'Winnipeg does not have a plan': Record homicides won't abate until well-being is properly funded, experts say
'People who have their basic needs met ... don't commit violent crime,' says criminologist
A record number of homicides in Winnipeg in 2022 is part of a growing violent crime trend — one that won't be reversed until governments ramp up investments in people and crime prevention over policing and security-related measures.
That's the view of grassroots community safety workers and criminal justice experts who are expressing concern about the rising levels of violence in the city and speaking up about what can be done to stem the tide.
At time of writing, Winnipeg had seen 51 killings over the past year, surpassing the record of 44 set in 2019. A CBC News analysis of police information released to the public about each case presents a number of serious concerns when looked at in aggregate:
- Nearly 70 per cent of the year's homicides took place in core areas of the city considered to be more disadvantaged economically (the West End, downtown and the North End were the sites of 60 per cent of killings).
- The most common charge laid by police was one of second-degree murder (arrests have not been announced in nine cases). This suggests police believe many of the the killings were committed in the heat of rage, not planned and deliberate.
- Nearly one-fifth of cases (10) involved the killing of an Indigenous woman.
- One man, Jeremy Skibicki, has been accused of four counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of four women. The three women whose identities are known were all First Nations, and police have said they believe an unidentified woman he allegedly killed was also Indigenous.
- Ten teenagers are facing homicide-related charges (nine boys and one girl), including two 15-year-old boys each accused of two murder counts, and a 14-year-old boy suspected of murder in the recent slaying of a man at Winnipeg's Millennium Library downtown.
The rising violent crime and homicide cases in Winnipeg are part of a trend coinciding with a lack of economic prosperity and marginalization of many people, criminologist Kelly Gorkoff said in a Thursday interview.
That's increased their likelihood of being involved in violent crime — as victim or perpetrator, said Gorkoff, an associate professor at the University of Winnipeg and chair of the school's criminal justice department.
Manitoba's performance when it comes to people having access to community supports, addictions services and economic stability is "extremely poor," she said. Yet, she added, these are the things that are proven to reduce community violence.
"In stable societies, people who have their basic needs met, people that are afforded hope, don't commit violent crime," said Gorkoff.
"We have really experienced the blunt force of colonialism in ways not seen in other Canadian cities of the same size," she said. "This impact of colonialism manifests itself in a particular set of unhealthy relationships … to each other, to the economy, to community."
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Governments, focused in recent years on controlling costs, offloaded much of their responses to social problems to law enforcement, Gorkoff said. And police aren't trained to do that kind of work.
Police investigations should be funded, Gorkoff said, but not at the expense of spending on things that prevent crime in the first place.
"It's about providing adequate housing. It's providing a much higher minimum wage so that people can survive. It's making sure that the labour market is accessible to particular groups of people," she said.
"It's about building communities. Those are the things that research always tells us prevent crime and violent crime … homicides included."
Gorkoff called the number of youth accused in 2022's homicides "really concerning."
It speaks to a legacy of cuts to supports for youth services and child welfare, she believes.
"My concern is that if those kinds of social determinants are not addressed … in a really substantive way, more and more young people are going to be marginalized, dislocated and just kind of carry on this pattern," she said.
Homicides leave tragic toll, tax justice system
The human toll of homicide requires little elaboration.
Each violent death leaves a wake of trauma and grief for families and friends of victims and destabilizes the larger community's sense of safety and well-being.
They also are a major tax on public safety resources and the courts.
In December, Winnipeg police Chief Danny Smyth told the Winnipeg Police Board the average cost of a homicide investigation in 2021 was $214,211. This figure accounts for all police costs per case, including involvement of units and other resources outside the homicide squad.
The police service was on track to spend more than $10 million of its more than $320-million annual budget on investigating homicides alone, Smyth reported. That's despite the fact that homicide cases accounted for a tiny fraction (0.2 per cent) of police-reported violent crimes in Canada in 2021, Smyth told the board in a written report.
"With only finite resources, such investigations place a significant demand on police resources, in particular, forensics officers and homicide detectives, often working multiple shifts back-to-back. This has both human and financial costs," said Smyth.
On the courts front, homicide cases command major human and financial resources and are typically only handled by more senior Crown and defence lawyers given the high stakes involved for accused persons, victims' families and society in general.
And there's only so many of those resources in Manitoba.
If a homicide case goes to trial, many weeks of court time are needed in a system that has a finite number of courtrooms, judges, courtroom clerks, sheriffs and victim services workers.
And many homicide cases do go to trial, says Ryan Amy, a veteran Winnipeg defence lawyer and vice-president of the Criminal Defence Lawyers Association of Manitoba. In most cases two lawyers are required for each side, he said.
Outside the courtroom, Amy — who usually has five or more homicide cases on the go — said the preparation time needed for a homicide trial is immense.
Disclosure in such cases — the evidence collected by police for the Crown's prosecution — routinely runs into the thousands of pages of text and sometimes hundreds of hours of video.
"From a lawyer's perspective, these files are massive," Amy said.
All of it has to be carefully reviewed, said Amy. And because cases don't immediately go to trial, the downstream effects on court resources aren't felt for a number of months — if not years.
"There's resource management that I think the courts can do if they know it's coming. It's just a matter of they need to," said Amy.
Winnipeg needs plan, commitment to quell the violence, expert says
Just as the courts will have to carefully plan ahead for what's coming their way because of the past year's killings, so must civic and provincial government officials do something about stopping them from happening in the first place.
So says Irvin Waller, emeritus professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa and author of Science and Secrets of Ending Violent Crime.
"It all needs to be part of a plan. Winnipeg does not have a plan to bring down the homicides," Waller said in a Friday interview.
He pointed to what officials in Glasgow did in the early 2000s as an approach that could work here.
At the time, the city of about 600,000 people was known as the most violent in Europe, he said, with a per capita homicide rate similar to what he believes Winnipeg's currently is — six per 100,000 people. The World Health Organization dubbed it "the murder capital of Europe."
The city set up an office of violence prevention and leveraged analysts and epidemiologists who began treating violence like a public health issue.
After a few years, the violent crime rate dropped by nearly 40 per cent. Homicides were cut in half, Waller said.
Waller said politicians here should set a five-year target of a 50 per cent reduction in the number of killings and do the things necessary to achieve that goal.
Those include "adequate and stable" funding for street-level support groups, placing support workers in hospitals and emergency rooms and providing a basic income for people living in disadvantaged areas.
"Winnipeg can do it if it wants," Waller said. "We know what to do, and it's a question of the province helping the city with the funding."
Currently, street-level supports in the city are not well-funded, Waller said. "That needs to change."
Consistent funding would increase reach, community advocate says
Meeting people at risk of becoming involved in violence where they are at — with people who understand where they're coming from — is a key to success, believes Winnipeg's Daniel Hidalgo.
Hidalgo works closely with marginalized people through the grassroots community groups Community 204 and Sabe Peace Walkers — groups he respectively founded and co-founded.
Just as Gorkoff and Waller each contend, investing in people, not more policing, is key, he said.
"I've seen those results first-hand. When you invest in the front-line people, the grassroots organizations — the people with the life experience that can relate to those currently going through it — you're going to find the most effective results," Hidalgo said.
He said the way people are starting to talk about and perceive the problem is beginning to shift in a good direction — but more needs to be done to support those doing grassroots work.
"I think that there needs to be more investment in the people that are already trying to do that work so that we can be more effective.
"We've done tremendous things with so many limited resources and limited support. And I can't even imagine how further our reach can extend if we had that sort of backup from a government level or consistent funding," said Hidalgo.
People in Winnipeg are longing to find a way to help, Hidalgo said his experiences have shown, whether through volunteerism or advocacy.
He rattles off a long list of grassroots, community-helping groups which have emerged in the city in recent years.
"I really hope that this type of work continues and that it gets supported in a good way so that the good work continues," Hidalgo said.
With files from Radio-Canada's Anne-Charlotte Carignan