Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister says he’s open to channelling justice funding to preventive programs, but questions whether defunding police is the best approach — warning there will always be criminals taking advantage of vulnerable people.

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Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister says he’s open to channelling justice funding to preventive programs, but questions whether defunding police is the best approach — warning there will always be criminals taking advantage of vulnerable people.

"I think the motivation that lies in frustrations of the actions of some police services — not necessarily here in Winnipeg exclusively, but elsewhere — is justifiable and understandable, and I get it," Pallister said Tuesday, when asked to comment on the 30,000 signatures collected for a Justice 4 Black Lives Winnipeg petition calling for the abolition of the city police.

"But then moving to defunding police is, to me, an illogical step from that one. Don’t let your frustration lose your common sense... There’s a lot of people out there in vulnerable communities who depend on the police to protect them and make sure they’re safe from the action of criminals."

There has been a widespread call to restructure police funding in the wake of George Floyd’s death May 25 in Minneapolis.

Floyd, an unarmed and handcuffed Black man, died as a result of a police officer kneeling on his neck for almost nine minutes. Outrage over his death and racial injustice sparked demonstrations in cities across the globe, including June 5 in Winnipeg.

"In response to the tragic murder of a Black man in Minneapolis recently, there’s been an outcry that’s been simmering for some time and on various fronts about ending racism," Pallister said.

"I think that’s a cause well worth standing up for. As far as how we best get public safety, that’s an issue that requires research, diligence and dialogue," which he said his government is engaged in.

"We have really focused on investing greater sums than ever before on co-operative, preventative measures because that’s how we see the long-term direction being improved for our province — helping people stay away from a life of crime rather than throwing more money at the problem itself," Pallister said.

The premier said the province has invested almost $30 million in 17 initiatives since last October, targeting addictions and mental health.

His comments about spending more than ever on preventive measures were questioned by some social service advocates and community organizations that have lost provincial funding.

"If there’s only so much to go around, we want the provincial government to be looking at where they’re spending their money," said Kate Kehler, executive director of the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg.

"If they’re spending tax dollars on broken systems, that’s a waste of money."

The budget for incarcerating 2,000 Manitobans is more than $200 million a year, while spending on community programs that deter crime is a small fraction of that.

BORIS MINKEVICH / FREE PRESS FILES

The budget for incarcerating 2,000 Manitobans is more than $200 million a year, while spending on community programs that deter crime is a small fraction of that.

The budget for incarcerating 2,000 Manitobans is more than $200 million a year, while spending on community programs that deter crime is a small fraction of that.

"When people hear $200 million, they’re thinking we’re locking up thousands, but that’s the incredible cost of just locking up 2,000 people." By comparison, the province announced $2.8 million in new funding for restorative justice, Kehler noted.

"But it’s not nearly enough and not nearly addressing the problem."

There have been three problems with the Pallister government’s response to marginalized communities most affected by racial injustice, said Sid Frankel, who is on the national steering committee of Campaign 2000, a movement to eliminate poverty in Canada.

“When people hear $200 million, they’re thinking we’re locking up thousands, but that’s the incredible cost of just locking up 2,000 people.” – Kate Kehler

The government has worsened the situation for marginalized and poor communities by limiting eligibility to Rent Assist, not supporting school lunch programs, and letting inflation erode the Manitoba Child Benefit and Employment and Income Assistance, said Frankel, an associate professor in the faculty of social work at the University of Manitoba, whose research focuses on poverty-reduction policy.

This is important, he said, because socio-economic status is a key determinant of health and mental health status, healthy child development, educational and occupational success, and the likelihood of engaging in risky behaviour.

The Pallister government has removed or decreased funding to many inner-city community organizations — crucial in providing social support and crisis intervention for the most marginalized populations, said Frankel.

The Pallister government has removed or decreased funding to many inner-city community organizations — crucial in providing social support and crisis intervention for the most marginalized population.

JOHN WOODS / CANADIAN PRESS FLES

The Pallister government has removed or decreased funding to many inner-city community organizations — crucial in providing social support and crisis intervention for the most marginalized population.

It has also decreased funding to the City of Winnipeg, which has, in turn, cut part or total funding to many inner-city organizations, he added.

"As the only organization focused on social services and preventative family services for Muslim and newcomer Manitobans, we know, first-hand, how important social services and counselling services for our people are," said Shahina Siddiqui, the founder and volunteer executive director of the Islamic Social Services Association.

The Pallister government cut funding for a pilot project for preventive family services, even though it was successful, she said Tuesday.

"We have seen our youth recruited to gangs and killed in recent years, but do not have the resources to provide consistent services and programming," Siddiqui said. The association has worked with police to address social issues that have tragic results if not addressed, she said.

"I hope the government is serious this time about prevention and put resources where they are needed."

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.

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