem.

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