The worst of the west

Drugs plus gangs equal the top crime cities in Canada

From Canada’s most dangerous cities: 2010:

Darren Munch was shot multiple times in the middle of an August Saturday afternoon, in Prince George, B.C. The 25-year-old staggered to the middle of residential Oak Street where he collapsed and died, as children played in the sunshine and stunned residents tried to process the scene. Munch’s Facebook photo, which still lives on the Internet, shows a handsome young man in a black patterned T-shirt. He glares from behind dark sunglasses and under a billed cap, striking a don’t-mess-with-me kind of pose. But someone did.

Munch, whose death local RCMP say was “gang-related,” was the fifth of seven murder victims in Prince George so far this year, a disturbing body count in a community of just 74,000. Six of those murders are tied to gangs or drugs, says RCMP detachment commander Supt. Brenda Butterworth-Carr. Yet, the greatest outrage in the community seemed reserved for the Prince George Citizen, for running a front page picture of Munch’s body, sprawled on the pavement in a pool of blood. The next day the Citizen ran a gutsy, unapologetic editorial under the headline: “Take a look in the mirror.” This is a city in trouble, it warned. “It’s only a matter of time, if left unchecked, before the bullets fly across your lawn, before it is your child prone on the pavement, before someone you know goes to jail, or hooks up with a gang.”

Prince George indeed has a problem, as revealed in this, Maclean’s third annual national crime rankings. It finished with the highest crime score among Canada’s 100 largest cities in a measure of crimes committed in 2009. Victoria, the scenic provincial capital with a dark underbelly, is a close second. The results again show the Canadian West has a crime problem, as entrenched, if not as extreme, as that in Canada’s North. Of the 14 cities with the worst crimes scores, none are east of Winnipeg. Half of the top 14 cities are in British Columbia, though it is also the province that recorded a nine per cent drop in crime severity, the best in Canada. Saskatchewan followed by Manitoba have the worst provincial crime scores.

There are many theories but no neat answers as to why crime rates are consistently higher in the West. Criminologists point to high-crime inner-city enclaves in cities like Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Regina and Vancouver. All have transient populations of young males with limited education, addiction issues, fractured families coping with poverty, substandard housing, a thriving drug trade and a gang culture. Police in B.C. tend to blame lenient sentences that leave chronic offenders on the streets. The western provinces share both common problems, and unique challenges.

An RCMP briefing note written in June for senior staff in B.C. estimates the province has 133 organized crime groups with some 800 members, as well as at least 30 street gangs. Almost all draw much of their revenue from the drug trade. “Violence—including homicide, contract killings, kidnapping, vicious ordered assaults, extortion and arson—continues to be the hallmark of all levels of the drug economy,” it says.

The problem, as Prince George is painfully aware, isn’t limited to B.C.’s Lower Mainland. Coordinated anti-gang strategies in cities like Vancouver and Abbotsford helped drive gangs to new profit centres, concedes Butterworth-Carr. Rather like the pine beetle, which has thrown the Prince George area forest economy into turmoil, gangs are parasitic, voracious and highly mobile. The result in Prince George is an unsettling mix of sophisticated gang activity and thuggish violence, as gangsters sort out the local pecking order. The scale can be massive. In May, RCMP raided a rural marijuana grow operation with 18,000 plants in 20 greenhouses, an operation clearly financed by gang money. Assaults and home invasions are common to intimidate and collect drug debts. One young man almost lost an arm this summer when he was attacked with a samurai sword.

The impact of gangs on civic life is easily measured in Abbotsford, which has the unenviable title of Canada’s murder capital in 2009. Technically, the city recorded nine murders that year, a rate 271 per cent above the national average, but Abbotsford police Chief Bob Rich puts the toll at 11. Two local high school students, very minor drug dealers, were murdered in May 2009 just outside the city boundary, a month before their graduation. Police believe they were collateral damage in a war targeting the Red Scorpion gang led by brothers Jarrod, Jonathan and Jamie Bacon.

Eight of the 11 murders were gang or drug related, says Rich. In addition to pouring substantial resources into gang suppression, Rich has made it a priority to take the anti-gang message to every high school and middle school in the city. This year his team is expanding that mission to draw parents, and the issue of parental responsibility, into the discussion.

Victoria’s second-place crime score, worse than far larger Surrey (eighth) and Vancouver (18th), is fed by a significant transient and homeless population, many with addiction problems. Its downtown is a magnet for the region. “We only police seven square miles and a population of around 98,000,” says Victoria police spokesman Sgt. Grant Hamilton. “However, our municipality is the downtown core for a region of over 350,000. We have all the entertainment, nightclubs and the majority of social services, halfway houses, shelters and low-income housing in our area.”

Nobody in authority in Saskatchewan’s dual metropolises of Regina and Saskatoon likes being featured in a cross-country crime roundup. Regina Mayor Pat Fiacco, reached by phone during his stint as a supervisor of boxing officials at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, freely uses an eight-letter word starting with “bull” to describe Maclean’s coverage of his town. But whether delivered profanely or politely, his message is a common one.

“We don’t compare ourselves to other cities,” he says, pointing out that every community has its own mix of demographics and circumstances and must play the hand it’s dealt. “We compare ourselves with ourselves; we base our estimates of progress on whether we’re reducing crime from year to year.” By that standard, something is going right; over the past two years metro Regina has cut its Crime Severity Index (CSI) score by 24 per cent and metro Saskatoon by 17 per cent. Regina, tops among all cities in crime severity in 2004, has worked its way down to third in the latest numbers. Saskatoon has held steady at fourth.

Regina has continued its record of long-term success at cutting auto thefts, once a special scourge of the Queen City. Over a 10-year period the rate has been slashed by more than half.

The secret has been to define a core group of habitual car thieves and assign manpower to the specific task of making sure that when these flagged individuals are sprung from prison, they comply with their curfews while on probation. “It’s a simple matter of going from door to door at 11 o’clock,” says the force’s director of strategic research, Ryan Newell. “The majority of car thefts are committed by a small group of people, so a small investment in keeping track of them offers a high return.”

The overall picture in both cities is one of slow progress against difficult social pathologies. Social workers in Regina’s North Central neighbourhood, described controversially in this magazine as “Canada’s worst” in 2007, claim to be seeing progress. The city has been demolishing the worst eyesores, and is offering a five-year property-tax holiday for new owner-occupants in North Central and other distressed areas of downtown. But as recently as Sept. 27, North Central reasserted its anarchic spirit with two near-simultaneous stabbings at separate house parties.

Even as auto thefts decline in Regina, they’re being replaced, in part, by smash-and-grab thefts of valuable items left in cars—a particular problem in both Saskatchewan cities (and in Manitoba).

Alberta followed B.C. as the province with the largest one-year drop in its CSI score. Bucking the long-term trend in decline is the northern boom town of Fort McMurray. Alberta’s oil sands capital has grown at the same dizzying pace as its defining industry—nearly 10 per cent a year over the decade. Crime has grown in tandem. It ranked 30th of the top 100 on the CSI in 1999. It worsened to 23rd in 2004, and five years later it ranks fifth, 68 per cent above the national score.

The oil and related service industries draw a transient workforce: disproportionately foreign or displaced young men, with some Aboriginals from outlying communities and plenty of Newfoundlanders. Most have big incomes and plenty of free time. The city’s rocket-like rise in the crime indices is the classic dark-side-of-the-boom-town story.

The city’s big crime issue this year is a discouragingly familiar one in Alberta. More than 30 young men of Somali descent, most of them “known to police” and hailing from Toronto, have been murdered in Alberta since 2005. In Fort McMurray, two Somali men were found dead in an apartment in February and a third turned up in April. The Alberta government responded by pumping millions into programs targeted at Somali youths, and an 18-member integrated-policing team with its own intelligence unit descended on the area, with the province and the municipality splitting the costs. Almost immediately, the ALERT (Alberta Law Enforcement Response Teams) started vacuuming staggering quantities of coke and pot off the street. The temperature of violence in the city seems to have cooled even as the team finds its feet.

ALERT commander Insp. Bob Simmonds, a member of the RCMP, was stationed in Fort McMurray as a young K Division recruit in the late 1970s. “When I was there the first time, the residential areas didn’t even have names yet—just numbers,” he recalls. “The really big concern we had was fellas coming down into the city from camp, having a few too many and getting a little frisky.”

He is struck now by the “boldness” of many recent crimes and he expects even established “bad guys” are unhappy that the blatant lawlessness has drawn ALERT to town. “They’re probably not too thrilled about the late-arriving outsiders who have attracted attention by committing acts of violence up to and including brazen murder.”

While Winnipeg finished 10th on the worst crime list, Manitoba was the only province to see an increase in its CSI score last year. Ten years ago Winnipeg ranked 20th. Its worsening score relative to the rest of the country and a robbery rate that leads the nation has made gang crime a dominant issue in the Oct. 27 mayoral election. Contender Judy Wasylycia-Leis, a former New Democrat MP, says incumbent Mayor Sam Katz has done little in six years in office to reduce crime plaguing the downtown and north end.

Katz, however, points to her voting record in Ottawa against tougher sentencing laws to portray her as soft on crime. Both support an increase in police officers, although Winnipeg has one of the highest policing levels in the country. Katz recently won the endorsement of the Winnipeg Police Association for his commitment to dedicate 20 new officers to a Gang Response and Suppression Plan (GRASP), modelled on a police unit that made inroads in the city’s epidemic of vehicle theft. Auto theft, while 109 per cent above the national average, is a relative bright spot. Ten years earlier it was 160 per cent above average.

Still, there is growing impatience with Katz’s anti-crime record. “Even beyond the practical human problems of victims there’s a sense that crime is becoming a blight on Winnipeg’s civic reputation,” says Brian Kelcey, a former senior adviser to Katz who now writes State of the City, a blog on civic affairs. There has been little follow-through on many of Katz’s high-profile crime initiatives, Kelcey told Maclean’s. “The mayor’s so-called success on this issue has been entirely a paper success to date.”

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