Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Statistics create false impression north is the new Wild West

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FLIN FLON -- For a region that touts itself as a safe haven, northern Manitoba faces a somewhat deceptive impediment: hard stats.

Newly released figures from the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics show in 2013, crime was significantly higher in the north than in Manitoba as a whole.

Many sobering realities in northern Manitoba, such as high crime, poverty and dropout rates, are often attributed to socio-economic challenges in First Nations communities.

But when it comes to crime at least, reserves don't tell the full story.

Just contrast Manitoba's per capita crime rate last year (8,316 incidents per 100,000 people) to those of the north's three major centres.

In The Pas, the crime rate was nearly seven times higher. In Thompson it was five times greater and in Flin Flon it was double.

Before anxious northerners put up the "For Sale" signs, however, there is a crucial caveat that demands examination.

Contrasting per capita crime rates in this case can be an exercise fraught with statistical distortion considering there aren't 100,000 people in all of the north, let alone an individual community.

Even a relatively small number of offences can therefore catapult the north's per capita rate much faster than a few incidents in the province as a whole.

No community in Canada has suffered more from misleading per capita crime comparisons than Thompson, which in recent years has borne the dubious title of the nation's "most violent city."

Thompsonites became especially sensitive to this fact last summer following an extensive (and some felt selective) Free Press piece entitled Thompson: Violence in a northern town.

Though no one denies violence represents a dilemma for Thompson, at least in 2013 the city dropped to second place on the per capita violent crime list, surpassed by North Battleford, Sask.

Overall Thompson crime held steady in 2013, meaning the city was able to maintain a dramatic drop of nearly 20 per cent experienced the previous year.

Crime was also level in The Pas and up a modest eight per cent in Flin Flon.

Nevertheless, Flin Flon was once again the safest of the north's "big three" with a per capita crime rate 3.3 times below that of The Pas and 2.6 times below that of Thompson.

One factor is geography, as Flin Flon experiences less traffic from isolated First Nations whose socio-economic conditions, tragically and all too often, breed clashes with the law.

But the real statistical diamond in the rough was the north's next potential boom town, tiny Snow Lake, where there was about one reported crime per week -- 58 for the year -- in 2013.

"People in Snow Lake don't lock their car doors," says MaryAnn Mihychuk, economic development officer for the town. "In fact, when I locked my house door, my neighbour was frustrated because he said, 'Well, what if I had to come in and take care of something and the door's locked?' So it's an unusual culture, but it's a culture of safety and protection."

Mihychuk has wisely incorporated that culture into a marketing campaign that encourages workers commuting to the massive Lalor mine near Snow Lake to instead relocate to the town.

One potentially advantageous (and destructive) trend around northern crime involves the growing use of Facebook as a secondary crime-reporting tool.

Both Thompson and Flin Flon have Facebook pages dedicated to sharing crime stories. While this may help solve some offences, it can also make the situation appear worse than it is given how things tend to spiral out of control on social media.

That's important to note because when it comes to crime and safety, perception is largely reality. And often the perception from outside of northern Manitoba is that this region is the new Wild West.

Unfortunately, the dry facts outlined in police statistics serve to perpetuate that view.

Crime is indeed a tangible concern in northern Manitoba, but so, too, is ensuring the problem is rationally placed into the proper context.


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

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 14, 2014 A13

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