Gary Berthelette drives through the streets of Powerview-Pine Falls in a 1994 Chevy van. The vehicle is cluttered, with tools and work equipment scattered about. In contrast, his paperwork, which he carries with him in a leather folder, is neat and tidy — the clean cursive on the pages a relic of a time fading away.
The van doesn’t have air conditioning, so most days he keeps the windows rolled down. His arm dangles in the breeze as he drives, resting against the side of the door. Whenever he passes another vehicle his hand rises in a wave and his head nods. Sometimes he stops and chats with a passerby, before putting his van into gear and continuing on his way.
Powerview-Pine Falls is his home, the place he’s lived all his life. But as he drives through the town’s streets, surveying the state of his community around him, he can’t help but feel like his home is going to hell.
"It really did feel like we were losing the community for quite a while. Now it more feels like a battle," says Berthelette, 57. "There’s a battle going on here for this place."
Manoeuvring his old van over worn streets, on a particularly dry and hot July afternoon, the first-term councillor in the amalgamated municipality points out what he believes to be killing the community he loves.
Raising his arm, his index finger extended outwards, he first points to the drug hotspots and places used needles turn up on the ground, then to the crumbling housing (much of which he thinks should be condemned) and, finally, to the decaying and discarded shell of the paper mill that closed up shop years earlier.
"Before the mill closed down it was a very nice community. You didn’t have the trouble you’re having now. There’s people sick on drugs up here. You go around and see used needles all over the place. On the weekend they’re out walking around like zombies in the middle of the night," Berthelette says, shaking his head.
"After the mill shut down a lot of people just took off. Then we had this slum landlord come in and start buying up houses. He’s just painting over mould and moving people in. He doesn’t care who they are. The stuff that’s happening here, it’s sad."
"Before the mill closed down it was a very nice community. You didn’t have the trouble you’re having now. There’s people sick on drugs up here. You go around and see used needles all over the place. On the weekend they’re out walking around like zombies in the middle of the night"
Berthelette isn’t alone in his view that the town is struggling. Many residents point to the slow decline the community has experienced since the paper mill shut down, rendering roughly 20 per cent of its residents unemployed overnight.
The closure marked the beginning of the end for the place he knew and loved, he says. He pinpoints it as the first spark in a growing fire that’s plagued the town ever since, leading to deteriorating housing and increased drug activity and crime.
The decline of Powerview-Pine Falls, and efforts by residents to push back against it, reached a fever pitch in the spring after a string of incidents that disturbed locals, including a series of break-ins and a mysterious and prolonged lockdown at the hospital.
That led to hastily organized town hall meetings, attended by RCMP, local politicians and hundreds of residents. The message was clear: something has to be done.
At one meeting in early April, RCMP Staff Sgt. Glen Reitlo stood in front of the crowd of concerned citizens and confirmed what they already knew: methamphetamine was ravaging the town and its local police detachment was stretched thin. At the same meeting, a woman stood up holding a plastic bag with a used needle in it; they were being found daily on the ground.
"You’ve got to tackle the problems. You can’t just close your eyes to it. It really is a tragedy what’s going on here, because it’s such a beautiful community," Berthelette says, pulling into his driveway and putting the van in park.
"We cannot let this place be run and taken over, because that’s what’s happening here. They’re trying to take it over."
Located on the southern bank of the Winnipeg River, up a narrow, winding highway flanked by lush forest, Pine Falls was, and in some ways still is, a paper mill town.
Created by the Manitoba Pulp and Paper Company in the 1920s, the community was forged to accommodate the men who staffed the mill and the logging camps that fed it with fir, spruce and jack pine.
In 2005, Pine Falls, formerly unincorporated, was amalgamated with the community of Powerview, which was named after the nearby hydroelectric dam. Ever since the two communities became one, a sign reading "Powerview-Pine Falls" greets visitors at the edge of town.
To get to that sign, located 120 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, you have to pass through Sagkeeng First Nation, which wraps around the Winnipeg River and blankets the town on both sides.
Sagkeeng's struggles, which include substance abuse, crime, violence and widespread poverty, are well-known, due to a number of prominent criminal cases connected to the community and a high concentration of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
The First Nation made national headlines in 2014 with the death of Tina Fontaine, a 15-year-old runaway whose 72-pound body was pulled from Winnipeg’s Red River that August, wrapped in a duvet and weighed down with rocks. Then, in April 2017, the community was again thrust into the national spotlight following the beating death of 19-year-old Serena McKay. The killing was perpetrated by two teenage girls who filmed the vicious attack and posted it on social media.
Staff Sgt. Reitlo says law enforcement looks at Powerview-Pine Falls and Sagkeeng First Nation not as separate entities, but one large community.
"There is no isolation, and the proximity of these two communities means the issues (facing them) are the same," he says.
The area is picturesque, filled with lush trees and large patches of green grass. In the summer, at first glance, it gives off the vibe of a vacation town, spotted with gardens, picnic tables, an ice cream shop and a golf course. A small, idyllic park sits at the centre of Pine Falls, which was built in concentric circles against the backdrop of the old paper mill.
For generations Pine Falls was a private town, which meant everything was taken care of by the mill. Its existence ensured steady employment, where an honest wage could be earned for an honest day’s work.
If there were any problems, people called the mill. If something broke down at the local hockey arena, for example, an employee was sent to fix it. People’s lawns were trimmed short and their houses painted, and — if not — the mill dealt with it, the cost deducted from the resident’s paycheque.
Rumours and rumblings spread through town for decades suggesting business was declining and the mill would shut down. But as the years went by, nothing happened.
The first major change came in the early 2000s, when Tembec announced Pine Falls would have to become self-sufficient and could no longer count on company support. The amalgamation with Powerview soon followed in 2005.
Then, four years later, the other shoe dropped during a labour dispute. In response, Tembec closed the mill for good, citing the declining demand for newsprint.
Within a few years the building itself was gone, bulldozed and destroyed. Where once stood the community’s heart, the site where hundreds of people made their living and spent their working lives, nothing was left but a few pieces of scrap metal and some old, rusting equipment.
The shuttering of the mill was the first domino to fall. It set off a chain of events that helped lead to deteriorating housing, rising costs and a spike in drug use and crime.
Eventually, it would also lead to heated town hall meetings in April when residents would finally say enough was enough.
"It was a mill town, and the demise of that has really resonated down through the years. That era is gone. It’s a tough pill to swallow for a lot of people. It’s hard to tell them, ‘That’s never coming back,’" says Sharon Desiatnyk, the town’s chief administrative officer.
"Everyone always said, ‘Oh, the mill’s (supposedly) been closing for 30 years. It never does.’ That’s how everyone looked at it. But then it really did."
At its peak, it’s estimated the paper mill employed more than 400 people. By the time it shut down, about 250 residents worked there, meaning one-fifth of the town suddenly found itself out of work. The community has never recovered from the loss.
The Statistics Canada 2016 census shows Powerview-Pine Falls had an unemployment rate of 13.8 per cent, more than double the provincial average. The town seems plagued by underemployment, as well. Of the 500 people classified as employed in the 2016 census, 360 worked part-time.
In the aftermath of the mill closing down, people began packing up and moving out of town. Eager to leave for communities with more economic opportunity, many sold their homes for whatever price they could get. Some, Berthelette says, simply abandoned their properties.
It was then everything started to change. Berthelette claims a landlord, then based out of Winnipeg, soon arrived in town and started buying any property with a price tag lower than $70,000.
That landlord has played a significant role in the deterioration of the community, Berthelette says. Not only does he believe the condition of housing has grown worse wherever the landlord gets his hands on it, he also thinks those properties are fuelling the town’s growing meth problem.
"A lot of the places he’s renting out are just shacks. They should have been torn down. They got plastic and cardboard on the windows. He rents them out to anybody, then the RCMP has to take care of the problems. They’re at his houses steady," Berthelette says, driving through town, pointing out the landlord’s properties, one after another.
"This is how you get a lot of people moving in that are hooked on these drugs. This slum landlord, he’s got to go. Something has to be done. This community doesn’t matter to him. He’s a disease here."
Berthelette isn’t alone in identifying the landlord as a serious source of concern. Three other residents who spoke to the Free Press independently named him, saying everyone in town knows his properties are a huge problem. In particular, drug activity was repeatedly stated as a cause of concern at his houses.
The Free Press made numerous attempts to speak with the landlord, including attempting to track him down with the help of various residents and town officials. Those efforts were unsuccessful.
Meanwhile, some residents say the situation at the local trailer park — which is owned by a different landlord — is deteriorating to dangerous levels. Berthelette believes the trailers, many of which have boarded-up windows and appear to be falling apart, are filled with mould and pose a safety hazard to the people living there.
"These trailers are very bad. These need to be condemned," he says.
Richard Graham, the trailer park’s manager, admits when he took over running the place in 2014 some tenants were selling drugs out of their trailers. Since then, however, he says they’ve cleaned the place up and have implemented a stricter screening process. He also takes exception to the idea the park should be condemned.
"I think the trailers are in good shape. They’re old trailers, sure, but we’re fixing them up all the time. We’ve got good tenants here now, none of the meth-heads that are causing all of the trouble are living here anymore," Graham says.
Sitting behind her desk at the municipal office, Desiatnyk, the town’s CAO, admits there are issues with the state of housing in the community — in particular, the low-income rental properties identified by Berthelette and others.
"There are a lot of issues facing this community and they’re all intertwined. Our community isn’t alone in that. The closure of the mill was huge. The drug addiction here is huge. A lot of the theft is then carried out to fuel the addiction. These are all spokes on the same wheel," she says.
"When we meet with the RCMP our community is red-flagged in almost every area of concern. But without a doubt, this is a small community and it has more rental properties than should be warranted. There’s no denying that fact."
But it isn’t only rental properties owned by private landlords that residents identify as an issue. Berthelette also says the state of Manitoba Housing has become a serious blight. That concern was echoed by other locals who spoke to the Free Press.
In a written statement provided to the Free Press, a Manitoba Housing spokeswoman said $90,000 was invested in repairing and maintaining the 45 units it manages in Powerview-Pine Falls in 2017, with a similar amount expected this year. She added that the agency has been an active partner in efforts to address illicit drug activity in the community.
Berthelette counters that rather than helping the town as it’s going through a difficult time, the Provincial government — through its Crown corporation — is actively making the situation worse.
Driving through a residential neighbourhood, Berthelette pulls his van over to the curb. He points at a blue house on the block, saying it’s one of the Manitoba Housing units in town. The lawn is covered in crumpled beer cans and other trash. One of the home’s front windows is smashed, the glass left broken and jagged; another is boarded-up.
"For Manitoba Housing to keep their buildings in these conditions is disgusting. They’re one of our biggest problems here. That window has been broken like that for over a year. There was a (drug) dealer living here, but they busted him four or five months ago," Berthelette says.
"Our tax dollars are funding this, then we’re the ones that have to put up with it. What the hell is their screening process?"
Another resident, who did not want to be named, put it differently: "Manitoba Housing, they’re slum landlords, too."
Rental properties are not the only thing Powerview-Pine Falls has more than its fair share of. At the municipal office, where a large map of the amalgamated communities hangs on the wall, Desiatnyk mentions that for a town of 1,300 people there are an awful lot of pharmacies.
Currently there are at least three places where you can fill a prescription, with a fourth rumoured to be in the works. There’s also a pharmacy on Sagkeeng. Desiatnyk isn’t sure how the high concentration of pharmacies plays into the illicit drug problem, but she suspects the two are connected.
"For such a small community, we have a lot of pharmacies. That obviously has its own role in the situation with drugs here. People aren’t driving in all the way from Selkirk to fill a prescription, so obviously there’s a demand," she says.
The two main pharmacies are located across the street from each other, separated by a crosswalk in the area of town known as Rupert’s Landing. Berthelette says, unsurprisingly, the area has become a hot spot for illicit drug dealing.
Consequently, he says it’s also a place where you’re likely to find used needles discarded on the ground. Buying illicit drugs there is as easy as buying a pack of cigarettes, and often one can be done just as openly as the other, he says.
"They do a lot of dealing around there, right where the pharmacies are. Middle of the day, it doesn’t matter. You’ll see a lot of action going on there, especially at the end of the month," he says. "It was bad enough (that) the town ended up setting up cameras to try to combat it."
Adel Adly, the pharmacist manager at Nations First Pharmacy, one of the two pharmacies located at Rupert’s Landing, says he disagrees with the notion there’s any connection between the number of pharmacies in town and illicit drug use in the community.
"All we do is fill prescriptions from doctors. We always follow the rules. There’s lots of oversight. It’s all regulated, controlled, documented," Adly says.
The Pine Falls Health Complex is another place prescriptions can be filled, in addition to being written. In April, the hospital was the site of a mysterious and prolonged lockdown that drew media attention.
While the Interlake Regional Health Authority remained tight-lipped on the cause of the lockdown, RCMP later confirmed it was initiated after an individual reportedly made threats against medical staff. According to numerous residents, it wasn’t the first time doctors and nurses have been threatened at the hospital and many locals suspect the threats had something to do with drugs.
As has been the case in Winnipeg, spikes in drug use (particularly meth) often lead to increases in violent and property crimes. While the break-in sprees have always been cyclical in Powerview-Pine Falls, things took a turn for the worse in the spring.
The community was averaging a break-in every two days in March, RCMP statistics show. And not only were the break-ins growing more frequent, they were becoming more volatile.
On the Pine Falls side of the municipality, in a dark living room with the curtains drawn, a woman — whom the Free Press has agreed not to name — sits in a recliner and recounts the day in April when she came home to discover her home had been broken into. That would serve as one of the catalysts for the town hall meetings.
On Easter Sunday, the woman, a retired grandmother, made a trip out of town to visit her daughter. Before leaving, she made the decision that it wouldn’t be an overnight trip.
Given the string of recent break-ins in the community, she told her daughter she wasn’t comfortable spending even one night away from home. But after a turkey dinner and some cajoling from her grandkids, she changed her mind and spent the night.
She drove home first thing the next morning, pulling into her driveway at about 1 p.m. In total, she’d spent 25 hours away.
When she walked into her veranda she saw that her TV had been dragged out, alongside a fitted sheet filled with frozen food and reusable shopping bags stuffed with clothing and personal belongings.
"Food had been thrown, and then people had walked on it. It was just disgusting. There was a powder, a white powder of some sort. I don’t know if it was corn starch. I don’t know if it was flour. I don’t know if it was drugs. But it was everywhere. I just had to walk out. I could feel the evil in my home"
Two things were immediately clear to her. The first, that she’d been robbed. The second, that whoever had robbed her was unable to carry everything on the first trip and planned to return.
What she found inside shocked and disturbed her. After pushing her way into the door, which was blocked by belongings scattered and stacked behind the frame, she discovered her home had been trashed. It was complete mayhem, so turned over she couldn’t see the floor.
"I walked inside and just stopped right away. I was just distraught. I could not believe — it was like, ‘Oh my God.’ The place was ransacked. Everything was everywhere. In every room it was like stuff had been put in a drum, turned around, then scattered. Every drawer turned. In my bedroom, it took a whole day just to find the bottom of the bed," she says, months later.
"Food had been thrown, and then people had walked on it. It was just disgusting. There was a powder, a white powder of some sort. I don’t know if it was corn starch. I don’t know if it was flour. I don’t know if it was drugs. But it was everywhere. I just had to walk out. I could feel the evil in my home."
She phoned RCMP and minutes later an officer pulled up. She says even the responding Mountie was shocked by the level of destruction.
"The cop came in. He was just walking around the house saying, ‘Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God,’ every room he went into," she says.
She eventually followed the Mountie into her basement to survey the damage. It was as bad as the rest of the house. At the bottom of the steps, the officer found two steel bars, similar in size and weight to lead pipes. They didn’t belong to her.
"I don’t like leaving my house anymore, not even for a bit of gardening out front. I get emotional. I have trouble doing the things I’m supposed to. To this day, I swear I have PTSD”
"What would they have done with those? What would have happened to me had I come back while they were still here?" she says, emotion taking over her voice.
All told, after the damage was sorted through, she estimates she lost $30,000 in possessions. Electronics, food, personal effects, family heirlooms and jewelry had been taken, on top of her personal paperwork, passport and keys. While most of it has never been found, some of her jewelry turned up at the pawn shop in Sagkeeng.
In the weeks after the robbery, she wasn’t sure she would ever be able to stay in her home again. It took more than a month before she returned, moving back only after a priest blessed the home.
When asked how she’s been holding up since the robbery, she leans back in her recliner and shakes her head.
"It was a violation," she says. "It was like being violated. Even thinking about it, even after all this time, I still get emotional.
"I don’t like leaving my house anymore, not even for a bit of gardening out front. I get emotional. I have trouble doing the things I’m supposed to. To this day, I swear I have PTSD."
Hers wasn’t the only home ransacked during the string of break-ins this spring. Another home, owned by a husband and wife who declined comment for this story, was destroyed in a similar fashion.
In their case, however, in addition to trashing the home, the thieves also reportedly defecated and urinated throughout the house. The entire place had to be gutted and sits empty now. When reached by the Free Press months after the incident, the couple was still living at a local hotel during their ongoing house repairs.
Following back-to-back break-ins in which homes were destroyed, a town hall meeting was organized. People had begun feeling unsafe in their homes, according to Berthelette, and those who didn’t have security systems started installing them. While he recognizes he could also become a victim, Berthelette thinks his dog — a large boxer named Buster — deters would-be thieves.
"These weren’t just normal break-ins. These were savage break-ins. It’s unreal how much they were wrecking things. People were scared to be alone in their own homes, and that’s not right. I’ve got my dog, but you never know. I could be a victim just like anybody else," he says.
At the meeting, RCMP told residents they needed help to effectively combat the crime and drug use in town. In response, preliminary plans were made to organize a community watch group. Town council has since earmarked funds for the group and a committee has been established to organize volunteers. Since then the community has become more engaged and calls to RCMP to report suspicious activity have increased.
Sitting in a boardroom at the Powerview-Pine Falls RCMP detachment, Staff Sgt. Louis Jenvenne, who heads up the unit, says the increased vigilance from residents has led to arrests.
"We have a lot more people reporting suspicious activity. We may not be able to answer every single (call), but the fact they’re out there watching and we can respond to as many as we can, we are making arrests and we are laying charges as a result of these calls," Jenvenne says.
"The more we have people out there watching, looking, listening, the more we’ll be able to deal directly with problems. And it’s a very important deterrence. People know that people are being watched. That’s important."
In late June, to the relief of residents, RCMP executed a major drug bust, charging four people for alleged involvement in a Manitoba meth and cocaine trafficking ring. Those charged are accused of distributing drugs in Winnipeg, Lac Du Bonnet, Fort Alexander and Sagkeeng First Nation.
When the list of the accused was released, many residents were shocked to read one of the names: Kristen Dube, 35, the daughter of Powerview-Pine Falls Mayor Bev Dube.
The mayor did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
"I think people were kind of shocked over it. You don’t think people you know are going to be involved in something like that — especially the mayor’s daughter. You know where she comes from. They’re good people. She just fell in the cracks," Berthelette says.
Desiatnyk agrees with local RCMP that increased community engagement and the fledgling neighbourhood watch are positive developments. After the mill shut down, she says residents pulled back from the formerly tight-knit community.
"The mill closing was the catalyst for so much of this. There was a disengagement that occurred and it’s taken this long for the community to see the repercussions of that disengagement. If there’s any good that’s come out of this huge rash of crime it’s that the community is now starting to re-engage," she says.
Even now, nearly a decade after the mill closing, the community’s future seems bound to its past. In April, the town got word a development company had purchased the 1,200-acre mill site. The company has since put up a sign that reads: Pine Falls Tech Park Coming Soon.
Desiatnyk says when the new council convenes after the October municipal election, there are plans to have to them sit down and focus on long-term planning for the town.
"The mill left almost a decade ago and that’s been really tough. We need to get an identity back. Even the amalgamation was tough. The town of Powerview-Pine Falls, it doesn’t fit on a grant application," Desiatnyk says.
"But when the new council sits, the focus is going to be on: OK, you have a magic wand, money isn’t an obstacle, what do you want to see happen? What could this town be in 10 years? And then we’ll see what happens from there."
While it remains unclear what’s happening at the mill site, the news has sparked optimism that better days may be on the horizon. It only makes sense that a paper town, following its demise, could find rebirth in the ashes of the mill.
Sitting on his deck, overlooking his property lined with the trees that served as the lifeblood of his community for nearly a century, Berthelette watches his dog wander around the yard. Then his gaze fixes across the lawn, out to the water of the Winnipeg River, where the sun burns bright in a cloudless sky.
"You know, I ran for council to try to keep this place going. We need to fight to keep this place. Somebody bought the mill site, so maybe we can get something going there again. We need something here job-wise," he says, before whistling his dog over to him.
"I love this community. It’s beautiful here. That’s why people love this town. It’s been rough, it really has been. But you’ve just got to keep fighting for this place."
Ryan Thorpe likes the pace of daily news, the feeling of a broadsheet in his hands and the stress of never-ending deadlines hanging over his head.
Updated on Sunday, July 22, 2018 at 11:46 AM CDT: Clarifies unemployment rate