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Northern crime rates challenging

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FLIN FLON -- David Gray has amassed hundreds of stories as a northern Manitoba Crown prosecutor, but many illustrate the same reality about crime and punishment.

"The challenges for North and South are not that different -- we just have more of them," said Gray, referring to his region of the province.

Gray, a husky, bald man with a terse white beard and encyclopedic vocabulary, would know.

For the past 16 years he has worked as a Crown prosecutor out of Thompson. He has spent most of that time as supervisor of the Manitoba Department of Justice office in the Nickel City.

His region includes a vast swath of northern Manitoba, with Thompson at the heart of a circuit that also includes Norway House, God's Lake Narrows, Nelson House and Brochet, among others.

Here one will find some of the worst crime rates in Manitoba, fostering a hectic workload for prosecutors and defence attorneys alike.

Suspicion of the justice system can also run high, particularly on isolated First Nations communities rife with racial tensions and a history of abuse at the hands of external agencies.

Yet for Gray, the hurdles of the job are like any other prosecutor's.

"The sheer volume of work, and the disconnect between the justice system and some of the people that are within it as victims and witnesses, are the largest challenges that every prosecutor faces," he said.

In terms of court statistics, the Manitoba government does not isolate the North. We do know, however, that between 2007-08 and 2012-13, the combined number of new charges in provincial court and new files in federal court rose twice as fast outside of Winnipeg than within.

Fortunately, government has stepped up. When Gray started in Thompson in 1998, there were just four prosecutor positions there and another two in The Pas. Now there are 11 positions in Thompson and five out of The Pas.

Progress has also been made in alleviating an overall lawyer shortage in the region that had the Law Society of Manitoba's Allan Fineblit hauling out the term "crying need" a decade ago.

Gray says this cyclical quandary has diminished with a recent influx of young lawyers, though efforts are ongoing to ensure the North is well stocked with legal talent.

"I try, as does government, to assist, in making living and practising in regional areas (outside Winnipeg) easier," said Gray, a one-time Mountie. "But what has attracted the people that do come here is the opportunity to work on quality files and the chance, for those outside of government employment, to earn significantly more than they would in, or closer to, Winnipeg. Because that is a significant motivation, we need to be careful not to fix things in a way that will have unintended consequences."

Ironically, what may keep some lawyers out of northern Manitoba is the very crime -- overblown by the media as it is -- that would ensure their professional futures.

This is a territory replete with crime-inducing poverty and desperation, to be sure, but Gray says such problems vary by community and are present in non-northern communities, too, including Winnipeg.

For Gray, such social problems help illustrate just how much of a "blunt tool" the criminal justice system is.

"While we have grown increasingly aware and sensitive to issues in some of the communities, it is neither the role or within the capacity of the criminal justice system to address the underlying causes of crime," he said.

Yet for all of its shortcomings, Gray, Vancouver-born and Swan River-raised, feels blessed to live and work in the North.

"If you ask most of the people that moved to Thompson, even the people that have been here since it started, they will tell you they planned to come for two years, or two to three years," he said. "But the North has a way of taking root in some of us, and we never leave. Even when we leave, I think we never leave."


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

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 30, 2014 A11

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