And because of that, Point Douglas has gone from being a high-crime area to a low-crime area in three years.
Many people have followed our struggle as we went from a community with 32 crack houses, a recognizable gang presence, where kids were afraid to go out in the evening, to one with crime but where the criminals are afraid of the community.
What most people aren't aware of is the crucial role aboriginal people living in Point Douglas have played. When the Powerline system was first dreamed of, it was a Métis elder who suggested the strategy. I remember Sandy Dzedzora sitting in our living room, glass of homemade red wine in hand saying: "There are five crack houses on my block. Why don't we start with them."
Two months later the dealers were evicted or arrested and people were phoning: "I've got a crack house on my street, why don't you close that one." And we would and the Powerline was born.
Fifty per cent of the population of Point Douglas is aboriginal, the huge majority wonderful neighbours and community members.
We arranged a community survey, organized by Heather Geddie, which reached into the rooming houses and grungy hotels no survey had reached before. Eighty per cent of the respondents placed gangs, crime and drug sales at the top of the list of problems. Interestingly, 80 per cent of aboriginal people put gangs, crime and drugs at the top of the problems of the community too, the same as the non-aboriginal population. Heather, who operates a home polling business, Point Research, indicated that she had mostly aboriginal interviewers which encouraged participation. Once we got started identifying the crack houses and the gang hangouts we were inundated with anonymous calls letting the Powerline know what the bad guys were up to.
We had a rally, three years ago, "Make Point Douglas a Crack Free Zone". Two hundred people showed up. No one commented at the time, but over half of the crowd were aboriginal people who wanted a safer area to live in.
While the Powerline, the anonymous email and phone line, based at our house, continued to receive information about crack houses, we worried that we would be seen as a white group. Sandy Dzedzora, a Métis elder, and her husband, Terry, a First Nations elder and retired school teacher, continued to support, guide and encourage the Powerline.
One afternoon, two and a half years ago, we received a call on the Powerline that made us realize that everyone was involved in cleaning out the gangs and drugs from Point Douglas.
A very small voice from a young aboriginal mother called: "The Indian Posse have moved in next door and we're scared." After a short conversation, my wife Chris went into action. This was a serious threat, so we went straight to the police. That sounds clear enough. Well, in those days the police didn't always talk to each other. Chris sent the information, address, description, threat, to four different police sections, or silos as they are often called. We don't know which one of the four responded -- the police rarely tell us anything -- but 48 hours later the Posse member was taken out in handcuffs.
That in itself isn't a rare occurrence. What happened next was. The young aboriginal mom was out on the street telling her friends and neighbours "I got rid of the Posse."
What that told us was that the aboriginal community was no more willing to put up with crime than the white community. As we moved the Zig-Zag Crew and other mainly white gangs out of Point Douglas we knew we had the totally honest 95 per cent on side. Criminals knew there were people watching them, honest people who would call if they broke community standards. A son of one of our Powerline folk was working on a construction crew with some putative gang members who were bragging about what streets they controlled. What about Point Douglas? he asked. Oh, we don't go into Point Douglas any more. Too many people are watching.
We didn't ask people to walk the streets, we just suggested, two, three houses on each side of you are your family's turf. If you don't want gangs and crack dealers, give us a call. So ended the code of silence in Point Douglas as the community, white and aboriginal, came together to make a safer place.
There are still criminals living in Point Douglas, white and aboriginal, but they all know that there are many eyes on the street, and the eyes come from the entire Point Douglas community. Most of the time we can convince people it isn't worth their while to deal drugs and hurt people in our area. If they do, we normally get them evicted. Our aboriginal friends taught us that it was much worse to be evicted than sent to jail for a short sentence. A young guy walking along the street with all his possessions in two green plastic garbage bags doesn't make for the same macho image.
We have one remaining crime centre, a rooming house owned and run by a white guy. We received a call from an aboriginal housing organization complaining that this white guy's place is so bad they can't get an aboriginal family to move into the house next door. When disgusting racism rears its ugly head as it did recently in Winnipeg, we need to think of the overwhelming majority of aboriginal people in Winnipeg who are honest neighbours. All of us are part of the solution to crime and the aboriginal community of Point Douglas has proven they want in.
Sel Burrows is a Point Douglas community activist.