Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Tackling the crime statistics

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A common criticism of the annual release of crime statistics is that the information is woefully incomplete. The numbers say nothing about who is committing what kinds of crimes, their ages and education levels and whether they are repeat offenders responsible for multiple offences.

It doesn't take too much research, however, to discover aboriginals, as an individual group, are at the top of the heap for criminal involvement.

Aboriginal people represent less than three per cent of the Canadian population, yet they account for nearly 20 per cent of those in federal institutions. In the Prairie provinces, 50 per cent of prisoners are aboriginal. One report said 70 per cent of the inmates in Manitoba alone are aboriginal.

Their overrepresentation in the criminal justice system is not the result of some genetic deformity or innate criminality. The vast majority of native offenders can trace their problems to the historic exclusion and mistreatment of their ancestors by white society, a systemic abuse that destroyed their cultures and relegated most to poverty, despair and hopelessness. Many claim racism is an ongoing problem that prevents them from overcoming their problems.

The issues are well-known, but worth repeating following the release of two reports that show Winnipeg and Manitoba suffer from violent crime rates above the national norm. Crime overall is declining -- probably because of the aging population; older people don't offend as frequently as young men -- but several cities in the Prairie provinces are bucking the trend in terms of violent crime.

Winnipeg experienced a six per cent increase in the violent crime severity index last year with a total rate that was double the Canadian average. Thunder Bay, Saskatoon, Regina and Edmonton are close behind. (The crime severity index considers both the volume of crime and the seriousness of crime to provide a more accurate description of the challenges facing a particular community.)

These cities and their provinces share one thing in common beyond high rates of crime -- large aboriginal populations. The four Prairie provinces and Ontario account for 80 per cent of Canada's native population, with 60 per cent of those in the western provinces.

Other groups and non-native gangs are also responsible for Winnipeg's crime problems, but the high rate of aboriginal involvement cannot be ignored or dismissed.

It shows a community in crisis and in desperate need of help. And while a disproportionate number of aboriginals may be perpetrators, they are also heavily represented as victims of crime.

The problem has been debated and discussed for decades, yet the emergency has produced little more than well-meaning platitudes and minor initiatives.

Much more needs to be done in the areas of education, job creation and community rebuilding.

Of course, there are no quick and easy solutions, but the longer the problem festers, the harder it will be to reverse the downward spiral. Edmonton launched an aggressive 10-year program in 2009 to end homelessness, and it is already making a difference, with more than 1,000 new social housing units in the works. It's just one program in one city, but it shows seemingly insurmountable problems can be overcome with determination and commitment.

It's noteworthy Edmonton's business community took the lead, recognizing that the community's long-term economic success depended on successfully integrating homeless people.

Two years from now, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights will open to great fanfare, but the risk is the museum's noble mission and iconic architecture may seem incompatible in a city known for its desperate underclass.

We can't fix the problem in two years, but the community can demand it be made a long-term priority by all levels of government.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 27, 2012 A10

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