Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Gegwetch might still be alive today

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With strong support from the provincial NDP, the federal Conservatives' public safety initiatives are moving ahead. Had they been in force a year ago, Winnipeg might not have registered its record-breaking homicide when it did.

Homicide No. 35, Harry Wellington Gegwetch, 42, was killed after being beaten and abandoned in a Carlton Street apartment that was then set ablaze. Darrell Longclaws stands charged as the alleged killer.

Reports say Gegwetch is best remembered as a talented aboriginal dancer and someone who did more than his fair share to keep his culture vibrant and alive.

There's no shortage of hot debate about the feds' crime bill and incarceration's role in the solution to violent crime. Among other things, those opposed to the measures monger a foolish fear of Canada becoming too American, citing examples of wild U.S. multi-decade sentences.

The battle by the Conservatives to introduce sense (not multi-decade sentences) to the justice system has been fought for years and goes back to their Opposition days.

Some scoff at the measures and instead paint themselves in shades of genteel Canadiana while hitching their wagon to a one-stop panacea of programs and recreation.

Others say a more serious approach, with consequences for individual decisions, blended with truth in sentencing and balanced with programming and prevention is the path more likely to succeed in the battle against crime.

Somewhere in the midst of all that debate the rubber meets the road. And it's there we could ask: Would Harry Gegwetch be a homicide statistic if the Conservative changes had been in practice?

The answer is, perhaps not.

Longclaws received a 30-month prison sentence just 12 months ago after being convicted of aggravated assault, a serious matter that suggests his victim was wounded, maimed, disfigured or had his life endangered.

Nine months that he spent in pretrial custody became, on paper, 18 months. So, barely a year after receiving 30 months, Longclaws, with a history of legal trouble, was free and now faces homicide charges and a possible life sentence for the alleged murder of Gegwetch.

Thanks, in part, to the legal two-for-one premise.

And why's that? Legal reasoning says pretrial time is hard time because there's little opportunity to participate in rehabilitation programs and should therefore be doubled. Longclaws was freed from prison in no time flat, with little opportunity to take part in corrective programming.

Hmmm... the logic sounds akin to skipping the 4th grade because you didn't do the work

Anyway, without the two-for-one bonus, Longclaws would likely still be incarcerated and perhaps participating in programs, if he chose.

Instead, we have a respected member of a downtrodden community dead and another of its members charged in the killing.

On the flip side there's Ervin Chartrand, an often-mentioned figure when justice issues are in focus. Reports say he's the former vice-president of the Manitoba Warriors who, some time ago, landed in jail for a nine-year term. The experience caused him to wake up and smell the prison coffee.

He made the choice to drink the correction Kool-Aid and get involved in prison programming. He bettered himself and today is free and gaining a reputation on the outside as an award-winning filmmaker having directed dramatic shorts, music videos and documentaries.

Jail can (but doesn't always) break the cycle. It's a rude awakening. Correcting one's self is a personal decision, a choice to shape up and meet obligations to family, the community and self. Correction departments are full of people and programs designed to support and help. But they can only lead the horse to water.

Darrell Longclaws' short period of incarceration may have reduced his chances of effective rehabilitation. And that in turn many have compromised public safety.

The two-for-one legislation has been fixed. But there's still work to do and much of the omnibus crime bill is geared toward that work.

Are such initiatives expensive? Yep. How much is Harry Gegwetch worth?

Voices protesting the bill continue. There was a rally at the legislature, the justice minister's office was occupied and last week the University of Winnipeg got into it with a public discussion hosted by groups opposing the measures.

Sure, discussion in the university setting is worthwhile, but maybe the next fest could be held outside the homes of family and friends of Murder victim No. 35. Maybe the theme could be "Who's in Harry Gegwetch's corner."


Robert Marshall is a retired Winnipeg police detective.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 5, 2011 J11

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