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Sociological responses to crime needed

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper rejected calls for an inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women on Thursday, calling the Tina Fontaine case a crime, but not a "sociological phenomenon." Pressure for such an inquiry has been mounting since the 15-year-old's body was pulled out of the Red River Sunday. Fontaine's slaying puts her name among thousands of other aboriginal women and girls as a murder statistic.

Premier Greg Selinger was clearly upset by these remarks. "It's not just a crime," he said. "It's a situation that speaks to who we are as citizens and how we treat each other."

The failure of this prime minister to understand that crime is by its very definition a sociological phenomenon is really not that surprising, given the strong law-and-order stance of the Harper Conservatives. It's all about locking up the bad guy and not so much about prevention, because let's face it talking about prevention is expensive, it doesn't have obvious deliverables and it won't sell to voters living in the suburbs, so concerned about their safety they take to Facebook to rant about drunken panhandlers.

Those serious about the issues of homelessness and children know it is a sociological issue. It is all about poverty and homelessness and racism.

Take for instance Resource Assistance for Youth Inc. or RaY as it's called. Executive director Kelly Holmes says Tina's death was a "worst-case scenario" created in part by funding decisions that divert money away from working with kids to pay for floods and forest fires. For Holmes, organizations such as hers should be considered as important as the fire department or the police service, because they too are front-line workers that save lives. Holmes says organizations that work with at-risk youth are "passionate about not losing kids" but they are all working with inconsistent funding and increased administrative burdens that chip away at the ability to supply services.

It's a hard sell in these neo-liberal times to see funding diverted to programs that allow workers to sit beside street kids and play video games with them, in the hope that at some point you can get that kid to open up and talk about hopelessness and violence. Holmes says her organization services 100 kids between the ages of 16 to 29, but a funding cut in April means they are now forced to shut the doors two nights a week.

One suggestion that came out of Tuesday night's march was to actually locate aboriginal grandmothers inside Portage Place mall, the site where Tina was last seen. The idea would be that perhaps aboriginal elders working inside the mall could reach out and help young girls who use the mall as their more modern meeting place.

This is not an unusual idea. In the late 1980s, Canada's largest mall, West Edmonton Mall, was also a beacon for runaways and homeless young people. Working in conjunction with the Edmonton police, the Rotary Club, the Youth Emergency Centre and the Boys' and Girls' Club, the mall opened its doors to an alternative high school offering educational programming for street kids who called the mall home. The mall offered a video arcade, open 24 hours a day so runaways could be safe and warm. But after the high-profile rape and murder of a 13-year-old girl who also used the mall as her meeting place, the mall's dynamic changed. Now, those doors are locked at night. Fewer teenagers hanging around the mall means less need for an alternative high school and it has since closed its doors, too.

I get it. It's difficult to defend a program when a pretty 13-year-old is raped and murdered. Even if that program helped for a while. So it's a return to a law-and-order approach.

Winnipeg also offered alternative high school programming in the St. Vital Centre in the 1990s. It was staffed by a few teachers who were suited to working with at-risk youth. It included work experience right there in the mall as well as traditional credit attainment. Those who work in education, mentoring at-risk youths, suggest it likely stopped operating because it was difficult to find staff who could work with youth in trouble.

The province offers a "wrap-around" approach to children and families in crisis. COACH is a 24-hour program available to kids between the ages of five and 11 and their families, offering support both in school and in the community. It addresses the complex issues behind familial dysfunction. The problem is that this, too, is limited. At most 36 kids at a time can be taken into the program and the cut-off is 12 years old. Tina would have been too old.

The bottom line is that this is complicated, messy, difficult to pin down. It's not law-and-order black and white, with clear dichotomies of right and wrong. As Manitoba's minister of family services, Kerri Irvin-Ross knows helping kids, street kids, runaway kids, aboriginal kids is a complex situation. "We need to broadly involve education, child and family services, health and mental health services to adequately target youth," she said.

It speaks a lot to how we treat each other.


Shannon Sampert is the Free Press perspectives and politics editor.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 23, 2014 A17

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