Donna Dingwell faced a mother’s unthinkable nightmare last month. As she made funeral arrangements following the murder on Jan. 17 of her eldest son Kyle, 25, she was also looking for a lawyer for his accused killer—her 22-year-old son Dylan. “Everyone really felt for this mother,” says Charlottetown’s deputy police chief Gary McGuigan. “She buried one son on Saturday and would be in court on Monday with the other, who was charged with second-degree murder.”
Kyle Dingwell’s murder not only shocked his family, it caused a profound stir across Prince Edward Island, where homicides are almost unheard of. For five of the past six years, Canada’s smallest province has had the country’s lowest homicide rate—zero—according to Statistics Canada. Police on P.E.I. have not undertaken a murder investigation since 2006, when a dairy plant worker deliberately ran down a former colleague with his car.
Murder cases everywhere make headlines, but news of the Dingwell killing spread fear and anger across P.E.I., and sparked a rash of unseemly Internet gossip, before any details of the murder became known. Comments on a Charlottetown newspaper website suggested the crime might be linked to the drug trade, or caused by “immigrants.”
“There was just this crazy hysteria in Charlottetown for about two days,” says P.E.I. news blogger Stephen Pate. “Not only was it racist and ugly, it wasn’t even true.”
As people later discovered, Kyle Dingwell—a well-liked, born-and-bred Islander, who had spent time on the Alberta oil rigs but was now back in P.E.I. planning to attend community college—was shot at his mother’s suburban home in the presence of two other local men. He died later in hospital. Police quickly charged his younger brother Dylan with murder, and seized a .38-calibre handgun from the house. They said the shooting followed an altercation of some kind, but have released no other details. “We don’t know and we may never know what caused this to happen,” says McGuigan. “There was some type of argument, and it had dire consequences for Kyle Dingwell.” Donna Dingwell—who has a third son, Jarred, and whose husband Scott Dingwell died years ago in a fire—declined to discuss the murder with Maclean’s.
“It was a pretty shocking thing,” says Stephen Pate, who adds that while he didn’t like the hysterical reaction, he understands it. “P.E.I. is a pretty gentle place, a laid-back place. Everybody knows everybody. I’m not saying there’s no crime, and that there aren’t fights after the bars close at night. But for the most part P.E.I. is pretty easygoing.”
The province’s small population cannot alone explain the low murder rate. The city of Abbotsford, B.C., had nine murders in 2009 despite being similar in size to Charlottetown, which had none. Thunder Bay, Ont., had six murders that year and Saguenay, Que., had five. “It has to do with islands,” says Douglas Malcolm, a P.E.I. author and cultural historian. “If you transgress certain criminal boundaries here, you’re going to be ostracized in the community. Newfoundland [which has the second lowest murder rate in Canada] is the same, especially in the outports. People leave their homes open, because if there was a break-and-enter, the transgressor would be ostracized and not welcome.”
Godfrey Baldacchino, a professor at the Institute of Island Studies at the University of P.E.I., says there is a higher expectation of conformity—and more pressure on deviants to leave—in all island communities. Anyone contemplating a serious crime also faces the practical problem of escaping a small island surrounded by a hard boundary of water.
P.E.I. now has the Confederation Bridge, and during the heated debates in the 1990s about whether to build a fixed link to the mainland, Islanders worried that a bridge would bring in too many outsiders, and all their supposed evils including violent crime. More than a decade after the bridge opened, that prediction has proven largely false.
But as the province maintains its island ways, Baldacchino says that conformity and a sense of community can also have their disadvantages. P.E.I.’s low rates of violent crime, he warns, don’t necessarily mean there is no violence. “There is likely to be an increased sense of reticence and silence in the face of, say, domestic violence,” he says. Because there is no anonymity, “reputations can be ruined for life, and enemies made from neighbours or friends, who may report such crimes to the police, will not be easily forgiven or forgotten. There can be a dark side to bucolic island paradises too.”