It is hardly surprising that late-night drinking establishments in the city's core draw patrons who have crime and violence on their minds. Alcohol, when combined with the late evening or early morning hours, often produces tragic results.
Such was the case last Sunday at 3 a.m. outside the venerable Windsor Hotel on Garry Street. Three young men were shot, one 20-year-old suffered fatal wounds. An argument inside the hotel apparently spilled out into an adjoining parking lot, where the deadly encounter took place.
The Winnipeg Police Service acknowledged the Windsor had been "on our radar" for some time. That also is not surprising; police seized drugs, guns and large amounts of cash in three incidents at the Windsor over a five-day span in early November. In yet another incident last year, a woman was threatened at gunpoint and struck with the butt-end of a shotgun.
At that time, police expressed concern that the 117-year-old hotel was becoming a hot spot for criminal activity. Insp. Max Waddell suggested that steps be taken to pull the hotel's liquor licence. Withdrawing the right of the owner to serve alcohol would be, Waddell said, "a move in the right direction."
For anyone who has enjoyed live music at the Windsor, those words had to sting just a bit.
Every city needs a few long-standing, shabby bars full of character. Joints that are solely devoted to quiet drinking, mingling and, quite often, live music. These are the drinking establishments that serve as an effective antidote to the pre-packaged, over-priced fake pubs and bars that are ubiquitous today.
A venue with a long and notable history of live blues music, the Windsor, for the majority of its lifespan, had been one of those wonderfully shabby but generally safe places to go for genuine downtown culture. It was particularly loved by aficionados of the blues, a genre of music best consumed amid small, unbalanced tables, rickety chairs and deliberately insufficient lighting.
Lamentably, in recent years the Windsor Hotel has become, as the police have so graphically noted, more dangerous. It is certainly not alone among downtown bars that have become havens for criminals and violence.
The Main Street location of Johnny G's, one of the original late night bars and eateries, was closed for an extended period last year after two men were fatally shot in its main bar last February. It was the second time that popular bar had been the scene of a fatal shooting; in 2013, a man was killed by a shooter from a rival gang. The bar reopened in June.
The owners of both the Windsor and Johnny G's adopt more or less the same argument when negative attention is drawn to their establishments: there's little they can do, late night spots draw unsavoury characters, their bars are not in and of themselves the cause of gang grudges, drug activity or violence.
For the most part, the owners are correct. These bars do not play a causative role in illegal activity. Unfortunately, they inadvertently play a role in sustaining the people who cause the illegal activity. Like moths to a flame.
What options does the city have? Police suggested pulling the liquor licence, a move that would effectively make it impossible for the Windsor to remain open as anything more than a rooming house. However, that is a rarely used tactic.
In the years since liquor licensing has been done by an authority independent of Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries, only one establishment has had its licence pulled because of concerns about criminal activity or violence.
Last November, a 23-year-old man was shot dead at the Citizen nightclub on Bannatyne Avenue. The Manitoba Liquor, Gaming and Cannabis Authority (LGCA) suspended the Citizen's nightclub liquor licence. Eventually, it was cancelled and the club never reopened.
A spokeswoman for LGCA said efforts are made to work with police whenever a licensed establishment becomes the scene of criminal activity or violence. If that activity persists, the LGCA is prepared to take action.
However, the spokeswoman said no formal complaints have been made about the Windsor Hotel, and no request has been made to suspend or terminate its licence. So, it's unclear whether any steps will be made to close the historic Windsor.
As rough around the edges as it is, perhaps there's middle ground, a way to discourage criminals from using downtown bars and restaurants as clubhouses and storefronts for illicit activities. Perhaps.
The tidal wave of gun, drug and gang activity that seems to be washing over parts of Winnipeg, may ultimately require authorities to sweep away loveable, shabby bars such as the Windsor. However, without a concerted effort from police, the city and other players like the LGCA, the bad people who hang out at the Windsor will find somewhere else to exact their mayhem.
The city would be better off without the criminal activity that seems drawn to bars like the Windsor. But the loss of the hotel itself won't make our city a better place. It will only make it exceedingly less interesting.
Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.
Updated on Friday, January 17, 2020 at 9:03 AM CST: Corrects typo
10:23 AM: Name fixed.