A plague of drugs is fuelling deadly violence across northern Manitoba, Manitoba Keewatinook Ininew Okimowin Grand Chief David Harper said Monday.
"There's been a major wave of violence," Harper said in the wake of six homicides in the first three weeks of the year. "These drugs now, they're unforgiving.
"That's one of the biggest things -- people under the influence. Normal everyday people who are sober don't try to harm people."
The latest victim was 19-year-old Austin Monias of Cross Lake, who died early Sunday morning from injuries he sustained at a house party in the northern community. Monias was the nephew of elder Raymond Robinson, who is fasting in support of Attawapiskat First Nation Chief Theresa Spence.
"He's (Robinson) been affected big time. Luckily, we had some of our leadership there," Harper said.
"One thing we've been fighting for a long time is the lack of inspections of the highways for drugs reaching our communities. We need to mobilize law enforcement," the grand chief said.
Harper said First Nations need more help with security to stop drugs before they arrive on reserves.
Some bands have a ban on alcohol, and drugs are illegal everywhere, he noted.
"My staff met with Perimeter Airlines (Monday). You need checkstops to ensure drugs don't reach our communities and don't harm our people. There's a lot of drug involvement, influencing a lot of our young people.
"Crack cocaine is coming in, there's still ecstasy, and oxys (OxyContin)," Harper said.
Band councils are concentrating on educating children against drugs, but they need far greater resources, including more community police and more mental health services, he said.
RCMP spokeswoman Sgt. Line Karpish said the homicides are keeping investigators busy, but cautioned that no one should think the RCMP can't handle the workload.
"Yes, we're busy, but we have skilled homicide investigators in every corner of the province," Karpish said.
Justice Minister Andrew Swan said his office has noted the surge in rural Manitoba homicides at the top of the year.
"Any time there's a violent crime, especially a homicide, it's upsetting for everybody in Manitoba," Swan said. "Each one of them represents a victim and represents a family that is now grieving, and of course an offender that we now have to manage in the system."
Swan said the number of violent deaths represents how unpredictable homicide is and how difficult it is for police to prevent it.
He said the Manitoba First Nations deaths, particularly the young age of some of the victims and accused, justify the province's efforts to keep young people out of gangs and criminal activity.
Swan said the province supports a private member's bill tabled last year by Brampton-Springdale Conservative MP Parm Gill that would criminalize gang recruitment. The proposed Criminal Organization Recruitment Act, which has yet to go to committee hearings, would carry a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a mandatory minimum of six months if the person recruited is under 18.
"It makes sense that we target those people," Swan said. "If you're a young person, becoming involved in a gang, becoming involved in organized crime, it puts you at direct risk of death or serious injury, not to mention the impact of a young person being involved in gangs and organized crime on our community in general."
Swan said he believes "these series of tragedies" in Manitoba will be seen as an anomaly.
He said the total number of homicides outside Winnipeg was less than 20 in 2012 and less than 20 in 2011. There were 24 such homicides in 2010.
"It just points out how unpredictable homicides are, but it doesn't mean you stop doing everything you can to keep people safe."
He said the recent report by the domestic violence death review committee the province created in June 2010 as a way to prevent more women being killed by husbands and boyfriends is one example.
In one of its recommendations, the committee said it wants all police officers to have cameras with them when they respond to domestic violence calls. The committee said that would allow police to immediately photograph a victim's injuries for use in court.
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2013 Manitoba First Nations homicides
1. Jan. 1: Black River First Nation. Peter Richard Bird stabbed to death. Charged with second-degree murder are Jason Moar, 20, and Brandon Bird, 21.
2. Jan. 2: Long Plain First Nation. 24-year-old man killed. Cody Alexander Schmidt, 21, of Long Plain, charged with second-degree murder.
3. Jan. 3: Moose Lake. 24-year-old man killed in an altercation. Lott Campbell, 32, of Moose Lake, charged with second-degree murder.
4. Jan. 4: Keeseekowenin First Nation. Terrel Stewart Shorting, 34, shot dead in a residence. Terris Ronald Mintuck, 50, of Keeseekowenin, charged with second-degree murder.
5. Jan. 6: Gods Lake Narrows First Nation. Body of 15-year-old Leah Anderson found on a snowy path in the community.
6. Jan. 20: Cross Lake First Nation. Austin Monias, 19, died from injuries suffered at a house party.