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Thompson: Violence in a northern town

Thompson is the crime capital of Canada. The reasons why are many, but help is slow to come

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Const. Bob Gass finds an empty bottle of Westminster Sherry -  the drink of choice among the destitute in Thompson - at a drinking camp.

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Const. Bob Gass finds an empty bottle of Westminster Sherry - the drink of choice among the destitute in Thompson - at a drinking camp. Photo Store

The Winnipeg Free Press recently visited Thompson, looking at why the city perpetually leads the country in per-capita violent crime rates. Our series, which begins today, will explore a number of causes, including alcohol and drug addiction, gangs, migration from neighbouring communities, homelessness, poverty and a lack of sufficient resources. Today, justice reporter Mike McIntyre documents a night on the town with the local RCMP and the many challenges which were revealed.

 

THOMPSON -- The first thing you notice is his face. Or at least what's left of it.

Horrific scar tissue covers nearly every inch, the result of being caught inside a burning house a year earlier. By all accounts, he should have been killed. Somehow, he survived.

"Call me Halloween," the man says, managing a hearty laugh at his self-deprecating joke. He seems unsteady on his feet, his eyes somewhat glassy.

The second thing you notice is the bag of empty pop and beer cans he is carrying in his scorched hands. On this warm, mid-summer evening, it's clear he's been busy.

"You should go buy yourself a sandwich," RCMP Cpl. Sheldon Moore tells Halloween after pulling over at the side of the road for a chat. Moore knows his advice is likely to fall on deaf ears, especially after he reminds the man how he bought him a Subway dinner a few nights ago.

Halloween gives a blank stare, clearly having no memory of the kind gesture.

A few hours later, Halloween is seen stumbling through a different part of downtown. The bag of recyclables is gone. In his hand now is a bottle of Westminster Sherry, the drink of choice for those up here in northern Manitoba because of its high potency (20 per cent alcohol) and cheap price.

He's obviously cashed in his empties. And he's hardly alone. Dozens of others who are destitute -- mostly men who look much older than they are -- are gathering in various parking lots, stairwells, parks and local landmarks as the sun begins to set.

Not all are as easy-going as Halloween. Reports of harassment, arguments and drunken fights are beginning to come in to the local RCMP detachment.

It's looking like another long night.

"It's a little bit like the walking dead," Moore says, as he surveys the growing crowds from his cruiser car. "If someone has never been here before, that's what they'd think."

 

-- -- --

 

Thompson: The Hub Of The North.

It's a place where thousands of people above the 55th parallel are often funnelled to utilize a variety of services: Health, justice and shopping being three of the biggest. It can lead to frequent spikes in the population, which is officially listed at 13,124, making it the 4th largest city in Manitoba.

Yet for the past several years Thompson has been wearing another label, one you won't see on any signs welcoming you to town.

Thompson: The violent crime capital of Canada.

Since 2008, Thompson has been ranked No. 1 out of 239 Canadian cities over the population of 10,000 in terms of per-capita measurements in the Crime Severity Index for violent crime. That's the guide Statistics Canada began using in 2006 to measure the "relative seriousness" of crimes in comparison to others. Each offence is assigned a certain "weight", which helps comprise a city's overall score.

 

The only exception for Thompson was 2009, when they finished second.

"This is an embarrassment to me as the Mayor of Thompson and should be an embarrassment to you as the province of Manitoba," an animated Tim Johnston said in a wide-ranging interview at Thompson City Hall.

Johnston pulls no punches, accusing the provincial government of mostly ignoring the plight of his community. He says addiction and homelessness are two of the biggest factors in the crime rate.

"If you took alcohol out of the equation, our stats would be entirely different," says Johnston.

He says a huge challenge is providing so many services to outlying communities, including many remote First Nations where social issues trickle down to Thompson. In fact, Thompson is comprised of nearly 40 per cent of Aboriginal citizens, the highest mark for any Canadian city. Johnston said the badly needed resources haven't followed.

"Out of sight, out of mind," says Johnston. "We've been tarred and feathered with this No. 1 crime place. But you're never going to solve the problem unless you break it down and address the systemic issues. That is where the province of Manitoba has failed us."

 

-- -- --

 

As fights go, this was hardly Frazier vs Ali. But when the call came in for a handful of drunks battling in the streets, RCMP had no choice but to respond.

The combatants are now being searched, one by one, inside the local RCMP detachment. None will be charged with any official crime, as it doesn't appear any injuries were sustained. And nobody is in any state to make a formal complaint.

"F you, bitches," one of the men says in a badly slurred voice as he is led to the holding cell where local drunks get to sleep it off. Two officers are needed to keep the heavily intoxicated man upright.

That's hardly the way to treat the people who have repeatedly saved your life. But the man is no stranger to police, who have locked him up hundreds of times under the Intoxicated Persons Detention Act.

Many of those have occurred in winter, when he'd be found passed out in a snowbank or on a frozen sidewalk. Only one of his 10 toes remains. The others are all victims of various bouts of frostbite.

"When he's sober, he's a really nice guy," says Moore.

The smell of cheap liquor and solvents is thick in the air as the others are searched. A bottle of mouthwash is seized from the only woman in the group, who is put into her own female-only holding cell.

One of the other men, Louie, is sporting a fresh wound on his forehead. But it's not from tonight's fight. It's from the one he got in last night, which also resulted with him in the drunk tank.

The final fighter, Joseph, is oblivious to the questions being asked of him by police. They notice he is wearing a hat of the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks and ask him if he's a fan. Joseph doesn't respond.

Moments later, Joseph, Louie and the Man With One Toe are huddled together inside the same concrete drunk tank, practically spooning each other on the floor. Whatever issues they had between them a short time ago seem to have been long forgotten. There are already three others inside the same tiny room, which is one of only two designated to house male drunks.

There have been nights where several dozen will be squished like sardines, especially when government-issued rebate cheques are in the mail.

"I remember one 10-hour shift where we locked up about 90," says Moore. Typically, police will keep them lodged for at least five hours, at least until they are deemed sober enough to walk out of the facility on their own. It's far from ideal, but without a designated facility in town such as Winnipeg's Main Street Project, it's currently the only solution. Approximately 8,000 people will be kept here every year, an average of about 25 per day.

"The services provided here in town are very limited," admits RCMP Staff Sgt. Ron Corner. He, and many others including mayor Johnston, believe a comprehensive restorative justice facility and Remand Centre with treatment is badly needed to service the area.

"If we had that, a lot of these things wouldn't be repeating themselves," says Corner. But as it stands now, Corner says police are often forced to take on additional roles including social worker and even babysitter.

"We do have to go above and beyond, we just can't ignore it," he says. "But it seems like we deal with about 10 per cent of the population 90 per cent of the time."

 

-- -- --

 

It was only a year ago that Thompson officials -- including those with police, City Hall, the local homeless shelter and the Addictions Foundation of Manitoba -- comprised a list of the 28 locals who are utilizing emergency services most frequently.

Calling it Project Northern Doorway, the idea was to find a way to focus on these high-risk souls with the aim of eventually reducing their strain on the system.

Eight of the people on that list have since died.

"These people have died unremarkable deaths. Their systems have just shut down. And nobody seems to notice," said John Donovan, northern region director of the AFM. He has spent the past 10 years working with those battling addictions, and plenty of other demons. This comes after many years working as a counsellor and then vice-principal of the Thompson high school.

Sadly, Donovan now sees many former students living on the streets, struggling to survive. Their addictions often lead to contact with the criminal justice system.

"Many of them are feeling pretty hopeless. They've tried, they've failed. They've lost hope, they're in despair. Their primary goal each day isn't to get loaded. It's to stave off withdrawal," said Donovan.

A recent study of all Thompson students, grades 7-12, revealed that 80 per cent currently have someone in their family battling addiction.

"They're caught in a cycle of saying 'I don't want to sober up because its going to hurt too much'."

 

-- -- --

 

Thompson RCMP are on their way to yet another call of a drunken fight when something more serious comes across the police radio.

A man has been spotted entering a known drug house with what appears to be a handgun.

"No fighting tonight," Moore yells at a group of intoxicated men who are pushing each other in the parking lot of one of the local beer vendors. It's the best he can do, given the circumstances, and the group seems to comply with his command to "go your separate ways."

On this night, nearly all of the dozen officers on shift scramble into action. They have a quick meeting down the street, then decide to call the home in question and order everyone out.

This sort of call is never taken lightly, not after events of the past few years which saw a drug "turf war" play out between several organized crime groups. The result were several shootings and even a couple execution-style murders.

Police say much of the blame can be put on the fact that there are plenty of Thompson residents with plenty of wealth, the product of about 20 per cent of the workforce making a good wage at the Vale nickel mine.

"They've got money to burn," says Moore.

Don't be fooled into thinking the drug trade is a poor man's game. It takes serious coin to fuel an industry, especially when hard drugs like cocaine and heroin are involved.

"Listen, my friend. I want to do this right, let's do this nice and slow, come out one at a time," Moore barks into the phone with the man who picked up.

Moments later, a middle-aged man emerges, his hands in the air. He is handcuffed at gunpoint. He swears nobody else is in the home, and certainly no handgun.

Police move in slowly, eventually clearing the scene. The gun call was either unfounded -- perhaps a gang rival calling it in -- or has been hidden from police, for now.

But it's not a total loss. The man in the house is wanted on an outstanding warrant.

 

-- -- --

 

How do you slam the door shut on a homeless person?

Paullette Simkins runs the local shelter and is also employed with the Canadian Mental Health Association. She said their 24-bed facility is maxed out most nights. Between April 1, 2012 and March 31, 2013, they had 8,292 stays out of a possible 8,760. A total of 2,770 people seeking shelter had to be turned away, mostly in winter when overcrowding becomes a huge issue.

"And when we say beds, we really mean mats. That's what they sleep on. The men and women are divided by a couch," said Simkins.

Some clients often find other shelter in makeshift camps set up along the Burntwood River, or in heated outdoor shelters opened when the mercury plunges. The police drunk tank is another option many utilize.

"Some even sleep in Blue Boxes on the streets," says Simkins.

Last year, one of their regular clients was savagely beaten by four youths in Thompson. The man is now in a permanent vegetative state in Winnipeg.

"Most of our clients are not the ones committing the crime. They are often the victims of crime," she says. "It's disheartening. I wish I had more money, and a bigger facility. Thompson seems to be forgotten. The government thinks we can do this on purse strings."

 

-- -- --

 

The calls for police assistance continue to flood in. A gas-and-dash. A blind man beating a passerby with his walking stick. A man walking his dog who finds a drunk passed out under a tree.

Moore, now on his second tour-of-duty in Thompson, tries to combine enforcement with compassion. Originally from Nelson House, he is one of only two Aboriginal police officers on the staff of 48. He is fluent in Cree, married to a local Child and Family Services worker.

Moore frequently pulls over to check on the well-being of those he sees on the streets. He'll arrest people as IPDA's when warranted, yet drive away if they're in the company of sober friends. Such is the case with one man who is covered in mosquitoes as he sleeps in the arms of several others outside the local library.

Moore can only shake his head when he realizes it's one of the same people he saw earlier in the night shoving and pushing while on his way to the gun call.

Moore has little tolerance for people who over-serve drunks, as demonstrated by a tongue-lashing he gives to a local vendor. Moore orders one heavily intoxicated man to return the king can of beer he just bought while forcing the vendor to issue a refund. He also vows to follow up with the provincial liquor inspector.

"He shouldn't be serving him like that," says Moore.

The veteran Mountie also exercises discretion when he sees two 15-year-old boys walking down the street together. Moore knows they are under a court order not to be together, yet opts to give them a verbal warning to go their separate ways rather than arrest them on the spot.

He hopes cutting them a break might pay off down the road and maybe teach them cops aren't always the "bad guys."

Moore watches the teens disperse, then drives off to tackle yet another call of drunks causing trouble on the streets of Thompson.

He admits it can be a struggle to see brighter days ahead when nights like these are plagued with so many problems.

www.mikeoncrime.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 27, 2013 ??65535

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