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Solving the bogeyman problem

Downtown 'fixes' just echo elections past

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John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press


John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press Photo Store

It's civic election time in Winnipeg. And that means it's time to gang up on the city's downtown.

In case you haven't noticed, it's a tradition in Winnipeg's mayoral races for candidates to trip over themselves in a race to disparage the core of the city.

They scowl and shake their heads in mournful disdain about Winnipeg's dangerous downtown. In every conceivable way, they reinforce the perception of downtown as a war zone, regardless of whether it's true or fair.

They do this because every successful campaign needs a bogeyman, a problem that candidates can dedicate themselves to solving. A complex problem that people are only too happy to see glossed over with simple solutions.

We've seen plenty of this rhetoric already. Last week, former councillor Gord Steeves proposed spending up to $800,000 for additional police cadets on downtown streets to deal with the homeless, intoxicated and disorderly.

The hits kept on coming Monday when candidate Brian Bowman pledged to deal with the "perception" that downtown is dangerous by taking down the barricades at Portage and Main and doing more streetscaping.

Earlier in the campaign, funeral director Mike Vogiatzakis pledged wireless closed-circuit cameras and more police cadets.

More cameras and cadets. Fewer barricades. If you think you've heard this all before, you have. This mayoral campaign has plenty of echoes from campaigns past.

The only candidate to stray from the downtown-is-bad script is university administrator Robert-Falcon Ouellette, who held a news conference Monday to slam Steeves after his wife, Lorrie, was exposed for posting a racist rant on her Facebook site four years ago.

Ouellette correctly pointed out the problem facing Winnipeg is one of estrangement between the haves and have-nots. "We live in a divided city, one split by colour and economic potential, and that must be addressed for the sake of children who inherit the city in 20 to 30 years."

It was a passionate, intellectually honest analysis. Unfortunately, Ouellette could not offer a single specific idea on how to heal this divided city.

What the mayoral candidates seem unable to comprehend -- save for Ouellette -- is larger cities are defined by the collision of affluence and abject poverty. That often results in some street crime, substance abuse and general mayhem.

Winnipeg is such a city. Not free of all crime and mayhem, but free enough that downtown can and should be enjoyed by all.

The mere hint of crime forces us to spend hundreds of millions of dollars looking for ways to "fix" downtown, or at least make the less desirable parts less visible.

Many of those living and working downtown have witnessed this phenomenon. A few years ago, Portage Place mall got militant about ejecting loiterers and beggars. They simply moved to other downtown gathering places such as Cityplace and the Millennium Library.

Missing from this approach is any semblance of focused policy to address the root causes of wayward teens, intoxicated adults and panhandlers. This has turned downtown into a game of "whack-a-mole," where problems are forced out of one location only to reappear in another.

Why haven't we been more successful at helping the folks downtown who really need some help? Poverty is the tie that binds all these people, and while some lip service is devoted to addressing root causes, local governments are limited in what they can do on their own to combat such a big problem. Campaigning politicians seemed satisfied to stick to Band-Aid solutions.

This creates an absurd dilemma at election time. Perceptions about downtown, which is neither as dangerous nor as dysfunctional as many think, take a big hit from campaigning politicians who must portray the core as a bad place simply to show voters they are engaged on the issue.

Consider that in 2009, Winnipeg saw a 31 per cent drop in homicides from the previous year, along with significant declines in all other forms of crime. The biggest drops in crime were seen in those areas of the city where most of the crime takes place, which is to say, the core and North End.

How did Mayor Sam Katz, up for re-election in 2010, respond? He promised to hire 58 new police officers because Winnipeg is a dangerous city. Katz's principal adversary, Judy Wasylycia-Leis, also failed to find any comfort in declining crime figures. Desperate to show Katz as a failure, Wasylycia-Leis agreed the core was a very dangerous place. This, she argued, was proof of Katz's incompetence.

For these political reasons, mayoral candidates are not prepared to challenge the perception many Winnipeggers have about their downtown.

Another big problem afflicting this campaign is the tendency of candidates to rush out their own "new" ideas, rather than supporting and enhancing the good ideas that already exist.

Case in point: Winnipeg police Chief Devon Clunis has been vocal in asking for a greater investment in support services so police can focus on law enforcement. It's an admirable project that could use a major upgrade in financial support.

More support is needed as well for programs like the Block By Block Community Safety Initiative, a multidisciplinary project that involves social and health agencies, community groups, schools and the police to prevent crime and dysfunction before they happen.

Instead of support for innovation, we get more law enforcement and more reinforcement of the idea that downtown will never be a place most Winnipeggers want to live in or visit.

Downtown is a vibrant, colourful and intriguing part of the city. It is not just the heart, but the personality of Winnipeg. It's a place that can be experienced without extreme risk.

The question is whether any of the current crop of mayoral candidates has the guts to stand up and defend downtown.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 12, 2014 A4

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