Winnipeg politics isn't divided between left and right. It's divided between those who want to fix Winnipeg's problems and those who think spin is a better solution. Recently, Air Canada decided it would no longer put up its flight crews at the downtown Radisson because downtown is unsafe. Those who attacked the decision as unfair fall comfortably into the spinners' camp.
Air Canada's internal memo was tactless, especially the bizarre decision to pin the blame for crimes on displaced flood victims. But while most observers picked the memo apart, few considered the actual decision in fair context.
It's not as though Air Canada's decision fell from the sky. Several small businesses fled downtown in recent years, complaining bitterly of drunken fights, stabbings, broken windows, aggressive panhandlers and other troubles. Last month, the owner of a promising new downtown business posted online about the "staggering" frequency of public urination nearby.
Downtown's drumbeat of crime denial reached a crescendo last week when Discreet Boutique (on Ellice and Donald, just steps from a liquor store) announced it was shutting down to avoid harassment by neighbourhood drunks. Mayor Sam Katz insisted Air Canada's decision must really be about money. He stuck to this line with Discreet, hinting that crime might have been an excuse for them, too.
Am I the only one who sees a disconnect here? Only in Winnipeg could a supposedly pro-business mayor get re-elected on an anti-crime platform, then breezily attack businesses for complaining about crime less than a year later.
Running a city on spin inevitably generates similar contradictions. Only months ago, Downtown BIZ Director Stefano Grande insisted downtown needed both a police cadet corps and a BIZ patrol. One or the other was not enough. He frequently lobbies for more beat cops and (rightly) wonders why we don't have a crime-prevention plan with measurable targets. Yet if someone dares to suggest that downtown has a safety problem, Grande cranks up the outrage meter. Without irony, he has cited Crimestat statistics to "prove" there's no downtown crime problem after all.
Crimestat's greatest weakness is hidden in plain sight. Consider three sample crimes from 2011. On Feb. 22, a man assaulted two police cadets downtown. On Aug. 31, a man was stabbed downtown. On Sept. 6, a man was stabbed downtown. All three crimes happened on the 300 block of Portage Avenue.
What else do these crimes — and hundreds of others like them — have in common? Not one of them is reported publicly on Crimestat. Non-fatal stabbings, assaults and arsons aren't mapped, nor are sexual assaults in which the attacker knows the victim. Charges laid under Winnipeg's much-hyped but rarely used panhandling bylaw aren't reported either.
However, "crimes against persons" are summarized in an annual police report. The numbers in the most recent (2009) release are grim, but they aren't very up-to-date. In the past, those numbers were released in summer of the following year. It's probably a coincidence that the report's release was delayed until months later for two years in a row — both of them election years.
In any other city, business groups would demand up-to-date mapping of all "crimes against persons" on Crimestat to spur governments to act. The Downtown BIZ thinks it's convincing us by spinning sugar-coated statistics instead.
Incidentally, lining up able-bodied men to say they "feel safe" when petite flight attendants, young mothers, trapped retail workers and weak seniors are regular targets for abuse isn't kidding anybody either.
Dear Stefano, dear Sam: You can't have it both ways. You can't demand an endless stream of new cops, new laws and new equipment on the one hand, and then insist there's no crime problem for them to solve on the other.
I've lived in downtown Winnipeg before and I'd do it again. I often eat breakfast at the downtown Radisson, and I get great service there. But my appreciation for downtowns doesn't change the fact that I've seen Air Canada crews run a gauntlet of belligerent drunks at the hotel more times than I can remember. The only surprise here is that Air Canada didn't leave before.
And speaking of "before," it's no secret that at least one prior owner of the Radisson begged city hall to fight public drunkenness on that corner years ago. Little has changed since. Which might explain why Mayor Katz is so keen to focus on Air Canada's motives, and so eager to shift attention away from the problems he was re-elected to solve.
Brian F. Kelcey served as a political adviser in the mayor's office. He blogs at stateofthecity.ca