Meeting place marred But city must take care not to overreact after dispiriting spate of violence at The Forks
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Not long ago, on one of the first warm and rainless days of summer, I brought a young Ukrainian family to The Forks for an afternoon of exploring the grounds. I’d first met them in Poland, while reporting on the humanitarian needs that flowed out from the war; they’d arrived in Canada a few weeks earlier, and I was excited to show them around.
It was a beautiful day to discover. The kids scampered up hills and cavorted over the playground near the main market site. Their mother, delighted, snapped photos of the verdant path by the river, the Ai Weiwei bicycle sculpture and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. We had french fries and ice cream, and bought a bag of mini-donuts.
And I was proud then to see The Forks through fresh eyes, to notice which parts of it inspired a first-time visitor to pull out her phone and capture the image forever. It is beautiful, when you step back to observe it: the trees, the river, the sandstone monoliths that stand vigil at the Oodena Celebration Circle. A graceful site, balanced, accessible and lively.
In a city which struggles to enact any long-term, visionary rehabilitation of urban space, The Forks is a rare exception. I’ve written before that its evolution since the 1990s has been, in my mind, one of the few such projects this city has truly done right. The proof is in the people: how many of us take visitors there first, wanting to show Winnipeg in its best light?
That is why it hit the public consciousness so hard, when a string of violent attacks struck The Forks last week.
The first incident came on June 27. A father and a daughter were walking back to their car, when they were assaulted in the parking lot by a group of teen girls who had demanded money; chilling, because it was so random, and because it happened in the full light of early evening. Less than 30 hours later, two men were stabbed near the market after midnight.
And on the night of July 1, two newcomers from Ukraine were leaving The Forks, walking back to the downtown apartment they’d just moved into that day, when they were confronted by a group of people. One of the Ukrainians, a 22-year-old man, was stabbed in the neck. He will live, but has told a bystander who helped him that he wants to leave Winnipeg.
I read that news with a knot in my chest, remembering how, just a few weeks earlier, I had taken my own Ukrainian friends there, wanting them to see those best parts of the city. Wanting to show them the places where Winnipeg thrives, where we can all gather and savour the simplest good things in life. Wanting them to know, in so doing, that they belonged.
So that incident horrified Winnipeggers, for understandable reason. The converging details of place and victims stood as a bitter betrayal of the hope we carry for The Forks, and by extension the whole city. We wish for our communities to be safe and to be welcoming, especially for those who most need it; but we cannot always make them that way.
At the same time, we must guard against overreaction. Every week, thousands of visitors flock to The Forks, and most enjoy their day without incident; it’s not common for the site to have such an outburst of violence in so few days. As of now, there is little reason to think that something fundamental has changed, and so any response ought to be measured.
Yet these incidents should prompt us to consider safety, especially at these sites where people most gather.
On a broad level, we have a pretty good sense of what affects the rate of violent crime. The root causes are tangled, but they are no mystery: enforced poverty, intergenerational trauma and inadequate or outright harmful social support systems are all things that play a big role. That is a song we have sung for many years, and will keep singing for a long time.
In regard to the June 27 incident, for instance, I hope we can agree that if children aged 13 to 15 are assaulting strangers, then something in their lives has been terribly broken through no fault of their own. There can be no big picture of public safety in Winnipeg without confronting those issues; unfortunately, none of them can be solved overnight.
But what else can we do, to hold up the faith that our most important community sites can, and ought to be, safe?
On Twitter, mayoral candidate Glen Murray wrote that “we need eyes on the street in and around the Forks,” and proposed, among other things, beefing up community policing and putting beat cops in the area. I’m not so sure that’s the answer: for one thing, police time is expensive, yet increased police expenditures do not typically correlate with a decrease in crime.
The bigger wrinkle, though, is that communities’ experience of policing is unequal. The presence of police would make some feel safer, but it does not have that effect on people who, due to race or class, are most impacted by overpolicing. In that way, boosting police presence would also send a more divisive message about who The Forks is perceived to be for.
Last year, I joined a march through The Forks, in memory of children stolen by residential schools. As the group passed by Johnson Terminal on their way to the Oodena circle, police suddenly surrounded an Indigenous man, holding him against their cruiser. The man did not physically resist, but only pleaded to know why he was being detained.
I overheard an officer say they’d been told the man had a knife; but a search found no such thing. The crowd, including now-suspended Manitoba Grand Chief Arlen Dumas, intervened, and after a few minutes the man was released. It wasn’t a major incident, in the grand scheme of things, but it did underline who police are most likely to view with suspicion.
The presence of police would make some feel safer, but it does not have that effect on people who, due to race or class, are most impacted by overpolicing.
We don’t need more of that, at The Forks. We must, above all, hold it as a place where all who come can feel free.
But there could be other options. Community patrol groups, such as Bear Clan, have provided effective security and support at many public events, and their work focuses on providing a safe presence through non-violent intervention; Winnipeg as a whole could benefit from engaging and adapting this model further. Maybe The Forks could too.
Whatever route it chooses to take, it must not lose its spirit. The Forks is, by its nature, an idealistic endeavour, an ancient meeting place continued in modern directions. It’s a place for families, teens with skateboards and countless first dates. A place for tourists and newcomers to Canada. A place for all of us to share the simplest joys of life together.
To remain all these things, it cannot be a place of violence. But neither should it become more closed. For years, The Forks has been working towards becoming a living model of what Winnipeg as a whole can be: open, diverse and welcoming. Let us not allow the heartbreaking events of last week cloud the light it has been shining.
Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.