'Get off your butts': Community activist urges authorities to declare war on meth dealers

Commuity activist Sel Burrows, who is hearing from neighbourhoods well beyond his own turf of Point Douglas that Winnipeg is in a crisis due to crystal meth, says it's time for both the senior management at the Winnipeg Police Service and the provincial government to declare war on the drug and those who sell it.

Sel Burrows says an attack on the destructive drug requires leadership from police and the province

A blood-soaked man appeared at Sel Burrows door before Christmas. Burrow believes he was high on crystal meth. (John Einarson CBC)

The steps to Sel Burrow's Point Douglas home still have blood on them.

In the wee hours of a morning just before Christmas, Burrows woke to the door bell ringing. He pulled on a shirt and peered out his front window.

"Here's this kid and he holds up his hand. There is blood spraying all over the place, he's cut right across [his hand], there," Burrows says, gesturing across his palm.

The wounded youth begs Burrows to call an ambulance and while the community activist is on the phone with 911 he can see two things: The boy is strung out on something and there is a second man just down the street — and he is armed.

"He comes up, shaved head, reached behind his back and pulls a machete out. He's got a scabbard [attached] to his back," Burrows recalled.

The scene prompts Burrows to ask the 911 operator to connect him to the police and two police units arrive quickly. One chases the knife-wielding skinhead and the second, a lone police officer, is left to coax the bleeding man into getting some help.

"I got to watch a very experienced supervisor cop, on his own … talk this guy, I am sure he was on meth …  talk him down," Burrows said.

Burrows's own experience aside, it's what he's hearing from neighbourhoods well beyond his own turf of Point Douglas that has convinced him Winnipeg is in a crisis due to crystal meth. He says it's time for both the senior management at the Winnipeg Police Service and the provincial government to declare war (a word he hates to use) on the drug.

"[We need] an attack on the destructiveness of meth on our communities," he said.

Burrows says Point Douglas, with its established community activists and crime reporting line, is better equipped to manage the problem. He's been hearing other neighbourhoods are in much deeper throes of the problem.

The stories about incidents involving crystal meth appear in media outlets on almost a daily basis now.

As one of the founders of the Point Douglas Powerline and community-watch program, Burrows is no stranger to being critical of police efforts in his neighbourhood. But in recent years he's formed close bonds with numerous officers who patrol his streets. It's through those relationships he's heard of a disturbing trend as police try to contend with growing numbers of meth addicts.

"You've got a bunch of really smart, capable police officers saying 'Hey, I'm having difficulty dealing with the number of people on meth, whose behaviour I can't predict,'" Burrows said.

The problem has become so acute for police, Burrows says, that veteran officers are now in situations where the likelihood of pulling their weapons is becoming routine. 

He also says he's hearing the background of several recent police shootings is directly linked to the growing meth crisis.

'Get off your butts': Community activist urges authorities to declare war on meth dealers

5 years ago
Duration 3:21
'Get off your butts': Community activist urges authorities to declare war on meth dealers

Time to take the gloves off

Burrows identifies several actions the province, the police and communities can do to take on the meth crisis head on, including a new, visceral approach to messaging, aimed directly at potential young users, on the drug's dangers.

However, the Point Douglas resident says the battle needs even more direct action: He wants the city's top cops to take the gloves off when it comes to meth.

Burrows says the message from the chief of police to every cop on the beat should be: "We are going after the heavies that are dealing meth, who are destroying our community, who are are causing untold anguish to the victims, the addicts and their families. We are going to get you guys." 

Burrows believes some successes have happened lately, pointing to some recent arrests where significant amounts of crystal meth were seized. But it isn't enough, he says. More resources have to be thrown at the problem to back up officers run off their feet as calls for assistance mount.

Burrows believes police brass should put the force's most highly experienced officers on the problem.

"Put 'em on meth patrol for a couple of months," Burrows said.

CBC News asked for an interview with a senior member of the police service but was told no one was available.

"Get off your butts"

The declaration of battle, Burrows says, should be backed up by a similar mandate from Heather Stefanson, Manitoba's attorney general and justice minister.

"If the attorney general would say to the Crown attorneys: 'No quarter [for] people who are dealing big-time in meth. You are going after them with the toughest sentences possible [and] fight bail tooth and nail.' Word would get out [on the street] in weeks — in days," Burrows said.

Beyond the calling out dealers and backing that with legal action, Burrows says, the police have to have a place (other than psychiatric wards at hospitals) to take addicts for some kind of interim treatment. 

Burrows says the Main Street Project isn't equipped to handle someone in a meth psychosis, and police officers spend wasted hours at hospitals waiting to transfer an addict into the appropriate care.

He also says communities need support and encouragement to establish their own neighbourhood watch programs and tip lines, similar to the model in Point Douglas.

Burrows says while he knows and respects Stefanson, the time for action has come.

"The stuff I am talking about requires moral leadership. The first step, the real heavy go-after-them first, is not a question of additional expenditures. It is some reallocation of effort and some other places would have to suffer a little bit, but I will tell you they need to get off their butts right away and get moving on this because it is hurting," Burrows said.

The longer it takes, he says, the more treatment centres the province will have to build.

A spokesperson for Stefanson told CBC News she wasn't available to comment.


Sean Kavanagh

Civic affairs - city hall reporter

Born and raised in Winnipeg, Sean has had a chance to live in some of Canada's other beautiful places (Whistler, B.C., and Lake of the Woods, Ont.) as well as in Europe and the United States. In more than 15 years of reporting, Sean has covered some of the seminal events in Manitoba, from floods to elections, including as the CBC's provincial affairs reporter.