Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Eye-popping crime rates plague north

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FLIN FLON -- Northerners may have a reputation as friendly, hard-working people, but there are a surprising number of bad apples trying to spoil this whole bunch.

Among the three major northern centres -- Thompson, Flin Flon and The Pas -- the latter community suffers the most crime.

According to figures from Statistics Canada, The Pas recorded an eye-popping 52,483 Criminal Code offences per 100,000 people in 2010.

That number is slightly deceiving, considering Opaskwayak Cree Nation and its 4,500 residents are essentially part of The Pas, bringing the total population to a city-sized 10,000.

But there's more to it than that. According to Sgt. Lee Fortin of The Pas RCMP, the community has become a provincial hub for the Indian Posse, one of Manitoba's largest aboriginal gangs.

He told the RCMP Gazette the IP, as they are known, has set up an outpost that sells crack cocaine brought in from Winnipeg.

The prevalence of IP members in The Pas may even be jacking up crime rates across the North.

As Fortin noted, many gang members commit crimes elsewhere in Manitoba before returning to The Pas. When the cops get on their trail, some flee to other northern communities.

One of their options would be Thompson, northern Manitoba's largest communities, with 13,300 people.

Thompson's struggles with violent crime have been well-documented over the years. Indeed, Statistics Canada's 2010 Violent Crime Severity Index had Thompson at the top of 238 Canadian communities with more than 10,000 people.

The bad news did not end there, as Thompson also placed second in both the Overall Crime Severity Index and Non-Violent Crime Severity Index.

Ruth Gelasco, organizer of Solve This Ongoing Problem (STOP), a Thompson Facebook group focused on crime prevention, worries most for the children.

"I'm afraid for them. I'm afraid for them to be out on the streets," she told CBC last May. "And you know it's sad that our community has come to where we're afraid."

To curb the violence, many Thompson residents have been lobbying for a curfew for anyone under the age of 18.

That concept is fraught with complications, however. Not only is the effectiveness of curfews questionable, Thompson had to repeal its last curfew in 2007 after a constitutional challenge.

Many in Thompson blame gangs and transient criminals -- those who commit crimes while temporarily staying in the city -- for much of the problem.

As for Flin Flon, the mining town of 5,600 has the distinction of being both the smallest and the safest of the North's "big three."

In 2010, Flin Flon recorded a per-capita crime rate that was 4.6 times lower than that of The Pas and 3.3 times below that of Thompson.

Not to say crime is a non-issue. Drugs remain a key concern in Flin Flon, and 2011 saw a murder, an attempted murder and a potentially deadly arson at a home hosting a marijuana grow-op.

On the many First Nations dotting the northern map, crime is often described as out of control, and the stats would appear to bolster that description.

Pukatawagan, often cited as one of the North's most problematic reserves, had a crime rate of 71,001 per 100,000 people in 2009 -- 26 per cent higher than that of The Pas in 2010.

Of course on reserves, motives for crime may be much different than in urban settings.

"First Nations poverty is the single greatest social issue in Canada today," Angus Toulose, regional First Nations chief of Ontario, said in a 2006 speech. "Poverty breeds helplessness and hopelessness, which results in far too many of our young men and women committing crimes of despair."

Still, the black-and-white stats may make crime seem worse than it is on reserves. These are generally small communities, so even a relative handful of crimes can significantly impact the per-capita rate.

It is equally important not to paint all residents of a reserve with the same brush. One long-time resident of Pukatawagan told Flin Flon's Reminder newspaper that his reserve has many people who want a better community, but some social problems must first be overcome.

While the North is not a completely idyllic region, there is a phrase we like to bring out when serious crime does strike us. That phrase, with all due respect to our southern neighbours: "At least we're not Winnipeg."

Jonathon Naylor is editor of The Reminder newspaper in Flin Flon.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 5, 2012 A10

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